When Anthony Stolarz arrived at the Philadelphia Flyers' prospect development camp in July 2012, he was less than a month removed from being a second-round pick in the NHL Draft and was preparing for his freshman year at college.
A year later, Stolarz returned far more experienced from a season that had highs and lows that opened his eyes and steeled his resolve.
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Stolarz started last season at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, but as the youngest player in a three-goalie rotation, playing time became an immediate issue. By the December holidays, he had played eight of 18 games and the experience was becoming less than desirable.
"Right around when I got back from Christmas, right after the Quinnipiac series [Dec. 29-30], I went a while without playing," Stolarz told NHL.com. "I said to myself, 'Do I really want to go through this, not playing games?' As a goalie, it's tough. As a forward, you're going out there every three shifts. As a goalie, there's only one guy that can have the net and there's three of us."
Not only was Stolarz not happy with the situation, the Flyers were disappointed. The team had selected the 6-foot-5, 210-pound goalie with the 45th pick of the 2012 NHL Draft with the hope that he could develop into a home-grown, long-term option in net.
"He was in Omaha, he wanted to stay there, wanted to go the college route," Flyers development coach Ian Laperriere told NHL.com. "He wasn't playing enough like he wanted to. I went to Omaha to watch him play and he was on the bench. Wasn't fun for me; wasn't fun for him either."
"The Hunter brothers were very aggressive in contacting me," Stolarz said. "They talked to me last summer, but I was committed to UNO."
Things had changed by the winter, however, and Stolarz left school and signed with the Knights on Jan. 8.
At the time London had won 34 of 42 games, including 24 in a row, making it as appealing a destination as there was in junior hockey. More than that, Stolarz was looking forward to working with London goalie coach Bill Dark.
"Just being able to work with Bill Dark was another thing," Stolarz said. "You look at the goalies he's worked with, Michael Houser, Steve Mason, Igor Bobkov -- just a tremendous list of guys that are excelling at the pro level. The team is great. They were on a 24-game win streak. I wanted to go there because you want to play for a contender."
London was a contender, but Stolarz made them even better. In 20 games, he went 13-3-2 with a 2.29 goals-against average and .920 save percentage, and London cruised to the best record in the OHL. Stolarz started the first two rounds of the playoffs, backstopping a four-game sweep of the Saginaw Spirit in the first round and a five-game win against the Kitchener Rangers in the second round.
He was in net for all five games in the Knights' win against the Plymouth Whalers in the conference finals, but allowed four goals in each of the final four games of the series. Then in the first four games of the OHL finals, Stolarz allowed 14 goals, and with the team trailing the series 3-1, he was benched in favor of Jake Paterson. Paterson rallied the Knights to the league title with three straight wins.
Stolarz returned to the net to start the first two games of the Memorial Cup, but after allowing five goals in a 6-3 loss to the Portland Winterhawks in the second game, Paterson started the rest of the way. Stolarz finished 1-1-0 with a 4.50 GAA and .872 save percentage in three games. Paterson played four games, going 1-2-0 with a 3.18 GAA and .902 save percentage.
"He was in Omaha, he wanted to stay there, wanted to go the college route. He wasn't playing enough like he wanted to. I went to Omaha to watch him play and he was on the bench. Wasn't fun for me; wasn't fun for him, either."
-- Flyers development coach Ian Laperriere on prospect Anthony Stolarz
"The first two series I played well," Stolarz said. "We won pretty easily. … Playing against Plymouth, they're an offensive powerhouse and they really took it to me, bumping me around the crease, getting shots. It took its toll on me. Going into the Barrie series I just wasn't sharp. Coach Hunter put [Paterson] in there in the end. Down 3-1 you have to change something and the easiest thing to do is the goalie, and I think it was the right decision. In the end it worked; we won the OHL title."
Between college, the OHL and the Memorial Cup, Stolarz played 49 games last season against the best competition he had faced, and came through in good shape. The Flyers certainly were happy with the way he played through all the ups and downs.
"When he went there [London], he was starting every game, played in the playoffs," Laperriere said. "He had ups and downs and I'm very happy with what we saw and I'm very happy with his development. He went both ways, he went to the top and to the bottom, and it's going to make him a better goalie next year and in the future."
After starting August at USA Hockey's National Junior Evaluation Camp, where he'll audition for a spot on the 2014 IIHF World Junior Championship team, Stolarz will return to London this season and compete for playing time with Paterson. After being part of a three-goalie rotation at the start of last season, fighting for playing time with one other goalie isn't such a bad thing.
"I think it's going to be a competition," Stolarz said. "It's always great to have competition. It really helps you push yourself. Off the ice [Paterson] is a great guy, but the minute we step on the ice it's a battle between us two. I'm looking forward to it next year, and I'm looking forward to a tremendous season with a great group of guys."