In my previous post about the Flyers’ offseason, I discussed the status of the Flyers’ defense. In this fourth portion, I’ll be looking into the Flyers’ goaltending situation. Without further ado…
‘The idea generally received is that this, as well as three smaller vortices among the Feroe islands, “have no other cause than the collision of waves rising and falling, at flux and reflux, against a ridge of rocks and shelves, which confines the water so that it precipitates itself like a cataract; and thus the higher the flood rises, the deeper must the fall be, and the natural result of all is a whirlpool or vortex, the prodigious suction of which is sufficiently known by lesser experiments.”‘
This excerpt is from Edgar Allan Poe’s 1841 tale A Descent into the Maelström; no, Maelström is not the name of some unheard-of Swedish goaltending prospect (but admit it, it’s a great hockey name). It’s a whirlpool, a vortex in the water, and though it’s probably a dazzling sight, you don’t want anything to do with it. Unbeknownst to Poe, he may have been describing the Flyers’ dire position in the blue paint. A stretch, I’ll grant you, but if you follow the stories coming from between the posts for the last decade plus, it’s not hard to draw comparisons to a dizzying column of water, drawing in the most able-bodied stewards of the most sea-worthy vessels and ensuring a spectacular wreck before closing up and beginning a new.
For ten years, the Flyers have backed into the goaltending position with the same aplomb as a drunk driver trying to fit his SUV in a doghouse. Some teams have comfortable niches when it comes to goaltending; take the Canadiens, who, since Ken Dryden, have a penchant for dropping a rookie into the starting role with varying levels of success. But they did a few Stanley Cups out of it. The Flyers’ trend, since Ron Hextall, has been to replace a foundering starter with the alluring and unproven backup and ‘ride the hot hand’. This has produced zero Stanley Cups.
The first time I noticed this as a fan was when the Flyers hooked John Vanbiesbrouck (instead of Curtis Joseph, which was a huge mistake) and replaced him with the rookie Brian Boucher. Boosh was the man for one season. Then he was unceremoniously replaced by Roman Čechmánek, who himself was spectacularly binned and replaced with Robert Esche, who was then pushed aside in favor of Antero Niittymaki… you get the picture.
Ilya Bryzgalov, if nothing else, was a change in philosophy for the Flyers. Instead of going the cheap, unwieldy route, they targeted the best free agent goaltender in years, showered him with cash, and presented him as the starter. I still don’t think he shoulders the majority of the blame for his tenure with the Flyers; the mental games Peter Laviolette played with him and Sergei Bobrovsky showed zero confidence in his ability, the defense looked lost without Pronger (still does), and the media stretched his colorful remarks into a two-year sideshow. Also, don’t forget that few teams in the history of the sport have simply installed a new goaltender and had him win a Stanley Cup. Bryzgalov was the best thing about the team to start the 2012-2013 season, and the compressed schedule, lack of a reliable backup, and media circus took its toll. He could have been great this year, but in the end, he just cost too much.
Enter the new paradigm; Steve Mason was hailed as a savior on an extremely small sample set (like every other Flyers goalie) and former starter Ray Emery (whose tenure ended with injury instead of poor play!) is being given a second chance. Is this a good idea? It’s hard to say. But is it yet another invigorating philosophical change for a team that, prior to Bryzgalov, had been content with more of the same? Absolutely. For the first time since I can remember, the Flyers do not enter the season with a consensus starting goaltender, which changes the pressure situation considerably. Instead of one man taking the heat, the pressure is on a competition for who can be better, and though one goalie will ultimately stake a claim, two former starters trying to outplay each other will see positive change in the only place that matters: the win column.
Now, let’s not get ahead of ourselves; though both goalies have proven they have what it takes elsewhere, Mason with his Calder trophy and Emery with his SCF appearances, they have proven nothing under this coach with this team. Mason’s great 7 games may just have been an effect of his new environment. Emery was 17-1 last season (which would have come to about 30-2 in a full season), but he was not the starting goaltender. These guys could push each other until Laviolette picks one, and that guy might falter, in which case Lavy will turn to the guy he outperformed and the trend begins a new.
When having this discussion with fellow fans, I’m often asked what else I expect the Flyers to do when a goalie falters, and the answer is simple: keep playing him. In professional sports, there’s nothing more fragile than a goaltender’s confidence, because he’s the most important player in professional sports. Having a goaltender constantly under the threat of being benched will make him crazy, and every time his confidence in his own ability is shattered, it gets harder to put the pieces back together. Goalies like Henrik Lundqvist, Ryan Miller, and Jonathan Quick don’t worry about having a bad game because they’re comfortable in their blue paint fiefdom. If a Flyers goaltender has a bad game, he knows he has a press junket and a pine ride in store for him. Positive reinforcement would be pointing out a goalie’s mistakes and putting him back out there.
Worse yet, the Flyers have a goaltending coach who appears to do little for the goaltenders. Jeff Reese’s statistical impact has been measured, and despite the focus on the crease in Philadelphia, he is only acknowledged when he does something good, not when things go bad. Just last season there were several reports of Reese’s good rapport with Steve Mason, but what exactly was he doing for Ilya Bryzgalov? It’s the only on-ice position with an acknowledged, dedicated member of the staff, and despite the fact that Reese’s tenure has seen him coaching seven goalies in less than four years without a clear-cut starter to show for it, he continues to have a job.
However, there is an X factor: the Flyers have recently retained the services of Ron Hextall. Aside from a lengthy career as a starter, Hextall has turned himself into one of the foremost students of the game and was widely credited for his stewardship of young Jonathan Quick and Jonathan Bernier on Los Angeles, a team he helped guide to its first ever Stanley Cup. Like Hextall, Mason is known for his brilliant stickhandling. Like Hextall, Emery was known for his hot temper. Without a doubt he will see something of himself in each of these guys and have some sage words about surviving in Philadelphia.
All told, there is optimism surrounding the goalie situation in Philadelphia, but the team enters the season with a question mark, not in the crease itself, but on each goaltender’s back. This may not be a first-class experiment, but it is at least a new one. This biggest concern is what happens if neither goaltender works out, and between this and questionable continued existence of Jeff Reese, this grade was getting sucked into the maelström. However, Hextall alone provides enough buoyancy for there to be hope of a rescue.