Are the Philadelphia Flyers really a goalie graveyard?

Updated: November 21, 2017 at 6:23 pm by Wes Herrmann

Cheesesteaks, throwing snowballs at Santa Claus and a goalie graveyard. If you asked any non-Flyers fan to describe the defining traits of the sports and hockey world in Philadelphia, those are likely to be the top three answers.

Sure, the city is famous for cheesesteaks and the 1960s incident with Santa Claus is a lazy anecdote to describe the intensity of Philly fans, but how true is the goalie graveyard for the Flyers?

There’s certainly been a lot of goaltenders that have passed through the city in the last 20 years. During those two decades, 20 have played at least 10 games and 10 more have suited up at least once for the orange and black.

That at least shows a lack of stability in net, but it doesn’t necessarily mean Philadelphia is the place goalies go to die. Taking a look beyond just the numbers show that may not be the consensus either.

Veterans in Philadelphia

When you average a new goalie a year, it means the team isn’t developing them from within. It should come as no surprise that a number of veterans have filtered in and out of the organization over the past two decades.

Some of those names include John Vanbiesbrouck, Jeff Hackett, Ilya Bryzagalov, Sean Burke (during his second stint) and Brian Elliott. To most, those would be the goalies that came to retire or hit a downfall in their stretch in Philadelphia.   

For Bryzgalov and Vanbiesbrouck, that held mostly true. Bryzgalov hit some major lows and was bought out two years into his eight-year contract. On top of that, he was a common point of distress among the Flyers’ fan base.

Vanbiesbrouck was certainly not the goalie he was with the Florida Panthers and had better years with the New Jersey Devils after his short Flyers stint.

Burke played just 15 games in his second go-around in Philadelphia and it’s too early to judge Elliott, but the Philadelphia culture doesn’t seem to be bothering him much.

Like Burke, Hackett didn’t have much of a stay in the orange and black. He played in 27 games, but vertigo forced him into retirement during the 2003-04 season. Before that, though, he was having an impressive season at 35 years old, sporting a .905 save percentage (against a .902 career average) and a 2.39 goals against average.

So the consensus among veteran goalies that end up in Philly is that besides an uncommon outlier, most don’t rebound with the Flyers.

Goalies Entering Their Prime

Sure, the Flyers aren’t the Nashville Predators when it comes to grooming their own goalies, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t had netminders in their prime. They’ve often traded for ones that developed in other organizations, but entered their primes in Philadelphia.

Those include Robert Esche, Martin Biron and Steve Mason. The team also signed Ray Emery and Michal Neuvirth in free agency both at 27 years old in 2009 and 2015, respectively.

Of those goalies, Esche, Biron and Mason may have seen their best years in Philly. Esche never played on another NHL team after the Flyers, but was solid in the two years prior to the 2005 lockout, posting a .912 save percentage and a 2.11 GAA with the team. He also helped the team to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2004.

However, Esche’s two final years with the team were horrendous and was replaced by Biron in the 2006-07 season. Biron, himself, turned around the Flyers’ goaltending that year and the next two.

The former Sabre recorded 30 wins in 2007-08 and helped lead the team back to the Eastern Conference Finals. The next season, his numbers slipped a tad, but he still won 29 games.

Expecting a pay day, Biron didn’t re-sign to any of then-general manager Paul Holmgren’s offers and he walked to free agency. Maybe the Philly goalie curse played a role, but Biron had to settle for a small one-year deal with the New York Islanders at the end of July.

From there, he settled into a backup role, never eclipsing more than 12 wins with the Islanders and New York Rangers.

Much like Biron, Mason came to Philadelphia to replace a veteran (Byrzgalov) and be the starter for years to come. For three seasons he did that, winning 74 games and carrying a .921 save percentage.

However, Mason spent four full years with the Flyers. His last in Philly, the 2016-17 season, was a disaster for the most part as the former Blue Jacket managed his lowest save percentage and highest GAA during his time in the orange and black.

During his time in Philadelphia, Mason was known to not hold anything back from the media and willingly place blame on teammates. It often lended to a badly tinted look from the media.

Now with the Winnipeg Jets, Mason doesn’t look like he’s been able to turn his game around. The 29 year old has a 1-3-1 record, a .892 save percentage and a 3.76 GAA, though it’s still early.

In Emery’s first stint with the team, he was off to a strong start playing in front of a deep team that was struggling. Unfortunately for the now-35 year old, a major hip issue ended his season 29 games into it.

Emery eventually got back on the ice and even returned to the Flyers as a backup in 2013, but his best years came when he was with the Ottawa Senators from 2005 to 2008.

Neuvirth’s biggest issues have always been injuries and an inability to maintain the starter’s crease. He had a good year in Philly in 2015-16, but went downhill last season. This year, he looks more like his 2015-16 self. Still, his best seasons came with the Washington Capitals at the beginning of his career.

What the goalies in their prime have taught us about their time in Philadelphia is that they can reach their career highs with the Flyers, but it may not last long. Esche was 29 when he left, Biron 31 and Mason 28. Those aren’t players severely past their prime playing days, but they seem to have met them regardless, while in the city of brotherly love.

Prospects

The Flyers may not have much luck developing netminders, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t tried in the last 20 years. In fact since Ron Hextall, the team hasn’t really groomed any prospect into a starter.

The closest it may have come to it was with Brian Boucher, Antero Niittymaki or Sergei Bobrovsky, but there’s a whole host of failed prospects including Maxime Quellet, Jean-Marc Pelletier, Roman Malek and Rejean Beauchemin. Unsurprisingly, after striking out that much, Philadelphia tended to shy away from goalies in the draft.

So let’s focus on the ones that actually graduated and went on to have an NHL career.

