Will Flyers’ search for number one netminder end this summer?

By David Strehle
NHL H
ot Stove NHL / Philadelphia Flyers Correspondent

The Philadelphia Flyers’ history of failure in obtaining an elite netminder to patrol their crease for more than two decades has been well-documented here, as well as in many other articles by other authors.  I will not delve back into the organization’s sordid past regarding this issue.

My purpose is to explore the situation moving forward.

I would also like to make one thing perfectly clear, as I offer this DISCLAIMER:  I am NOT, in any way, shape, or form, placing the loss to the Boston Bruins in the 2011 Eastern Conference Semifinals strictly on the goaltending. For anyone to do so would be both foolish and erroneous.

Make sure to take the time to vote in the poll at the end of the article as to what your feelings are on the subject!



They were referred to as “Moe, Larry, and Curly” by the Buffalo media in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Sabres.

Who were the scribes referring to with that description?

Paul Bereswill / Getty Images North America

None other than the Flyers’ netminding triumvirate of Sergei Bobrovsky, Brian Boucher, and Michael Leighton.  The trio were the players on head coach Peter Laviolette’s “carousel of goalies” sideshow in the club’s recently-completed postseason.

There were seven goaltending changes made by Laviolette in the 11 playoff contests.  When going up against elite netminders of the caliber of the Sabres’ Ryan Miller and Boston’s Tim Thomas, that cannot bode well for your team’s chances.

As Philly’s goalies struggled with inconsistencies and Miller posted two 1-0 shutouts, a series that should have been in over in five or six contests was dragged into a deciding seventh game.

Thomas was almost inpenetrable in the second round, yielding just seven goals on 149 shots in the four-game sweep (.953 save percentage).

Moving forward it would be nice to see a Flyer goaltender steal a series like that, or even a couple of games in a seven-game set.

But who will be the one to man the Philadelphia crease when the 2011-12 season commences?


Bobrovsky


When asked to assess Bobrovsky’s chances at claiming the number one goaltending job next season, GM Paul Holmgren gave this comment in a press conference yesterday.

I like Sergei a lot,” said Holmgren.  “I think he is a good kid, and a tremendously young goaltender in our league.  Could it be next year?  There was a time this year (when Bobrovsky was number one), so I think we just have to see how things play out over the summer.  But I am very excited about Sergei as a goaltender, and being a part of our organization.”

There is no doubt that Bobrovsky is the goaltender of the future in for the Flyers.  At times this season, as Holmgren pointed out, he was the number one guy.

At times, he looked to have some issues with his mechanics, dropping to the ice early too early and leaving much of the upper half of the net exposed for the shooters to take aim.

Bobrovsky’s regular season numbers were fantastic.  His 28-13-8 record, 2.59 goals-against average and .915 save percentage were all among the best season statistics by a Philadelphia rookie goaltender.

He seemed a bit overmatched in the postseason.  After a tremendous performance in his initial game, losing a 1-0 decision to Miller and the Sabres on a third period goal, Bobrovsky gave up three early tallies in game two and was pulled.

He was banished to the press box, while Leighton, who had played all of one NHL contest all season, made a return to the lineup as the team shuffled off to Buffalo for game three.

After Leighton faltered and was also given the yank by Laviolette, Bobrovsky came back into the fold.

The 22-year-old Russian finished the playoffs with an 0-2 record, with a 3.23 GAA and an .877 save percentage.

Bobrovsky did struggle down the stretch in the regular season and most of the postseason.  He did get the start in game four against the Bruins, and performed very well.  He kept the Flyers in the game well into the third period when his team was being soundly outplayed before finally faltering.

Bobrovsky’s early career pattern is somewhat following that of Pelle Lindbergh’s.  The Flyers’ Swedish legend made the all-rookie team in 1982-83 with a 23-13-3 record, but faltered badly in 1983-84.  He ended up splitting the year between the NHL and AHL.  Lindbergh then exploded with a 40-17-7 mark in 1984-85, winning the Vezina Trophy as the league’s best goalie and led Philadelphia to the Stanley Cup Finals.

Also, Lindbergh was actually a couple of years older than Bobrovsky is now when he began his NHL journey.  As goaltending coach Jeff Reese said on Monday, the young netminder is coming along nicely, but is realistically “probably 2-3 years away from being a workhorse.”  Bobrovsky will also need to work out and put some bulk onto his six-foot, two-inch, 190 pound frame.

But there is no doubt that the future is bright when it comes to the native of Novokuznetsk, Russia.


Leighton


Leighton has one year remaining on the two-year deal he signed as an unrestricted free agent last summer.  When it appeared he was the starter to open the season, Leighton had to undergo surgery to repair a bulging disc in his back.

This put him behind the other two netminders in every conceivable way, and in the two months Leighton missed, Bobrovsky had taken over the number one job.

