By now we know that the Flyers have a plethora of options when it comes to defensemen. But what about the last line of defense, behind them?
Steve Mason is the guy, obviously. When your starter finishes with the 3rd best save percentage in the entire league (.928) and 7th in goals against average (2.25) it’s normally revered to as a pretty successful season.
The numbers may look good but frankly it was a weird season to watch. Mason only started 48 games due to injury. First it was back spasms and then it was knee injuries. On numerous occasions #35 looked less than 100% causing fans to hold their breath every time his name was mentioned.
Situations like such prove why having a dependable backup is necessary at the NHL level. The New York Rangers were forced to go a month without Henrik Lundqvist and look where they are at now. Cam Talbot came in, looked like an every day started and his play kept the Rangers hot en route to a President’s Trophy. Clearly, the Flyers were not fortunate enough to have a stud such as Talbot available.
Last summer the Flyers were relatively strapped on cap space thanks to Paul Holmgren, so on the first day of open free agency Ray Emery was brought back. As a backup in 2013-2014 he went 9-12-4, which by no means is great, but he took a pay cut from $1.65 million down to $1 million so it wasn’t questioned too much.
Unfortunately due to the absence of Mason, Razor was counted on even more in 2014-2015 and again, wasn’t impressive. A 10-11-7 record with a .894 save percentage included some goals against that could only be reacted to by rolling your eyes and going “oh boy”.
That left the Flyers to go with “Option #3”. Another July 1st, 2014 signing, Rob Zepp, who had never had NHL experience, was called upon to be the savior after Razor was battling an injury / couldn’t be counted on anymore. The former German leaguer quickly became a fan favorite and more trustworthy defender of the net. Despite being the AHL starter for the majority of the year, Zepp finished with a record of 5-2-0 in nine starts.
With both Emery and Zepp scheduled to become unrestricted free agents and the Flyers still in need of someone behind Mason, it raises the question who should be brought back? While it would be easy for me to say Zepp and that’s it, there’s actually a factor that may cause this situation to be more complex than just “Zepp has better numbers and is more reliable.”
Bring in Anthony Stolarz, the Flyers second round selection in 2012. At 21 years young, the (essentially) lone goalie prospect went 9-13-4 at AHL Lehigh Valley this past season. Zepp’s call up may have been a blessing in disguise for “Stolie The Goalie” as the youngster saw action in 31 games during his first professional season.
Fans should expect to see even more out of the former London Knight during 2015-2016, but exactly how much remains to be seen. Despite the below average numbers, my expectation is that the organization would like to see Stolarz number of appearances be in the 40-50 region. He doesn’t appear ready to be an every day starter at the AHL level but hopefully a progressive summer will have him prepared for a split time role in the fall.
If this were the case, having a journeyman such as Zepp by his side would undoubtedly benefit the inexperienced Stolarz. Therefore, Hextall’s decision with Stollie could mean the difference between bringing back either or both Emery and Zepp, signing a back up for Mason, or searching the market for an experienced AHL vet to work with Stolarz.
1) Let Emery walk. It’s clear Razor just isn’t a reliable #2 and in case of another injury year to Mase, it is time to have someone to trust, or at least someone new to try and trust.
2) Resign Zepp. One year, one million. Low risk and he’s earned it.
3) Search through the seemingly never-ending market of net-minding veterans and who can split time with Stolarz and be called up in case of an injury to Mason.
1) Jason LaBarbera: Has played for six different franchises since 2000. Bounced between the AHL & NHL, went eight years straight in the NHL, now at the tail end of his career and largely an AHL guy with the ability to backup a few games in the big league. Most recently with Anaheim played a role in developing their goaltending prospect John Gibson. (Don’t be surprised if Anaheim does bring him back for this reason alone, the Ducks are just still going in the playoffs and not focused on tasks such as bringing him back right now.)
2) Peter Budaj: Budaj has nine NHL seasons under his belt. Last season he was relegated down to the AHL after being acquired from Montreal by Winnipeg where he backed up Connor Hellebuyck. He went 0-9-6 (ouch, I know) but the veteran could still support Stolarz and backup at the NHL level.
3) Jakub Kovar: Here’s my dark horse idea. For those of you who don’t know, the Flyers drafted Kovar way back in 2006. Long story short, the two sides could never agree on a transfer agreement, therefore he’s never been signed in the franchise. Well he’s 26 now and started every single game for his KHL team this season, finishing with a line of 23-28-8, .923 SV% and 2.20 GAA. Hextall has already signed two KHL’ers, the ruble is plummeting, franchises are crumbling, and it already appears to be a summer filled with defects from the league. Maybe he’ll revisit this option.
4) Wild Card: Last summer Hextall went way off the radar with going out and getting Zepp so that has to leave the door open for goaltenders in other European leagues as well, right? Keep an eye out for guys from the Finnish, German and Swedish leagues potentially getting looks.
5) Reading Royals: Strictly in the case of searching for an AHL backup, the organization could opt to keep around one of these two young men who suited up as the backstop for the ECHL affiliate Reading Royals last year. Connor Knapp is only 25 and went 24-11-4 with a .915 save percentage and took the Royals to the Kelly Cup Playoffs. If the route is to name Stolarz the every day starter, thus only leaving the role of AHL backup available, perhaps it’s Knapp who sticks around. Doesn’t benefit Stolarz in terms of having a veteran helping hand, seeing as Stolarz is younger and has more promise to make it to the league.
Similarly, Martin Ouellette actually played 8 games for the Phantoms last year while Zepp was up and Stolarz was struggling. Even younger than Knapp at 23 however, Ouellette went 17-10-2 with Reading. Yet again though, Stolarz would have to be prepared to make 50+ starts if this were the plan. Ouellette is a former 7th round pick of the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Keep in mind, if either of these two are signed, it leaves a big questions mark in the theoretical situation that if one of the Mason/Zepp tandem goes down, who do you call up? Stolarz needs to get starts to continue developing and if the Flyers are forced to go a long stretch without one of their two guys and Connor Knapp or Martin Ouellette is called upon to start a game for Philadelphia, prepare for the influx of “Who?” tweets.
Thanks for reading!