Flyers add Pickard to pile of goalies

Getty
12 Comments

To answer the age-old question of Philadelphia Flyers goaltending, maybe GM Ron Hextall is aiming for the “Voltron” approach: stack a bunch together to form a fearsome puckstopping bot.

Putting aside references dating back to the first Bush presidency – Flyers goaltending questions, giant mechs with gnarly swords – the Flyers’ goaltending situation really is confounding, which dulls some of the excitement with the actually-quite-wise decision to claim Calvin Pickard off of waivers.

Consider the situation Pickard, 26, has been pulled into by pondering each potential option for the Flyers and Lehigh Valley Phantoms, their AHL affiliate:

  • Pickard: walking into a crowded goalie situation is an all-too-familiar feeling for the former Avalanche netminder.

As a refresher: the Golden Knights scooped up Pickard from Colorado during the expansion draft, only to kick him to the Maple Leafs. Pickard got lost in the shuffle with Toronto, as Curtis McElhinney (also claimed off of waivers today) beat him for the backup gig at the NHL level, while Garret Sparks outplayed him with the Marlies.

That might give you the impression that Pickard isn’t any good, but instead, it seems like he’s been unlucky more than anything else.

Sure, it does seem like he buckled under the pressure of being a go-to guy considering a tough go of things in Colorado (a weak .904 save percentage in 50 games during the 2016-17 season), although it would be silly to place all the blame on Pickard. Just about every Colorado player probably wanted a mulligan there.

Generally speaking, Pickard’s easily been effective enough to be an NHL backup. Pickard generated a sparkling .932 save percentage over 16 games in 2014-15, and wasn’t much worse in 2015-16, generating a .922 save percentage in 20 appearances. With an average career save percentage of .913 in 87 games, not to mention perfectly respectable work in a tough situation with the Marlies last season, Pickard could be a sneaky-good addition for the Flyers.

The question is: where does he fit in?

  • Brian ElliottThe 33-year-old’s debut season with the Flyers was inhibited, at least in part, due to injuries that eventually required surgery. Elliott comes into 2018-19 as the starter and generally the surest thing for Philly.

At least, he is when you look in the short term.

The good news is that Elliott is affordable (2.75 million cap hit), and his contract expires after this season, so if things don’t work out, the Flyers aren’t on the hook for a problem contract.

Elliott occasionally looks like an elite goalie, and he tends to do his best work when people don’t expect it, so maybe he’ll raise Philly’s ceiling amid all of these questions? He’s not that far removed from strong work with the Blues.

  • Michal NeuvirthHextall essentially pushed goalie questions down the line by handing short, affordable contracts to Elliott and Neuvirth. The good news is that such decisions kept the Flyers from being stuck with an Ilya Bryzgalov-type albatross contract. The bad news is that the organization still answers the goalie question with “TBD.”

Neuvirth, 30, seems likely to begin the season on IR thanks to Pickard’s waiver claim. He’s limping into this season with some injury concerns, which is sadly part of the story of Neuvirth’s career.

Like Elliott, Neuvirth enters a contract year; in his case, his cap hit is $2.5M. Pickard, meanwhile, carries an $800K cap hit, and his deal also expires after this season.

  • Carter HartWhile some scouts may prefer, say, Ilya Samsonov, Hart is generally regarded as one of the most promising goalies not playing in the NHL. One couldn’t help but wonder if the Flyers might want to change that by just giving him a chance to run with a starting or backup job; instead, they seem content to keep him on this current timeline, which means he should be the AHL starter.

Hart turned 20 in August and put up dominant work in the WHL. It may, indeed, be wiser to let him go from junior to the AHL, rather than the larger leap to the NHL. Even so, some Flyers fans are probably feeling anxious, especially considering the iffy options at the top level.

  • Anthony StolarzStolarz is large (listed at 6-6) and carries decent pedigree as a second-round pick (45th overall in 2012), yet this turn of events indicates that the Flyers would rather not risk having the 24-year-old serve as Brian Elliott’s backup.

Interestingly, Stolarz most promising recent moments have come in spot duty with the big club (.928 save percentage in seven appearances), while his numbers at other levels leave a lot to be desired.