Leighton saw action in only one NHL game all year – in a 7-4 victory over the Los Angeles Kings during the club’s late-December road trip.  He cleared re-entry waivers late in the regular season when the team was wavering down the stretch, a kind of insurance policy just in case.

Leighton played well in game five of the series against the Sabres in relief of Boucher, who had been pulled after yielding three soft goals.  Leighton stopped the final 18 shots of regulation and the first two he faced in overtime, before yielding the game-winner to Tyler Ennis on a juicy rebound of a Mike Weber point shot.

The irony is  that it was Leighton’s first NHL loss since game six of the Stanley Cup Finals to the Chicago Blackhawks in the deciding tilt in the – and it also came in a playoff overtime, on the exact same net as Patrick Kane’s Cup-winning sharp angle goal – 317 days after watching the ‘Hawks skate around the Wells Fargo Center ice with Lord Stanley.

He would get the game six start with Philadelphia trailing the series, 3-2.  In a contest that the Flyers had to win to avoid elimination, Leighton gave up three bad goals on Buffalo’s first eight shots and was pulled in favor of Boucher.

It may have been the last game that Leighton will play for the Flyers, depending on the course of action the club takes this off-season.

I think Michael’s got to, with the hip surgery he needs, he’s got to be around here all summer, working with our medical staff and our training staff to get that strength and to get ready for training camp,” Holmgren said of Leighton, who will turn 30 years old late next week.


Backlund


As for Johan Backlund, another goalie who will be 30 over the summer and is also on a one-way contract for next season, Holmgren was quite clear about what he has to do.

I think it’s a big summer for Johan to see where he fits in,” said Holmgren.  “He needs to come to training camp and basically try to win a job.”

Chances are that the Swede will not fit into the team’s plans and will be moved in some capacity.


Boucher


Boucher was the good soldier all year during the 2010-11 campaign, as he expected to be the opening night starter this season.  He instead sat and watched while Bobrovsky took the early-season reigns.  Boucher was solid when he played, managing an 18-10-4 record, with a 2.42 GAA and .916 save percentage.

Boucher was the lone Philly backstop to post a win in the playoffs.  After a series against Buffalo in which “Boosh” went 4-1 with a 2.10 GAA and .934 save percentage, he ended the postseason with a 4-4 record, with a 3.13 GAA and .904 save percentage.

When Boucher was told between the Buffalo and Boston series that “he was like the Rodney Dangerfield of hockey because he gets no respect”, the 34-year-old unrestricted free agent was a good sport.

Yeah I guess if you want to say that, you can say that,” Boucher said.

Holmgren appreciated Boucher’s attitude and willingness to do whatever was asked of him during his entire two-year stay in his second tour of duty with the club.

I think Brian had a tremendous year for us,” Holmgren said.  “I thought Brian, like a lot of guys in the playoffs, struggled with things.  We will see how that plays out.  I have not had my meeting with Brian.  I know he wants to continue playing, I know he likes it here, his family likes it here.  But, we’ll see.”

See how things play out over the summer?  Does that include attempting to acquire a top-flight goalie?

I spent yesterday meeting with the players, and a little on the weekend meeting with the coaches about certain things,” the general-manager said.  “We will continue to process this over the next couple of weeks here.  There’s nothing we can do right now, but reflect and look at things, and come up with a game plan.”

Part of the group who will be in on the decision-making process will be Ed Snider.

You know, the season’s not over and we’ll evaluate everything when the season is over,” said the Chairman of Comcast-Spectacor after game three against the Bruins.

The season is now a thing of the past for the Orange-and-Black, and an pro-active plan for the summer should help return the Flyers to where they need to be.


The Best of the Free Agent Crop – Vokoun and Bryzgalov


There is no doubt that picking up an elite-level netminder this off-season could be weighing heavily on how the team proceeds this summer – especially with two upper echelon being available via UFA in Tomas Vokoun and Ilya Bryzgalov.

Both goaltenders will be considered hot commodities when the open season for free agency hits on July 1st, and both are likely command a hefty asking price.

Vokoun will more probably be hard-pressed to find anyone who will offer the $5.7 million he made each year with the Florida Panthers on his previous deal.

Joel Auerbach/Getty Images North America

The six-foot, 195 pound native of the Czech Republic would be an upgrade to the number one spot.  Vokoun has played in 632 regular season games and is just below .500 for his career (262-267-41) with 44 shutouts, playing for the Nashville Predators and Panthers.

He recorded a career-high 36 wins in 2005-06, then signed the huge pact with Florida in 2007-08.  He has hit the 30-win mark just once (in his first year) while calling the Sunshine State home, but has picked up 23 shutouts in his four seasons with the Panthers.

