Philadelphia Flyers

End to End: How should the Flyers employ their 2-goalie system?

End to End: How should the Flyers employ their 2-goalie system?

Throughout the offseason, we’ll ask questions about the Flyers to our resident hockey analysts and see what they have to say.

Going End to End today are CSNPhilly.com reporters John Boruk, Tom Dougherty, Jordan Hall and Greg Paone.

The topic: How should the Flyers employ their two-goalie system?

Boruk
Ah, Flyers goaltending … a topic that’s always relevant in Philadelphia.

If you follow me on Twitter you would know I certainly didn’t hold back in my assessment and feelings of Steve Mason, who I thought was a middle-of-the-road goaltender despite above-average athleticism for a player of his size. So when general manager Ron Hextall elected to pass on Mason for a cheaper, less drama-filled Brian Elliott, I was all for the move considering it’s a transitional signing before one of the younger prospects is NHL ready.

The history of Flyers goaltending suggests you will need two and very likely three capable goaltenders to make it through an 82-game schedule. Over the past 20 years, would you believe only one Flyers goaltender has made 60 or more starts in a season? Mason started exactly that number in 2013-14 when he finished seventh in Vezina Trophy voting. 

Considering Elliott has started 50 or more games only once in his 10-year career and Michal Neuvirth’s career-high is 44 starts in 2010-11, I don’t expect either netminder to be a steady workhorse. Elliott endured a significant “lower-body injury” in February 2016 that took him out of action for a month while Neuvirth was also placed on the long-term injury list with a knee injury back in November. How the starts are divided will depend primarily on health.

If he can stay relatively injury free, then I believe Elliott will receive the majority of starts after a bad start with the Flames last season. He struggled out of the chute while he adjusted to life as a new father. Elliott was dismal through November (13 starts) before he found his stride from December through March propelling the Flames into the postseason with a 23-6-2 record.

Neuvirth, on the other hand, never seemed to get on track despite a stellar 2015-16 year with the Flyers. He had a chance to seize the No. 1 job in late February but failed to do so following back-to-back games against the Capitals and Penguins when he surrendered eight goals in those two games. Neuvirth seems to thrive more when he’s the guy pushing an established No. 1 goalie, as opposed to being the lead horse. Hextall brought him back knowing he needed to expose a goalie in the expansion draft while electing to protect Anthony Stolarz.

So here’s how I see the starts being divided up for the 2017-18 season:

Elliott — 48
Neuvirth — 27
Stolarz/Alex Lyon — 7    

Dougherty
Neuvirth has never started more than 29 games in two years with the Flyers. He's never played more than 32 games, either. Yet, the Flyers were comfortable signing him to a two-year contract extension and move on from Steve Mason, a much more reliable goaltender. Neuvirth will be part of a tandem again this season with his partner being Elliott.

I don't see Neuvirth staying healthy again. Until he proves that he can, we can't expect him to play more than 32 games this season. That's not a lot of games. I see the Flyers' goalie situation playing out with Elliott carrying most of the load by default, and either Anthony Stolarz or Alex Lyon seeing NHL action this season too. I just can't trust Neuvirth to stay on the ice. I do, however, expect Neuvirth to be better than his 2016-17 showing.

There was not a single qualified goaltender in the NHL with a worse save percentage than Neuvirth's .891 last season. He can't possibly be any worse this season. (Can he?) Unlike last season, where I saw Mason as the clear-cut No. 1, the separation between Elliott and Neuvirth is not that far apart. I view Elliott as a cheaper Mason, which he is. He's not as good as Mason and he costs about half as much as the former Flyers' goalie.

Before his only season in Calgary — one that was filled with inconsistency — Elliott starred in a tandem role in St. Louis. I don't believe the Flyers will see the Elliott from his Blues day. I think we can expect somewhere in the range of a 2.50 goals-against average and .915 save percentage from the 32-year-old goalie. Not great but not terrible, either.