Boucher, Niittymaki and Bobrovsky all showed promise during their times in Philly. Maybe just coincidentally, those stretches came during their rookie seasons.

Boucher led the Flyers to the Eastern Conference Finals in his rookie 1999-00 season and even earned some Calder and Vezina votes along the way. His 1.91 GAA and 20 wins that season ended up being career highs.

The next year, the Rhode Island native’s GAA inflated to 3.27 and his wins were cut by more than half. Unfortunately for him and the Flyers, Boucher’s numbers didn’t improve much by his third year and he was traded to the Phoenix Coyotes for Esche and Michal Handzus.

From there, Boucher became a journeyman, playing for seven different teams, including three more stints in the Flyers’ organization. However, the now-40 year old does have a claim to fame. He holds the NHL record for longest shutout at 332 minutes and one second.

Niittymaki was a solid NHL goalie during his 2005-06 rookie year, but it was his play at the 2006 Olympics for Finland that turned heads and raised the Flyers faithfuls’ hopes.

With Miikka Kiprusoff injured, Niittymaki was thrust into the starting role for the Finns. He responded with a 5-1 record, a 1.34 GAA, a .951 save percentage and was named MVP of the tournament as Finland took home a silver medal.

Back in the United States, Niittymaki struggled to take the starting role from Esche as he mustered just a 2.97 GAA and a .895 save percentage in 46 games.

The next year, the whole Flyers team struggled in the worst season ever in the organization. Niittymaki fell victim with a horrendous 9-29-9 record.

However, the TPS’ product wasn’t the worst outcome from that season. Niittymaki started experiencing hip issues that required multiple shots throughout the year.

Eventually, Niittymaki required surgery done in 2008. By that time he was the backup to Biron with little potential of becoming a starter.

In the summer of 2009, Niittymaki tested the free agent markets and signed with the Tampa Bay Lightning. He played just two more seasons in the NHL, one with the Lightning and his last with the San Jose Sharks, compiling a 33-25-8 record. In the 2011-12 season, he played just 13 games in the AHL before walking away and returning to TPS the next year.

Flyers fans don’t need reminding of Bobrovsky’s time in Philly and what he’s become since.

After showing starting potential in the 2010-11 season, owner Ed Snider overreacted when Bobrovsky struggled later in the season and in the playoffs. Snider demanded a legit starter and Holmgren brought in Bryzgalov.

Bobrovsky realized he would never become a starter with “Bryz” there and requested a trade in the 2012 summer. Holmgren granted his wish and the Russian netminder was on his way to the Columbus Blue Jackets. He’s since won two Vezina Trophies.

For Boucher, his rookie season may have been a flash-in-a-pan. Niittymaki was derailed heavily by injuries, but never showed the promise he exhibited in the 2006 Olympics. Bobrovsky was always shy and has excelled in a smaller market where there hasn’t been a constant goalie controversy.

Each goalie had their own deterrents, but there’s no doubt that the Philadelphia culture had a negative effect on Bobrovsky — and could have bothered the others too.

Miscellaneous

I’d be remiss if I didn’t bring up Roman Cechmanek or Michael Leighton. The two just don’t really fit in any of the categories.

Cechmanek was drafted by the Flyers, but at 29 years old; certainly no prospect. Either way, he excelled in the NHL right away.

In his rookie season, the Czech Republic native tied for a league-leading 10 shutouts, along with a 35-15-6 record. He also was named to the NHL Second All-Star Team and earned Calder and Vezina votes.

He lasted two more seasons in Philly and was often the face of controversy for his angry outbursts. Cechmanek didn’t hold back in critiquing his teammates or the lack of scoring by his own team.

In his last year with the Flyers, Cechmanek had his best regular season stats-wise with a 1.83 GAA and a .925 save percentage. However, he fell apart in the playoffs, losing seven of 13 games.

He was traded for a second-round pick from the Los Angeles Kings in 2003. He lasted a season there, carrying an 18-21-6 record before returning to the Czech League.

One of the biggest complaints about Cechmanek were his inconsistent efforts. It’s a well-known fact in Philadelphia that fans will respect a player if they try, but very much the opposite if they don’t.

As for Leighton, he certainly saw his best playing days in Philly, but even when he was here, he wasn’t an NHL goalie. He simply played behind a strong defensive team and made most of the necessary saves.

Still, his play in 2010 didn’t deter the Flyers from making the Stanley Cup Final, but a better goalie may have won the Cup that year.

Looking at the two random goalies, Leighton can only be chalked up as an aberration of a good AHL goalie that reaped the success of a good NHL team. Cechmanek was an oddball that could have been more successful on a good team with less pressure from outside the locker room.

Conclusion and Future of Flyers Goalies

For some goalies — and players in general — it looks like the pressure of Philadelphia can get in their heads.

However, that doesn’t mean every goalie that joins the Flyers is bound to fail. In fact, a number of goalies saw their best years with the orange and black in the past two decades.

The issue is that most of those netminders were entering their prime and didn’t grow within the Flyers’ organization. That’s worked out just okay in the past, but it never offered any stability.

Now as general manager and former goalie himself, Ron Hextall has tried to find the next great Philly netminder through the draft. Unfortunately for the organization, he’s not the first to try and do that.

Goalies are hard to predict. They typically take longer to develop than forwards or defensemen and are often blamed more than any other position for losses. On top of that, Philadelphia is even harder with the pressure the fans create.

You probably don’t want to mention that to Hextall or to Carter Hart, Felix Sandstrom, Anthony Stolarz or Alex Lyon. Hextall and his staff are betting that one of them will end the revolving door in the Flyers’ crease.

History shows that’s not an easy thing for a Philadelphia-drafted goalie to do. But history also shows that, unlike Santa, a goalie can still have their best years in the city that’s known as a goalie graveyard.

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