Brian Elliott

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.

Ron Hextall: 'Change' main reason Flyers, Steve Mason parted ways

Ron Hextall: 'Change' main reason Flyers, Steve Mason parted ways

Those who followed the Flyers last season, especially toward the end of the year, could read the tea leaves when it came to the relationship between Steve Mason and the team.

Mason, who was playing out the final year of his contract, saw Michal Neuvirth earn a two-year extension on March 1 despite miserable numbers in the Flyers' net. And then during his exit interview following the second playoff-less season in Philadelphia in three years, Mason voiced his displeasure with his platoon role with Neuvirth and made his desire to be an unquestioned No. 1 goalie known.

That wasn't in the plans for Ron Hextall and staff, whom ultimately decided to let the Mason-Flyers marriage end, as the team inked Brian Elliott to a two-year contract and let Mason skate away to Winnipeg on a two-year deal of his own on Saturday.

On Sunday afternoon, Hextall opened up about why the Flyers and Mason decided to part ways.

“In the end, I think the change is the No. 1 reason," Hextall said on a conference call. "I think it will probably be good for Mase and for us.

"Brian being available certainly played into it. I didn’t know for sure if [Elliott] was going to be available or not. He was and we acted on it.”

Mason came to Philadelphia at the 2013 trade deadline in a deal with the Columbus Blue Jackets, the same team that drafted him in 2006 and the same team with which he won the Calder Trophy in 2009 as the league's rookie of the year. He leaves Philadelphia with a 104-78-36 record. Those 104 wins are third-most in franchise history behind only Bernie Parent and Hextall himself.

His last season in a Flyers uniform was an erratic one as he posted a 26-21-8 record, 2.66 goals-against average and .908 save percentage while splitting time with Neuvirth, who struggled again with injuries and inconsistency as he finished with an 11-11-1 record, a 2.82 goals-against average and a league-worst .891 save percentage. But still, Neuvirth, 29, was the one who got the contract extension, which left Mason to basically see the writing on the wall.

Mason, also 29, will now see the lion's share of the Jets' net alongside 24-year-old Connor Hellebuyck, a fifth-round pick of the Jets in the 2012 draft who was seen as the goalie of Winnipeg's future but struggled last season as he went just 26-19-4 with a 2.89 goals-against average and .907 save percentage.

And Neuvirth is still here in a new tandem with Elliott, who went 26-18-3 with a 2.55 goals-against average and .910 save percentage with Calgary. But he fizzled in the playoffs against Anaheim with miserable numbers in a four-game Ducks sweep in the first round — a 3.89 goals-against average and .880 save percentage.

But still, Hextall said Elliott was a sensible and attractive name to the Flyers for a few reasons. But a big one was the way Elliott handled a tandem during his recent days in St. Louis from 2011-12 to 2015-16.

"When I was out in L.A. there, we played against him in the playoffs a couple of times, and honestly we played them a lot," Hextall said. "First of all, you do your homework, you find everything out about the kid. He's a real good team guy, which is important. His work ethic is at a high level, his compete is at a high level, teammates want to play for him. There are a lot of things that when you look at goalies, that you look for and Brian checked a lot of the boxes off. The fact that he played in a tandem — Michal Neuvirth is a good goalie, the fact that Brian played well in a tandem, played into it, so there was a number of things that we looked at and in the end, we felt like Brian was the best fit."

Hextall was asked Sunday to compare Elliott and Mason and what each goalie brings to the table, but he refused to get into any sort of comparison.

“I’m not going to sit and compare Brian to Mase," Hextall said. "I can tell you that we’re extremely excited to have Brian. He’s a very competitive guy. He’s got a really good work ethic. He’s played in a tandem in St. Louis to Calgary there. He’s played very well in a structured system, so a lot of the things we felt were important with the guy we signed, Brian fit the criteria. In saying that, Steve Mason did a real good job for us for a number of years here and we certainly wish Mase nothing but the best.”

In familiar situation, Brian Elliott welcomes Flyers' platoon with Michal Neuvirth

In familiar situation, Brian Elliott welcomes Flyers' platoon with Michal Neuvirth

On Saturday afternoon, Brian Elliott said all the right things. He wanted to be a Flyer because he believes they’re on the brink of doing something special and wanted to be a part of it.
 
Elliott recalled the Flyers’ 10-game winning streak last season as a sign that there is untapped potential in Philadelphia. He likes the Flyers’ aggressive brand.
 
There was also something else in play.
 
“When a guy like [Flyers general manager] Ron Hextall calls you and says he’s liked you for a long time and wanted to get me on his team, it’s pretty special,” Elliott said Saturday on a conference call.
 
