The Flyers and Drafting Goalies: History and Future

There was a lot of excitement surrounding the debut of goaltender Anthony Stolarz when he won a game against the Calgary Flames on November 27th. His appearance came at a time when the usual questioning about the Philadelphia Flyers’ goaltending arose again after briefly disappearing during the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 campaigns. Not only that, Stolarz is a goaltending prospect that the Flyers selected a few years back and has been playing for the Lehigh Valley Phantoms over the last few seasons. A somewhat highly regarded goaltending prospect that spends a few years learning the professional game in the AHL isn’t a common commodity within the Flyers’ organization.

Since the debut of Stolarz, Steve Mason has been on an unbelievable run. With Michal Neuvirth coming back reasonably soon, Stolarz may not get another start for the Flyers this year. However, if he does play another game for the Flyers (this year, next year, two years from now), Stolarz will become the goalie most recently drafted by the Flyers to play in multiple games for Philadelphia since Roman Cechmanek, who was selected in 2000. That sounds pretty bad, but is it?

HISTORY

Not being able to land a franchise goaltender through the draft sounds like an easy problem to solve: draft a lot of goalies, give them the tools to succeed, see who pans out. With that said, I went back and looked out how much the Flyers have invested in drafting goaltenders in relation to other NHL organizations. To do this, I decided to track all the draft picks the Orange and Black used on goaltenders dating back to the first NHL Entry Draft in 1979 up until the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, the most recent Entry Draft where a drafted goalie has played a game in the NHL. For the sake of comparison, I went back and tracked how many selections the other 20 NHL organizations who have existed since 1979 have spent on goaltenders. Here’s how it looks:

goalies-drafted-from-1979-to-2013

The Flyers have used 28 picks on goaltenders dating back to the start of the Entry Draft, which is second only to the Colorado Avalanche (who need to reward whoever drafted goalies for them until 2001). Unfortunately, only 15 of those goaltenders have ever played a game in the NHL. When you take Johan Hedberg and Joacim Eriksson away from those 15, only 13 of those 28 picks played a game for the Flyers. With that being said, Philadelphia is one of seven organizations to participate in every NHL Entry Draft to have 13 or more drafted goalies go on to play at least one game for them in the NHL. They also rank seventh out of these 21 organizations with 47.49% of their games from 1980 to 2013 seeing playing time from a goalie drafted by the organization.

Ron Hextall is the best goalie the Flyers have ever drafted through the Entry Draft, obviously. He is the only goalie ever drafted by the Flyers in the Entry Draft to play over 220 games for Philadelphia, as he finished with 573 combined regular season and playoff games for the Orange and Black. On top of that, Hextall is one of three goalies to win the Vezina with the Flyers and one of two goalies to win the Conn Smythe with the Flyers. Compared to the rest of goalies drafted in the history of the Entry Draft, Hextall is one of fourteen goalies to win the Vezina with the team that drafted them, as well as one of four goalies to win the Conn Smythe with their draft team.

As for who would be second on that list, I think it’s Pelle Lindbergh. Losing his life at the age of 26 years old, Lindbergh was still able to win a Vezina with the Flyers (the only other goalie besides Hextall to be drafted by the Flyers and also win the Vezina with the club) and played in 180 games for Philly. He also played a gigantic role in the Flyers reaching the 1985 Stanley Cup Finals.

Brian Boucher is the only goalie besides Hextall who was drafted by the Flyers to appear in over 200 games for the club, as he had a combined 216 regular season and playoff appearances. Antero Niittymaki and Roman Cechmanek each appeared in over 160 overall games for Philadelphia, while Dominic Roussel played in 140 Flyers’ games. Tommy Soderstrom failed to break the century mark in the Orange and Black, but his 78 games is nothing to sneeze at. Altogether, the Flyers have drafted seven goalies who went on to play in 78 games or more for them. The other six goaltenders drafted by the Flyers who played at least one game for them (Maxime Ouellet, Jean-Marc Pelletier, Neil Little, Martin Houle, Jeremy Duchesne, and Anthony Stolarz) have totaled eight games with the organization. That total will likely rise over the upcoming years thanks to Stolarz, but the other five picks weren’t that great.