For me, the Flyers' biggest question this season is their goaltending situation. As long as Neuvirth bounces back to what he was his first season in Philly and Elliott can at least duplicate — if not improve — his numbers from last season, they should be a playoff team.

Hall
Neuvirth will get every opportunity to handle the heavier load of playing time.
 
It will be up to him to hold it.
 
Of course, he has a track record of injuries. He first needs to prove he can stay healthy, then second show he's far better than how he performed last season.
 
But there was a real sense of motivation from Neuvirth when he spoke after the 2016-17 campaign ended. He was not happy with himself and admitted there was "extra pressure" because of the contract year and "all the speculating of who's the guy, who's not the guy."
 
Neuvirth is no longer facing those pressures. I believe he'll come into training camp not only determined but also clearheaded and focused. I think we'll be surprised by the 29-year-old and see more of the 2015-16 Neuvirth, the goalie that went 18-8-4 with a 2.27 goals-against average, .924 save percentage and was terrific in the playoffs.
 
In writing that, it's hard to predict Neuvirth will stay injury-free when he hasn't shown he can in the past. That's why Elliott was such a wise signing by the Flyers. He's an experienced and dependable goalie who will get his time between the pipes.
 
Neuvirth should be better, but Elliott will be good, too, because he's had success in all roles. Given what we know about both, expect around a 50-50 split and true tandem in net.

Paone
The Flyers obviously believe in Neuvirth. If they didn't, they wouldn't have given him that two-year contract extension last March in the midst of yet another injury-plagued season as Mason held the fort down without any sort of long-term security.

That's enough proof right there that the organization clearly sees him as the No.1 guy coming into the season. The Flyers wanted him. They didn't even want to risk letting him hit the free-agent market.

But there will always be an "if" attached to Neuvirth because of the injury concerns. Thanks in large part to various lower-body issues, Neuvirth has started just 29 and 24 games in his two seasons in Philadelphia. In his career, he's only started more than half the amount of games in a season once, 2010-11 in Washington when he started 44 of the Capitals 82 games. So just once in his nine seasons in the league has Neuvirth started more than half of his team's games.

While the Flyers like Neuvirth, Hextall and staff knew they needed a more reliable option behind Neuvirth than Anthony Stolarz or Alex Lyon or any other young goalie in the system. That can't help but be the mindset when you know the goalie you like just can't stay healthy. Hence bringing in Elliott and his veteran presence as free agency kicked off in July.

To me, there is no doubt that the Flyers' net belongs to Neuvirth when the season gets underway and it's up to him for how long he keeps it. If he can play a consistently solid game in net and, most importantly, stay healthy, there's no reason Dave Hakstol shouldn't allow Neuvirth to take the lion's share of the workload.

But there's that word again when it comes to Neuvirth — "if."

And it's gotten to the point now where the reality is we basically have to prepare for Neuvirth to miss an extended period of time or two with an injury. It's almost like it's built into the schedule anymore.

So I expect Elliott to get his fair share of time in the Flyers' net, too. A two-time All-Star, he's a seasoned pro who has played the platoon role before in St. Louis and knows how to handle all the intricacies that come with it. He'll be ready to step in for those extended periods Neuvirth is known to miss. Elliott has been on that rollercoaster before and it won't phase him if he plays 10 games in a row or has to sit for eight more. He's a pro.

How do I see this playing out this season?

My gut tells me to expect about a 60-40 split in favor of Neuvirth if — there's that word again — he stays healthy.

But that number could easily shift in favor of Elliott (and possibly even more) sooner rather than later.

ESPN analyst ranks Flyers' farm system No. 1 in NHL

ESPN analyst ranks Flyers' farm system No. 1 in NHL

Ron Hextall never told fans to "trust the process," but apparently any faith in the Flyers' GM has been vindicated.

At least that's the case if you believe ESPN NHL writer Corey Pronman's latest farm system rankings (it's an Insider story, so apologies in advance). Pronman has the Flyers' farm ranked as No. 1 in the NHL. 

