Carter Hart will likely be in Lehigh Valley next season, but what impact will the impending future have on the team going forward?
Goaltending was another hot-button issue for the Philadelphia Flyers this past season. Due to a number of circumstances, the team went through four goaltenders during the regular season and three in their opening round loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
However, now that Carter Hart's junior career is over. The impending future is drawing closer for the Orange and Black. Couple the arrival of, arguably, the best goaltending prospect in the world with Alex Lyon's red-hot AHL playoff run and the goaltending situation next season may have a different look to it.
Hart's likely arrival to Lehigh Valley for the beginning of his professional journey with the Phantoms likely means Dustin Tokarski is either gone or just going to be insurance. Tokarski played well for the Phantoms, but his signing was a stopgap for the seasoning-crushing injury to Anthony Stolarz. Stolarz has battled back from his knee injury to play in one regular season game for the AHL club, but will likely need to begin his 2018-19 season with the Phantoms to show he is healthy and capable of returning to his pre-injury form.
So, potentially, in Lehigh Valley, the Phantoms will see Stolarz and Hart battling it out for ice time. Not a bad combination. The blue-chip prospect that the organization hopes will be the franchise goaltender it's lacked in the last thirty years and the older prospect with a chip on his shoulder to show the organization that he is healthy and ready to up his game.
Yet, there's a name missing from that equation. Someone who is on the Phantoms roster right now and has been lights out during the AHL playoffs. That would be Alex Lyon. Lyon was OK for most the AHL season with the Phantoms as he finished the campaign with a 2.75 goals-against average and a .913 save percentage. Then when the Flyers were hit with injuries to Brian Elliott and Michael Neuvirth, Lyon outplayed Petr Mrazek, who was specifically brought in to oust Lyon. Now, Lyon wasn't great by any stretch. He has the worst five-on-five save percentage, goals-saved above average and medium danger save percentage of the four Philadelphia netminders. His only real claim during his time with the Flyers was that he had the best low danger save percentage.
However, during this Phantoms playoff run, Lyon has emerged as a force to be reckoned with. His 1.49 goals-against average is good for second in the playoffs and his .959 save percentage leads all goalies.
Could this be the moment where Lyon puts it all together and makes a push for a spot on the big club?
It very well might, but it also very well could be a goalie getting hot at the right time and returns to earth after the fact. Regardless, Lyon is making a case with his play right now that he deserves a reasonable shot at the Philadelphia net come training camp. Especially considering how in flux the position was last season.
That takes us to Elliott and Neuvirth, who were at times brilliant and other times not so much. Elliott was enjoying a very good season until a core muscle injury derailed his campaign. He had two regular season games to get ready for one of the NHL's better offenses in the Penguins. Elliott was able to steal Game 2, but was rocked in all of his other appearances. Neuvirth would take over in Games 5 and 6 and ran his usual gamut of amazing to awful.
Elliott more than deserves another shot as he was playing consistently well until his injury. So sticking with the man known as Moose for another season isn't a problem at all. Couple him with someone like Lyon and, while you don't have the best duo or a clear number one, you have a veteran coming off a solid season and a younger goalie whose potential in the NHL is still unknown.
This would also allow the Flyers to keep Neuvirth around as insurance in case someone like Elliott or Stolarz has injury issues again, but the fact of the matter is Neuvirth cannot stay on the ice himself. So, the easy answer would be to buy him out, but the Flyers should not compound the problem by spreading out two-thirds of his cap hit across two seasons.
An interesting option that was tossed out in the Hockey News Podcast involved the trade route. The Nashville Predators' second round exit was a huge disappointment to that organization. The manner in which the team was dumped is more problematic as probable Vezina Trophy winner Pekka Rinne looked downright awful in some critical games in the series against Winnipeg particularly in the seventh game.
With that in mind, Nashville is likely ready to move on to Juuse Saros, but with one more year on Rinne's contract that would leave the veteran as an expensive 1B or backup type. Now, playoff struggles or no, a Vezina Trophy goalie is still a Vezina Trophy goalie (unless you're Jim Carey). So a team like the New York Islanders or these Flyers could be interested in a short-term improvement in net.
The only thing that makes this potential deal plausible is how well Elliott would fit into Nashville. Elliott is the type of goaltender who succeeds when he is being pushed by another goaltender which in turn will push a younger goalie like Saros. Yet, that would depend on the Predators' confidence in Saros and potentially rolling into next season with an unknown and a downgrade at the 1B position.
On the other hand, this would allow the Flyers to utilize Rinne and potentially Lyon and/or Neuvirth in net. Given the Flyers cap space too, it wouldn't be beyond reason to think Philadelphia could take on his entire $7 million cap hit and, therefore, not have to give up as much outside of Elliott and possibly another piece to get Rinne.
That's all speculation, though. Nashville very well might want to hold on to Rinne for one more shot at the Stanley Cup and the Flyers may not want to part with Elliott or acquire Rinne for significantly more money and potentially losing another asset.
It will be interesting to see how general manager Ron Hextall maneuvers his goaltenders, though. With Hart on his way to the professional leagues, another expansion draft a few years away potentially, and the need to improve upon last season, the Philadelphia GM has plenty of moves to make with his goaltenders even if they are all internal.