Once injuries clear up, things could get awkward between Neuvirth, Stolarz, Pickard, and …

  • Alex Lyon: Another injured Flyers goalie. Lyon, 25, put up respectable AHL numbers, yet he didn’t really wow in 11 games with the big club (.905 save percentage) last season. His most recent moments of promise came during his strong college years with Yale.

The good and the bad

To summarize: the Flyers’ goaltending situation, right now, feels like a prime example of quantity over quality.

That said, goalies are highly unpredictable, and Hextall might not be outrageous in throwing a bunch of darts at the problem. Elliott’s enjoyed strong enough moments to earn an All-Star appearance, and Pickard’s at least enjoyed some pretty nice moments as an NHL backup.

Even if none of these veterans work out in 2018-19, the Flyers aren’t locked into any problem goalie contracts. Personally, I’d take that over sweating bullets regarding Carey Price carrying a $10.5M cap hit through 2025-26.

Sooner or later, Carter Hart must emerge as a difference-maker. If not, the Flyers will need to go back to the drawing board, once again.

But, hey, maybe they just stumbled upon a pretty good backup?

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Ducks’ Urho Vaakanainen crashes into boards, leaves on stretcher

Getty Images
1 Comment

ANAHEIM, Calif. — Ducks defenseman Urho Vaakanainen was taken off the Honda Center ice on a stretcher after he crashed into the end boards in the first period of Anaheim’s preseason game against the San Jose Sharks.

The Finnish defenseman was conscious and alert with full movement in his extremities at UCI Medical Center, the Ducks said.

The frightening incident occurred midway through the opening period when Vaakanainen smashed into the boards at a dangerous speed behind the Sharks’ net. Vaakanainen appeared to be concentrating on the pass he had just made to Derek Grant, who scored the Ducks’ opening goal on the assist.

Vaakanainen’s teammates came onto the ice and gathered around him as he was taken away on the stretcher.

The Ducks acquired the 23-year-old Vaakanainen from Boston last March in the deal that sent longtime Ducks defenseman Hampus Lindholm to the Bruins. After recording two assists in 14 games for the Ducks last season, Vaakanainen is attempting to win a top-six role on Anaheim’s defense this fall.

Lightning donate $2 million to Hurricane Ian relief efforts

tampa bay lightning
Scott Audette/Getty Images
2 Comments

TAMPA, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Lightning and team owner Jeff Vinik are donating $2 million toward Hurricane Ian relief efforts.

The NHL team announced that $1 million each will be donated by the Tampa Bay Lightning Foundation and the Vinik Family Foundation.

“This is a tragic situation for many families and communities across the state of Florida, but especially so in the southwest region of the state,” Vinik said in a statement released by the team. “In times like these the most important thing we can do is support one another, and we hope this donation will help families recover and rebuild in the months to come.”

Ian made landfall Wednesday on Florida’s Gulf Coast, south of the Tampa Bay area. The Lightning postponed two home preseason games and moved the club’s training camp to Nashville, Tennessee, during the storm.

Maple Leafs sign defenseman Rasmus Sandin to 2-year deal

Rasmus Sandin
Julian Avram/Getty Images
2 Comments

TORONTO — Rasmus Sandin has signed a two-year, $2.8 million contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the club announced on Thursday.

The 22-year-old from Sweden was the 29th overall selection in the 2018 draft. Sandin had 16 points in 51 games with Toronto last season. He’s played in 88 career regular-season games, with six goals and 22 assists, and has one goal in five playoff games.

“Got a great set of tools,” fellow defenseman Jake Muzzin said. “With experience, I think they’re only going to get better.”

The signing comes as the Leafs’ blueliners been hit hard by injuries. Muzzin has been dealing with a back issue, and Timothy Liljegren recently had surgery for a hernia.

Toronto then lost Jamie Benn (groin) and Carl Dahlstrom (shoulder) in Wednesday’s 3-0 preseason victory over the Montreal Canadiens, pressing forwards Calle Jarnkrok and Alexander Kerfoot into defensive roles for two periods.