"The Flyers don't have as much game-breaking talent as our No. 2 team (Coyotes) does at the top of their system," Pronman writes, "but 2017 No. 2 overall pick Nolan Patrick is right up there; after Patrick, the Flyers have the cupboards lined with talent at every position."

Pronman credits the Flyers with nailing his first-round picks (Patrick, Ivan Provorov), grabbing middle-round prospects that have blossomed (Shayne Gostisbehere, Oskar Lindblom) and specifically mentions Phil Myers, an undrafted defenseman that has become "one of the very best defense prospects in hockey."

For so long, the Flyers' organization was perpetually in "win-now mode," but the late Ed Snider hired Hextall away from the Kings and eventually made him GM, knowing that Hexy was taking a broader view of the organization. Instead of trading away young talent and draft picks for aging veterans, Hextall restocked a dreadful farm system to get the team where it is today.

"Not too long ago, the Flyers' farm system was a laughingstock, with C-grade college free agents making it into their top five," Pronman said. "Today, they are in the best position of any NHL team in terms of adding young premium players to their roster."

End to End: Expectations for Ivan Provorov in Year 2 with Flyers

End to End: Expectations for Ivan Provorov in Year 2 with Flyers

Throughout the offseason, we'll ask questions about the Flyers to our resident hockey analysts and see what they have to say.

Going End to End today are CSNPhilly.com reporters John Boruk, Tom Dougherty, Jordan Hall and Greg Paone.

The topic: Expectations for Ivan Provorov in Year 2.

Boruk
"He's the best player I've ever played with by a mile."

That was Nolan Patrick's assessment of Provorov following two seasons of junior hockey with the Brandon Wheat Kings.

There's an indescribable maturity you quickly sense in talking with Provorov, and that mentality carries over onto the ice. Nineteen-year-olds simply don't grasp the speed, the decision-making, the mental grind and some of the other elements that come with being an NHL defenseman. Some of the little things he does are so impressive — for example, his stick work along the boards in separating an attacker from the puck, and at times, he had to bail out his playing partner during times of trouble.

Provorov led all Flyers in ice time, averaging just less than 22 minutes a game. He was a minus-9 through his first 11 games, and then impressively, he started to make the necessary adjustments and proceeded to finish a plus-2 over the final 71 games. By December, Provorov was utilized in all situations and was playing some big minutes. He finished ninth in Calder Trophy voting, which I thought was a little low considering how much he improved (although there were some expected dips) as the season wore on.

So what's a reasonable expectation for Provorov entering his sophomore season and should we have some concern considering the regression we saw from Shayne Gostisbehere from Year 1 to Year 2? I believe Provorov will actually trend in the other direction and elevate his performance this upcoming season. I would expect Provorov's ice time to jump somewhere close to 24 minutes a game and possibly more depending on how the prospects adjust to the NHL.

I think the noticeable improvement in Provorov's game will come on the offensive side. At the beginning of last season, Dave Hakstol was mindful of not giving Provorov too much responsibility as to overwhelm the rookie. He saw very little power-play time, but with the injury to Mark Streit came opportunity, and Provorov seemed right at home quarterbacking the PP unit. Of his six goals and 30 points, only five points came on the power play, where NHL defensemen can really pad the stat sheet. For Provorov, I'm predicting a double-digit goal total while setting the bar at 45-50 points. While that won't put him in the Norris Trophy conversation, Provorov's second season will ultimately prove he is one of the top young defensemen in the league, and within five to 10 years, he will become the Flyers' first $10 million player based on average annual value.

Dougherty
It’s not too often a 19-year-old establishes himself as a team’s best defenseman in his rookie campaign, but that was the case last season with Provorov and the Flyers. Provorov became just the third rookie — Gostisbehere (2015-16) and Norm Barnes (1979-80) — and youngest to win the Barry Ashbee Award as the team’s best defenseman. 

