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 Elliott: The 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 Neuvirth: Hextall 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 Hart: While 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 Stolarz: Stolarz 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 email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.