Stolarz enters crucial second year with Phantoms

Back in the summer of 2012, the Flyers used their second-round pick, 45th overall, to select goaltender Anthony Stolarz. Recognizing a farm system devoid of legitimate goaltending prospects, Stolarz immediately became the long-term project and joined the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League. 

In his first season with Knights, Stolarz posted a 13-3-2 record with a 2.29 goals against average and 0.920 save percentage in 20 games. The Jackson, NJ native was just as impressive – if not more – in the playoffs as he led London to an OHL Championship by posting a 2.53 goals against average and 0.923 save percentage in 18 games. 

The following year, he played in 35 games and looked spectacular while registering 25 wins with a 2.52 goals against average and 0.926 save percentage despite suffering a gruesome leg injury which caused him to miss time at the end of the season. 

After a largely successful run in junior hockey, Stolarz made his professional debut with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms in 2014-15 as a backup to Rob Zepp, the veteran depth goaltender GM Ron Hextall signed from overseas.

The move to utilize Stolarz as a backup was a wise one by then-coach Terry Murray and the organization as the AHL is much quicker and intense than the Ontario Hockey League. Besides, they didn't want to overwhelm him too quickly since he was one of only goaltenders actually signed to a contract by the club.

With Steve Mason entrenched as the Flyers starter for the near future, Stolarz represented the only viable long-term option, thus, it was important to build his confidence and skill set by easing him into the professional game. 

As Zepp's backup, Stolarz had an insignificant rookie season with Phantoms in which he went 9-13-4 with a 3.28 goals against average and 0.905 save percentage in 31 games for a Lehigh Valley squad that finished with 74 points and missed the Calder Cup Playoffs.

While professional exposure is invaluable to a young prospect coming up through the system, his most meaningful stretch of the season was he emergency recall by the Flyers due to various injuries to Mason, Zepp and Ray Emery. Although he did not see any game action, he practiced with the team, traveled with the team and went through the daily motions required of every NHL player.

For that brief period of time, Stolarz got to evaluate where he was at and where he needed to be moving forward. 

The Flyers put more emphasis into the goaltending position over the offseason by parting ways with Emery, signing Michal Neuvirth to backup Mason and inking journeyman Jason LaBarbera as the depth goalie who will replace Zepp and be the veteran presence Stolarz needs to further his development.

To continue growing the goaltending pipeline, Hextall made a splash at the 2015 NHL Draft as well by selecting Felix Sandstrom and Matej Tomek in the third round. Both prospects were heavily scouted and positively ranked league-wide, thus immediately adding some credibility to the club's future masked men. Goalies are the toughest to develop, however, Sandstrom has been impressive to date and Tomek will be playing for the University of North Dakota, a program that has majorly excelled under new Flyers coach Dave Hakstol

Stolarz is the more advanced prospect, however, with some capable goalies now in the system, it's time for him to put the pedal to the metal and prove to the Flyers that he is ready to back up his second-round draft status. With a much improved Phantoms team, Stolarz should have the opportunity to produce at a high level and keep himself in the Flyers long-term plans. 

Time will tell what is in store for the Flyers down the road, but if Stolarz continues to develop and can mimic the dominance from his junior days, he should have no trouble locking down a spot for a Philadelphia team that is shaping up to eventually be an annual contender. 

Zach Hopkins is a contributing writer for Flyerdelphia. Follow him on Twitter @healedbyhockey.

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