Provorov not only entrenched himself as the Flyers’ No. 1 defenseman for now and the future but also was one of the top rookies in the NHL last season despite not posting eye-popping numbers (six goals, 24 assists). He led the Flyers in ice time at 21:58 per night, which was second among all NHL rookies last season to Toronto’s Nikita Zaitsev (22:01). Additionally, Provorov led all rookie defenseman with 2:49 per game on the penalty kill and was 10th with 1:40 per game on the power play. He earned the trust of Hakstol rather quickly and outside of Game 3 of the season in Chicago, he didn’t have any blaring bad games.

So what should we expect from Provorov in Year 2? I’m expecting a huge jump in his sophomore season. Unlike with Gostisbehere — I thought he had the most to lose entering his second season — I don’t see Provorov facing the same dilemma as Gostisbehere. Gostisbehere’s rookie season was unforgettable, and he entered last season with lofty expectations to produce offensively but also had intricacies in his own end that he had to work on. Gostisbehere had a solid second year but not without adversity.

With Provorov, his game is far more mature than his age. His offensive numbers were more than respectable for a first-year player — 30 points in 82 games. There was always a subtle play each game where you would be in awe, whether it was a poke check, blocked shot or a denied zone entry. I think his play will be only stronger in his own end in 2017-18.

As for the offensive numbers, I believe we’ll see a big jump from the 30 points in Year 2. I’m not going to say a Drew Doughty jump — Doughty went from 27 points in Year 1 to 59 points in Year 2 — but somewhere in between. He’ll lead the team again in time on ice, and I wouldn’t be totally shocked if the Flyers were to give him the vacant ‘A,’ either.

I’m expecting a lot from Provorov this season, but I think we all are. I think at this point next year, we’ll be talking about a bona-fide top-pair defenseman. He’s that good.

Hall
What was so impressive about Provorov's rookie season was how quickly the 19-year-old adjusted to the NHL level.

If you recall, he had a rough go of it through his first 11 games, a stretch in which he was a minus-9. But the rest of the way, Provorov was excellent. Over the final 71 games, he was everything you want in a defenseman, while putting up 25 points (six goals, 19 assists) and a plus-2 rating. On the season, he led the Flyers in ice time at 21:58 per night — a franchise rookie record.

So what should we expect in Year 2? Could a sophomore slump even be possible?

"I don't see Provy having any problems next year," Gostisbehere said in April. "If he does, they'll be minor."

I agree with Gostisbehere. Listen, Provorov will hit a few speed bumps like any other player, but his game and work ethic really are so mature that struggles don't linger. Once he makes a mistake, seldom do you see him make it again.

If anything, I expect another solid season for Provorov but with some added offense in a greater power-play role. I foresee double-digit goals and around 40 points.

But as long as he continues to shine in his own zone and lead by example for the Flyers' young defensemen, everyone should be happy with this kid in Year 2.

Paone
Provorov, in his age 19-20 season, was far and away the Flyers' best defenseman last year in his rookie campaign. He displayed such an impressive two-way game, showcasing his offensive potential while playing shut-down, top-pair minutes against the league's most elite competition. But with all that, he showed a silky smoothness with how he skates with and without the puck and the aptitude to small plays that may go unnoticed.

It really wasn't even close as Provorov snatched the spotlight on the Flyers' blue line last year.

But with such an impressive campaign comes increased expectations in Year 2. Ask Gostisbehere about how that goes and the pressure that can come with increased expectations.

Gostisbehere did indeed suffer the dreaded sophomore slump, which even included numerous benchings. But "Ghost" also had a hip injury that hindered him, especially early on in the year.

Unless something unforeseen takes place, Provorov is coming in healthy. So there's the first main hurdle out of the way.

But with the way he excelled last season, what reason do we have to believe Provorov won't at least match what he did last season with six goals, 24 assists and a team-high 21:58 of ice time over all 82 games last season?

The scary thing is Provorov likely hasn't come close to his ceiling yet, either.

Is a sophomore slump possible? Sure it is.

But knowing all we know about Provorov and how he played last season, the pressure will certainly increase.

But also knowing that he's already the Flyers' best defenseman, I anticipate him to be even better than last season as his game continues to mature in all facets.

The guy will turn only 21 in January. Think about that.