In 2011 Flyers fans were treated to the news that the Flyers had signed goalie Ilya Bryzgalov to a MONSTER contract valued at $51 million dollars over 9 years. Ilya was set to become an unrestricted free agent after finishing the previous season with the Phoenix Coyotes but instead had his negotiation rights traded to the Flyers. During his last campaign with Phoenix Bryz went 36-20-10 while posting a 2.48 GAA. It seemed like the Flyers had found their goaltender for the foreseeable future in the Vezina Trophy finalist. To the chagrin of many Flyers fans however, the signing has not resulted in a trip to the Stanley Cup finals, and may in fact be cut short with rumors circulating that Ilya’s contract could be bought out this offseason. This continues a trend in which the Flyers have been unable to find a stable goaltender since Ron Hextall operated between the pipes all the way back in 1998. So, as it appears that the Flyers will be spinning the goalie carousel once again, I felt it would be a good time to reminisce about the last 15 YEARS the Flyers have spent trying to find their franchise goaltender.
1997/1998 – As I mentioned above, Ron Hextall was the last goaltender the Flyers had that could be considered stable. He played in at least 30 games in four consecutive seasons. Hextall was beloved during his time with the Philadelphia Flyers. He was seen as a blue collar guy, which resonated with not just Flyers fans, but all sports fans in Philadelphia. Some of Hextall’s achievements include being the first goalie to record more than 100 penalty minutes in a season, winning the Conn Smythe trophy as only the fourth player in NHL history to win the award as a participant from the losing team, and finally was the first goaltender in NHL history to shoot at goal and score. After 1998 the Flyers waived Hextall who was passed on in the expansion draft leading to his retirement a year later in 1999.
1998/2000 – In the aftermath of Hextall’s release, the Flyers went out and signed former Florida Panthers goalie, 35 year old John Vanbiesbrouck to a 2 year deal worth $7.25 million dollars. With 1st round pick Brian Boucher biding his time in the Flyers minor league system, Vanbiesbrouck was signed to give veteran leadership and to provide a stop gap until Boucher was ready. In his first season with the Flyers Vanbiesbrouck had the best season of his career recording a GAA of 2.18 to go along with 6 shutouts. Unfortunately he slumped in the playoffs and the Flyers were defeated by the Toronto Maple Leafs in 6 games. The following year Vanbiesbrouck started only 50 games as compared to 62 the year before. This was due to getting off to a slow start in ’99/’00 season thus giving Brian Boucher a chance to play in net. While Bees played well, posting a 2.20 GAA, Boucher was actually the better goaltender, averaging an astounding 1.91 GAA. Vanbiesbrouck would not start in goal during the ’99/’00 playoffs and was eventually traded following the season to the New York Islanders for a fourth round pick.
2000/2003 - Following the trade of John Vanbiesbrouck it was thought that the Flyers new goaltender was going to be Brian Boucher. The script however was re-written after Roman Cechmanek, who was selected in the 6th round of the 2000 NHL entry draft, won the starting job. Cechmanek went on to surprise everyone in his inaugural season by placing second in voting for the Vezina Trophy and leading the Flyers to the playoffs on the strength of an impressive 2.01 GAA and .921 SV%. Roman however couldn’t repeat his regular season success once he got into the playoffs and the Flyers were once again sent home early. Cechmanek followed up on impressive rookie year by providing the Flyers once again with a great regular season in ’01/’02. Roman had a 2.05 GAA while producing a .921 SV% thus again leading the Flyers again to the post season. This time Roman was not the problem, the Flyers offense were, who scored a total of 2 goals in the series against the Senators. Coming into his third season with the Flyers, Cechmanek once again did not disappoint during the regular season, setting a Philadelphia Flyers franchise record with a 1.83 GAA. The playoffs however were a roller coaster ride that eventually went off the rails, ending in a second round loss to the Ottawa Senators. After another early exit from the playoffs the Flyers sent Roman packing to the Los Angeles Kings for a 2nd round pick. Also, a fun fact about Roman Cechmanek, he is the longest tenured goalie the Flyers have had these last 15 seasons. He only played for us for 3 years. I’ll let you meditate on that for a little bit.