With names like Hextall, Lindbergh, and Boucher being the three best goalies drafted by the Flyers, one can see why the organization has had a problem in net since the early 2000’s. Thanks to a handful of expansion teams joining the league since the invention of the Entry Draft, grabbing an elite goaltender has become harder to accomplish. Since the problem that faces the Flyers is attempting to land blue chip goaltending prospects in a 30-team draft, I tracked every goaltender picked from the 2000 NHL Entry Draft to the 2013 NHL Entry Draft. Let’s see how Philadelphia looks:

goalies-drafted-from-2000-to-2013

Your Philadelphia Flyers used a league-leading 18 draft picks on goaltenders in this 14-year span. Four of those 18 selections went on to play in a game or more for the Flyers for a total of 189 games. Cechmanek is 186 of those 189 games with each of Houle, Duchesne, and Stolarz with a game to their credit. This puts the Flyers 19th in the 30-team NHL with 13.96% of their games from 2000 to 2013 seeing playing time from a goalie drafted by the organization.

This is a somewhat flawed statistic for the simple fact that a lot of games could have been played for an organization by a goaltender drafted by the team in 1999 or earlier (take a look at the New Jersey Devils’ numbers). This impacts the Flyers, as players like Boucher and Niittymaki, who were both pretty respectable goalies for Philadelphia, played a significant number of games for the team despite being drafted in the 1995 NHL Entry Draft and the 1998 NHL Entry Draft respectively. Philadelphia also used Robert Esche and Martin Biron a lot, a pair of goaltenders who were not drafted by the organization. Ilya Bryzgalov and Sergei Bobrovsky also stood in net for the Flyers for a good number of games. With all that being considered, the fact the Flyers only had one goalie they drafted in this time frame appear in more than one game while using the most draft picks on the position across the league isn’t ideal.

FUTURE

Despite being one of the goalies drafted by the Flyers from 2000 to 2013, Stolarz has been handled differently than the others. This is because of Hextall’s patience and willingness to invest time in making sure each goaltending prospect is being challenged in their respective league, but isn’t being rushed along too quickly. With that in mind, let’s look at how Hextall has drafted in the three most recent Entry Drafts (the drafts with which a goalie has yet to play an NHL game):

goalies-drafted-from-2014-to-2016

Not only are the Flyers one of only four teams to draft four goalies, but they are the only team to use three draft picks in the first three rounds on goalies. Some feel drafting a goalie in the earlier rounds isn’t the best idea, since drafting goalies is probably the most difficult position to judge so the likelihood of landing a franchise goalie in the earlier rounds is just as likely as landing one in the later rounds. However, it isn’t a bad thing to have the goalie with arguably the most potential from the 2015 NHL Entry Draft in Felix Sandstrom and the most highly regarded goalie in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft in Carter Hart.

On top of drafting several high-end goalie prospects, the most important aspect of developing these picks might be Kim Dillabaugh. Hired by Hextall in the summer of 2015, Dillabaugh was the goaltending coach with the WHL’s Kelowna Rockets from 2003 to 2014, as well as being in charge of the Los Angeles Kings’ goaltending development from 2007 to 2015. In that time, the Kings had much success with not only Jonathan Quick, but saw some goalies (Jonathan Bernier and Ben Scrivens) hit their career peaks under his watch. Dillabaugh was also with Los Angeles before Martin Jones ended up in San Jose. Obviously, other factors play into the success of those goalies with the Kings (playing in front of the Kings’ strong puck possession system, backup roles), but Dillabaugh deserves a fair amount of credit for their play. When you combine Dillabaugh’s resume with Hextall’s goaltending picks, it would seem as though the Flyers are heading in the right direction.

CONCLUSION

Historically, the Flyers have used a lot of draft picks on goaltending. Despite landing some major contributors in the 1980’s and 1990’s (Hextall, Lindbergh, and Boucher), the Flyers haven’t utilized a goalie they have drafted in several years. With a lot invested in goaltending over the last few Entry Drafts and the hiring of a goaltending coach who had a hand in one of the more successful organizations over the past five years, what has been regarded as a weakness of the club for the last few decades could become a strength. Drafting, overall, is a gamble and drafting goaltenders is the toughest position to guarantee any success. However, the Flyers have taken big strides to solve the puzzle of drafting goalies, and Stolarz could be the first piece of that puzzle.

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