Back with Wild, Fleury welcomes big workload as clear No. 1

marc-andre fleury
David Berding/Getty Images
2 Comments

ST. PAUL, Minn. — With his ever-present smile, tireless approach and long list of accomplishments in the net, Marc-Andre Fleury has always embraced a heavy workload.

The Minnesota Wild sure haven’t shied away from leaning hard on their new – and 37-year-old – goalie. After arriving in a deadline-day trade in March and re-signing with the Wild in July, the guy everyone calls “Flower” is still fully abloom as he begins his 19th season in the NHL.

“They say, `You play,’ I play, unless maybe I’m hurt or something,” Fleury said. “But other than that, I like playing.”

Wild general manager Bill Guerin initially planned to bring back both Fleury and Cam Talbot, who made the All-Star team and went 13-0-3 in his last 16 regular season starts before being benched in favor of Fleury for the first-round playoff series against St. Louis. The Wild lost in six games, after Talbot got the cold start in the elimination game and gave up four goals on 26 shots.

Guerin changed his mind, though, after signing Fleury to a two-year, $7 million contract. Realizing Talbot’s frustration from the lack of postseason action, he didn’t want to risk any tension or discontent. Talbot was traded to Ottawa for Filip Gustavsson, who will be the No. 2 goalie while top prospect Jesper Wallstedt gets more development in the AHL.

Gustavsson has only 23 career regular-season starts, nearly 200 fewer than Talbot, so it’s a good bet that Fleury will get the majority of the games.

“I was ready to share the load with him, but things didn’t work out and happy to be having the chance to play maybe a bit more. It’s fun to play. It’s more fun than sitting on the bench,” said Fleury, who went 28-23-5 in 56 combined starts for Chicago and Minnesota last season with a 2.90 goals against average and a .908 save percentage.

The Wild reconvened for training camp last week, beginning their quest to recapture the mojo they enjoyed last season while setting franchise records for points (113), wins (53) and goals (305). The only team that finished ahead of them in the Western Conference was Colorado, which went on to win the Stanley Cup, but they never met the Avs in the playoffs because the Blues got to them first.

There’s a strong chemistry in place, at least, to build upon.

“We still have a lot of guys here who were here last year. We’re just trying to make it even better, just trying to listen to everybody,” center Joel Eriksson Ek said. “We want to set a standard and a way for how hard this team’s going to work.”

The Wild start the regular season by hosting the New York Rangers on Oct. 13.

COMINGS AND GOINGS

The most significant roster move of the summer amongst the skaters was the inevitable salary-cap-driven trade of second-leading scorer Kevin Fiala to Los Angeles. Fiala had a career-high 33 goals and 52 assists last season. Guerin otherwise dabbled mostly in two-way contracts in free agency for depth. Former Anaheim center Sam Steel signed with Minnesota last month, one day after defenseman Dimitry Kulikov was dealt to the Ducks.

MORE POWER

The Wild were done in during the playoffs by abysmal special teams. They went just 4 for 24 on the power play against the Blues, and head coach Dean Evason had the team working on that on the first day on the ice. The penalty kill that lagged last season was a focus of the second practice.

“It has to get better, no question,” Evason said.

BLUE LINE SHUFFLE

Captain Jared Spurgeon has been placed with Jonas Brodin on the first pair on defense, and Jake Middleton has joined Matt Dumba on the second unit. Dumba and Brodin are close friends who’ve been paired together for several seasons.

“Dumbs is a shooter too,” said Middleton, who re-signed for three years and $7.35 million. “It’s pretty exciting. I can get some cookies passing him the puck. That’d be a big plus. I think it’ll work well. He loves hitting guys too. He plays a gritty game as well so I think we’ll be a good combo.”

UP FRONT

With Jordan Greenway recovering from offseason surgeries, Tyson Jost will get the first chance to skate with Eriksson Ek and Marcus Foligno. The departure of Fiala has opened at least one spot for a rookie to make the team, with 2020 first-round draft pick Marco Rossi in line for it.

ON THE SLATE

This is the first time in eight years the Wild will play their regular-season opener at home. After three more games at Xcel Energy Center, they don’t hit the road until a five-game trip that starts Oct. 22 at Boston. The Wild have a season-long nine-game homestand from Feb. 9-21.