2003/2007 – These next 3 years have to be the most tumultuous in regards to stability at the goalie position. The Flyers used 8 goalies during this period. Those goalies included Robert Esche, Neil Little, Antero Niittymaki, Jeff Hackett, Sean Burke, Martin Biron, Michael Leighton, and Martin Houle. The most disastrous of these 3 years came during the Flyers 40th anniversary season in ’06/’07 when they ended with 3rd worst record in franchise history going 22-48-12. They also set a franchise record for worst winning percentage that same season. Robert Esche and Antero Niittymaki played a majority of the games during this 3 year stretch. Robert Esche finished with a combined record of 48-35-13 with a 3.11 GAA. Antero Niittymaki compiled a record of 35-34-15 to go along with a 2.45 GAA . Before I move on to the Martin Biron era I would like to add that Niittymaki only played 3 games in ’03 and averaged a 1.00 GAA so that 3 year average of his is a little skewed. If you remove that season his GAA actually stands at 3.17. This period was without a doubt the most depressing in my years of watching the Flyers because the goaltending situation was akin to a game of Russian roulette. Thus the reason why I am refusing to write about this era anymore. It is just too excruciating to write about, I’m actually having flashbacks now. GAHHHHHHH!
2007/2009 – Martin Biron‘s career in Philadelphia began after he requested a trade out of Buffalo after losing his starting position to Ryan Miller in 2006. The following year Biron signed a 2 year deal worth $7.5 million dollars and became the Flyers starting goaltender where he performed satisfactorily for two seasons. A lot was expected of Biron during his two year stay with the Flyers but he obviously never became the goaltender Philadelphia fans wanted, or deserved. Biron ended his playing career with the Flyers at the end of the 2009 season when he became a free agent. He had compiled a record of 59-39-14, a 2.59 GAA, and a .916 SV%. The Flyers reached the Easter Conference Finals in 2008 losing to the Pittsburgh Penguins, whom they then lost to the next season in the Conference Quarter Finals. After the Biron experiment ended with a thud after just 2 seasons is when I believe the running joke about the Flyers inability to find stable goaltending began. I mean, statistically it seemed impossible to be this inept at finding a franchise goaltender, but apparently the Flyers were actually this bad at acquiring a long term solution at goalie.
2009/2011 – These two season might be the most bizarre out of the ones I have talked about. After letting Martin Biron and Antero Niittymaki walk in free agency the Flyers signed former Ottawa Sentaor Ray Emery and former Flyer Brian Boucher. Unfortunately for both players, injuries caused them to miss significant time. Ray Emery ended up having season ending surgery thus cementing another chapter of the Flyers closing their eyes and hoping for the best in goal. However, in what was something that seemed a script for a Hollywood movie, in stepped journeyman goalie Michael Leighton who previously had only played in 69 games in 5 seasons with 4 teams. In 27 starts Leighton produced 16 wins to go along with a 2.48 GAA. In what became a theme of the ’09/’10 season Leighton got injured forcing Boucher to finish out the remaining schedule in which he made the playoff clinching save in a shootout on the last day of the season against the New York Rangers. During the playoffs Leighton was called on again to relieve Brian Boucher who suffered another injury. Leighton recorded 3 playoff shutouts and helped the Flyers become only the 3rd team in NHL history to overcome a 3-0 series deficit against the Boston Bruins. The Flyers however ended up losing to the Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup Finals 4 games to 2. Michael Leighton played very poorly in the series giving up 3.96 GAA and producing only a .876 SV%.
2011/Present – As I explained in my introduction many thought that Ilya Bryzgalov was going to be the savior, the goalie Flyers fans have been waiting for for so long, the goalie this city deserves. It was well documented in this lockout shortened season that the problem wasn’t with Bryzgalov but a severely depleted and lackluster defense. The Flyers lost Braydon Coburn, Nicklas Grossmann, and Andrej Meszaros to injury forcing the team to call up rookie defenseman and use several claimed off waivers. This year was the first season since the debacle in ’06/’07 that the Philadelphia Flyers missed out on the playoffs. Now the Flyers are in the precarious position of buying out Ilya’s huge contract in hopes that they can trade for 24 year old Los Angeles Kings goaltender Jonathan Bernier, who is a restricted free agent.
As it stands now the Philadelphia Flyers need to make this move for Bernier. Ridding themselves of Ilya’s Bryzgalov’s cap hit of $6.5 million dollars would allow them to sign Bernier to a reasonable contract of about $3.5 million. Not only would they be getting the hottest young goaltender on the market, they would also be saving $3.0 million dollars. That savings would allow them the flexibility in negotiations with newly acquired Mark Streit or they could use that money towards the impending contract extension that Claude Giroux will be negotiating sometime this coming season. Also, lets not forget that it is already a forgone conclusion that Danny Briere’s contract will be bought out, saving the Flyers another $6.5 million dollars. So begins another chapter in the goalie carousel for the Philadelphia Flyers. Hopefully after this offseason the carousel will come to a stop and all of us can finally get off.