“I wanted to take advantage of that opportunity.”
 
Elliott on Saturday officially signed a two-year contract reportedly for $5.5 million at a reasonable $2.75 million average annual value with the Flyers as free agency opened (see story).
 
The 32-year-old will partner with Michal Neuvirth as a tandem for the next two seasons. Both goalies are signed to two-year contracts, a sign the Flyers believe one of their highly touted goalie prospects — Carter Hart or Felix Sandstrom — could be ready in three years.
 
Hextall has a combined $5.25 million cap hit committed to his crease over the next two seasons, which is cheaper than what 16 teams have committed to just one netminder.
 
Platoons don't faze Elliott. The veteran has been a part of crowded creases quite often throughout his career. He split duties with Jaroslav Halak his first year in St. Louis in 2011-12. The next year, the Blues’ net featured three goalies: Elliott, Halak and Jake Allen.
 
In 2013-14, St. Louis began the year with Elliott and Halak but ended up trading Halak at the deadline for Ryan Miller. Then, Elliott split time with Allen his final two years with the Blues.
 
Even last season in Calgary, Elliott had to share the net with Chad Johnson.
 
“I’ve been in the same type of situation my whole career,” Elliott said. “It’s not something I shy away from or am concerned about. Obviously, want to play as many games as you can.
 
“You want to be the guy who can be counted on. If you’re playing well, it’s a league where you get rewarded. If you’re going to keep winning, you’re going to stay in the net.”
 
As for how he feels about teams needing a definite No. 1 goalie — a tune Steve Mason sung at the Flyers’ breakup day in April — Elliott doesn’t totally buy that theory.
 
Elliott pointed to the Penguins, who won their second straight Stanley Cup last season with Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury as their goalies. Murray and Fleury combined to start 26 games, largely because of an injury to Murray prior to Pittsburgh’s first playoff game.
 
“For myself, I just try to keep working hard and eventually things turn in your favor,” Elliott said, “and you end up playing the bulk of the games. I want to come in and contribute as much as I can and be a guy who can be counted on game in and game out back there.”
 
When asked about Mason’s opinion on platoons, Elliott sidestepped the question, saying he didn’t know what exactly Mason said. Ironically, Mason pointed to Elliott’s situation with the Blues.
 
"Doesn't work," Mason said April 11. "And it's shown throughout the league, it doesn't work. Tampa got rid of their situation. St. Louis got rid of their situation. It's got nothing to do with Neuvy and I as people. It doesn't work for the goaltending position."
 
Mason was partially right about St. Louis. The Blues traded Elliott to the Flames at the 2016 NHL draft, but St. Louis GM Doug Armstrong sold it as a move to clear the way for the 26-year-old Allen.
 
Mason on Saturday signed a two-year deal with the Winnipeg Jets.
 
Elliott endured a rocky campaign with the Flames in 2016-17. He began the year as No. 1 but lost it to Johnson after a poor start. He eventually put things together and retook the No. 1 job. He finished with a 2.55 goals-against average and .910 save percentage in 49 games.
 
Breaking down Elliott’s season into two 20-game periods and then a nine-game period, inconsistency screams. He had a 2.96 GAA and .889 save percentage his first 20 games, but over the next 20 games, he had a .931 save percentage and 2.00 GAA.
 
He finished the year with a 2.91 GAA and .903 save percentage in his final nine games. That bled into the playoffs, as he had a .880 save percentage as the Flames were swept by the Ducks in the first round.

“Everybody’s been the best goalie in the NHL one night and everybody’s been the worst,” Elliott said. “It’s how you respond to those situations. The details are so small, it's how you respond from your bad nights and how you react and come back.
 
“That's what you really learn from. It takes time and I think that's why for a goalie, it takes a little bit longer to get into your prime years because you have to go through those tough situations and battle through them to become mentally tough.”
 
By signing Elliott, it’s clear Hextall was not comfortable rolling with a tandem of Neuvirth and 23-year-old Anthony Stolarz next season. With a two-year deal, Hextall will have to revisit the goaltending situation again when Elliott and Neuvirth’s deals are up.
 
At that time, the kids should be ready. Perhaps either Elliott or Neuvirth will be the ones mentoring them when they arrive. That is a question for another day.
 
But what we know now, according to Elliott, the idea of mentoring never came up with Hextall. Not as if that would be a problem.
 
“Whether you’re mentoring someone or not, you’re there because you want to win and play hockey and what’s best for your career," Elliott said. “If you end up having an influence on somebody, that’s probably good too.”