The downsides to Voukoun are that he turns 35 in July, and has seen his numbers drop over the past few years.  As a matter of fact, his win totals have decreased in each of the past three years since the 30 posted in 2007-08 (30, 26, 23, 22).

Vokoun was just 45-56-16 with 13 shutouts over the past two campaigns.

Additionally, Vokoun has played in only 11 playoff games in his 11-year NHL career - all with Nashville - and gone 3-8 in the three first round exits.

It is noted that the teams that he has played for were not exactly powerhouses (by any stretch of the imagination), but he has only gotten his team to the postseason three times in 11 years, and none in the last four with Florida.

Kevin Coloton / Icon SMI

But by the same token, a rather average Phoenix team has had the best years since moving to the desert with Bryzgalov backstopping their efforts.  I cannot imagine anyone believing that the Coyotes would have enjoyed anywhere near the same amount of success with anyone other than Bryzgalov between the pipes.

Bryzgalov earned $4.25 million last year for the Phoenix Coyotes, and could be in line for a major windfall.  It remains to be seen how much stability - something the Russian-born netminder has not had with a franchise rumored to be leaving Phoenix for much of his tenure with the ‘Yotes – and a chance to play in a hockey-entrenched environment will play into Bryzgalov’s decision as to where he will choose to set up residence for the next several seasons.

The six-foot, three-inch, 210 pounder began his career as the backup to Jean-Sebastien Giguere with the Anaheim Ducks.  Bryzgalov always played well when called upon, and even posted a 3-1 mark along the way during Anaheim’s Stanley Cup-winning playoff run in 2007.

Just as Vokoun moved to South Florida in 2007, Bryzgalov also moved to another city that same year.  After being claimed off of waivers by Phoenix, he became the number one goalie with the Coyotes.

His 130-93-27 record and 21 shutouts in his four campaigns in Phoenix include an incredible 78-40-16 mark with 15 shutouts over the past two seasons.

Bryzgalov’s career record in the postseason is 12-13, and just 3-8 in the last two with the Coyotes.  But the two first round exits have some at the hands of the Detroit Red Wings – last season in a hard-fought seven game series, and this year a four-game sweep.  Bryzgalov did not play well this year, but was the sole factor in stretching the perennial playoff warriors from Hockeytown to seven games last season.

Add in the fact that Bryzgalov is Russian, and it would seem that he would be the perfect tutor to also bring Bobrovsky along in his development.  Many times it has been noted in the locker room that “Bob” doesn’t really bother with too many others since he doesn’t speak English.  He often looks very alienated, except for the company of his translator.  Having an all-Russian tandem may just pay further dividends than just what Bryzgalov would return during the tenure of his term, if signed by Philadelphia.


The Salary Cap


In order to make cap space for either of these goalies to be inked, Holmgren will likely have to move one of his mid-to-higher range paid forwards.

One option could be winger Scott Hartnell.

With two years left on a contract pays an annual salary of $4.2 million, Hartnell may find himself in the same situation as Simon Gagne did last summer.

Hartnell, like Gagne before him, has a no-trade clause in his contract.  But as Gagne’s state of affairs played out, Hartnell could also find the organization “asking” him to waive his clause and accept a trade to another club.

The 29-year-old rebounded from a horrendous 14-goal campaign in 2009-10 to score 24 this season.  His game actually started to come around during last year’s playoffs when made part of a line with Danny Briere and Ville Leino, as they formed the club’s most-productive line.

But Hartnell’s offensive production has been very inconsistent, and his knack for taking bad penalties at the worst-possible time crept back into his game.

Moving Hartnell’s salary for picks would be welcomed, as Holmgren does not have a first or second round selection in the 2011 draft.


Conclusion


While goaltending was not the only reason the Flyers were bounced out of the 2011 postseason, it also did not help to have the juggling act of who played and who sat.

Laviolette may have had a quick trigger finger, but he did the best that he could with what he had at his disposal.

With three good goalies that would most likely have been backups in more than 20 of the other NHL cities this year, the coach really didn’t have many options.

A true number one goaltender is a hallmark of the majority of teams that get to party with Lord Stanley during the summer.  For Philadelphia, they really have not had anyone fit that description since Ron Hextall’s rookie season of 1987, as he took the Flyers to within one victory of their first Cup since 1975.

With defensemen Chris Pronger and Kimmo Timonen heading into their late-30′s, the time is now for the franchise to make that commitment to winning the Stanley Cup now.

The best way to do that is to build from the net out, and Bryzgalov would look very good in Orange-and-Black.



Make sure to vote in the poll as to what your feelings are on the subject. If you would like to make your reasoning known, feel free to leave a comment with your explanation as to your choice.

If you have any comments or questions, you can email the author at dstrehle@nhlhotstove.com.  You can also follow him on Twitter – @David_Strehle