The NHL has gone dark for a few days for the all-star break, and we are mere days away from the unofficial "second half" of this season, as most clubs have about 32-35 games to go before we get to the playoffs. As it stands for the Philadelphia Flyers, this season has been enough of a success that a surprise postseason berth is still in play despite the club's unfortunately timed five-game skid heading into the break. These next few weeks and months will be fascinating in virtually all areas for the Flyers, but the key element of goaltending is one particular avenue where the club must distinctly pick a lane, and then either sink or swim with the decision.
With Carter Hart out of the picture, rookie Sam Ersson is now unquestionably the team's #1 netminder, with Cal Petersen recently being recalled to back him up. Felix Sandstrom waits in the wings with the Phantoms, backed up by Parker Gahagen. As it stands, Ersson's numbers don't look so hot overall, but that's due to the four straight losses that he took along with the team before the all-star break. You can't just wipe those away, but if you could, you'd see that Ersson was 12-5-3 on the season with a .911 save percentage before his cold streak. He's been quite good in a timeshare this year, posting three shutouts as well. Now, the million dollar question is, can he handle a larger workload? The follow-up to that question is, if he can't, then what?
And so the Flyers have a few courses of action to choose from over their final 32 games. It's a tricky balancing act between trying to make the playoffs this year and loading up for the future. Those two things might even be completely contradictory; it's something that the front office needs to put a lot of thought into and make a decision.
Option 1 is the status quo. Roll with Ersson and use Petersen only when you need to. See what Ersson has in a 'trial by fire' situation. It doesn't help that Ersson ran out of gas last year with the Phantoms, looking strong before absolutely hitting a wall. It might not be great for his long-term confidence if it happens again, this time on the bigger NHL stage. At the same time, this is a unique opportunity to test a young goaltender in meaningful games in February and March for a club that has a lot of hope without crushing expectations to win this year. These chances don't come along often.
Or, the Flyers could even use this as a double audition, calling Sandstrom up and giving him about 40 percent of the playing time behind Ersson. Sandstrom is 27 years old and has been yo-yoing back and forth for years. Maybe this is the right time for one last opportunity to see what he has. If he gets 12-15 starts with the Flyers the rest of the way and hangs in, then perhaps he can be part of a viable tandem with Ersson for a year or two before other prospects come along. If not, he's an unrestricted free agent at the end of this year, and at least you finally tried with him. The Flyers have long feared demoting him again and losing him via waivers, which is likely why he's not up with them. But we've reached the end of the road. In this option, you call him up and let his play dictate whether or not he stays around after this year.
And then there is the 'veteran reinforcement' option. This is probably the least likely, as it would require surrendering some assets to help the club in the immediate future. Danny Briere would likely only employ this if the team continues on its downward trend for another few weeks and comes perilously close to the edge of the playoff race. If Ersson struggles and needs some rest and help that Cal Petersen can't provide, this is where Briere would break the glass and push this button. The Flyers wouldn't be in play for any big-money goalies with the term, as it would tie up cap room and block a roster space. So, a hard pass on Elvis Merzlikins. Still, an expiring veteran might make sense if the club gets desperate. Let's hope they wouldn't have to trade anything of consequence for six weeks of competent netminding from someone who leaves after the season. We haven't arrived at the point for this option yet, but stay tuned.
Unless the Flyers run off a wretched stretch of hockey over the bulk of February, they will very much be in the playoff mix over the season's final weeks. In a perfect world, Sam Ersson stands tall, whoever spells him in the net keeps the club in their games, and the team claims an unlikely playoff berth. They would do this while keeping the future vision of the front office intact. 2023-24 is just the first step in what will become a fruitful era of Flyers hockey.
Then again, what 'perfect world' have the Flyers and their fans ever existed in?