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DEPTH CHART: The Goaltending

Which tandems will be where, which will continue to develop in the junior ranks

by Bill Meltzer @billmeltzer

Entering the 2018-19 season, Carter Hart was the brightest goaltending prospect in the Flyers farm system and perhaps in the entire National Hockey League. 

If anything, his performance this season in his first professional season has only strengthened the 20-year-old's grip on the title of the Flyers' No. 1 goalie of the future. Hart will play his second NHL season -- and first full campaign -- with the Flyers next season. 

However, there is no such thing as having too much goaltending prospect depth in the system. Twenty-six-year-old Alex Lyon, who has one season remaining on his current contract, will enter his fourth season with the AHL's Lehigh Valley Phantoms next season. Come next season, he is likely to open as the No. 3 goaltender on the Flyers' NHL depth chart and as the Phantoms incumbent primary starter. Lyon also has 13 NHL appearances (11 in 2017-18 and two this past season) with the Flyers on his resume.

There will also be two rookie arrivals slated to play their respective first season of North American pro hockey: 22-year-old Swedish netminder Felix Sandström and 20-year-old Russian/Belarusian goaltender Kirill Ustimenko.

There has never been a doubt about Sandström's upside and athleticism. Staying healthy and finding sufficient playing time have been his main issues.

Sandström debuted in Sweden's top pro league, the SHL, when he was 18. Two years and two World Junior Championship tournaments later, the Flyers' 2015 third-round (70th overall) draft pick won Best Goaltender honors at the 2016-17 WJC en route to backstopping Team Sweden to a silver medal. At the SHL level that same season for Brynäs IF Gävle, he was part of a goaltending tandem that got the team within a Game 7 overtime loss in the finals from winning the Swedish championship.

Sandström missed the majority of the 2017-18 season with a hiatal hernia, and eventually transferred from Brynäs to HV71. The Flyers, with former general manager Ron Hextall still at the helm at the time, signed Sandström to a three-year entry level contract on March 27, 2018.

Year one of the contract has been spent in the SHL, on loan from the Flyers to HV71. The purpose of the loan, from a Flyers standpoint, was to ensure there were would be sufficient playing time in the American Hockey League for Hart while simultaneously giving Sandström more development time in Sweden.

Unfortunately, Sandström has wound up playing a backup goaltender role for HV71, underneath 26-year-old veteran Jonas Gunnarsson (34 games played). Sandström appeared in just 19 games of 52, posting a .910 save percentage and 2.16 GAA. 

The good news: Sandström has performed fairly well this season when he's been given an opportunity to play. The goalie, who turned 22 on Jan. 12, has posted a 2.18 goals against average and .908 save percentage. His save percentage was somewhat skewed downward over a relatively small sample size by two rough outings in late September and early October.

At the tail end of the 2018-19 season, Sandström made his AHL debut for the Phantoms. He earned his first win in a 40-save performance when the visiting Phantoms defeated the Providence Bruins, 4-3, on April 12.

Ustimenko, who has yet to play professional hockey, is more likely to begin his North American pro career with the ECHL's Reading Royals than in the AHL with the Phantoms. This would be for two reasons: 1) He needs experience playing against adult pros, having spent virtually his entire career to date at the Russian domestic junior level, and 2) It would mean more playing opportunity with the more experienced Lyon and Sandström the likeliest candidates at present to play in the AHL for the Phantoms. However, injuries and/or stellar play could open an opportunity for Ustimenko to play in the AHL ahead of schedule. 

Drafted by the Flyers in the third round (80th overall) of the 2017 NHL Draft, the Belarusian-born, Team Russia-eligible netminder turned 20 on back Jan. 29. His development was handled very cautiously by his now-former parent team, Dynamo St. Petersburg of the VHL (Russia's top minor league below the KHL). 

Over the last three seasons, Ustimenko has been a workhorse in the MHL (the Russian junior league) and excelled. In 2018-19, he set a new single-season league record with 12 shutouts. Overall, he posted a 1.78 GAA and .927 save percentage this season, as compared to a 1.81 GAA and .929 save percentage in 53 games during the 2017-18 campaign.

Despite his dominance at the MHL level, Ustimenko played only in one career game for his junior team's parent club in the VHL. Correspondingly, he was also bypassed for inclusion on Team Russia's roster at the 2018-19 World Junior Championships. Although he was considered for a spot and appeared in three games this past fall for the Russian Under-20 national team, the decision makers opted for players who had played more games against high-grade competition. 

The Flyers will also have two prospect playing in Europe next season: Samuel Ersson and 22-year-old Ivan Fedotov.  

With the exception of Hart, no goaltender in the Flyers' system took a bigger jump this past season than Ersson did with Västerås IK at the Allsvenskan (top minor league) level in Sweden and as the starter for Team Sweden at the World Junior Championships.

Ersson's stock has risen with a bullet since the Flyers selected him in the 5th round (143rd overall) of the 2018 NHL Draft. Transferring from SHL parent team Brynäs to the Allsvenskan (top Swedish minor league) level with Västerås has meant an opportunity to play against professionals rather than juniors. 

He took the chance and ran with it. Ersson swept his league's primary individual awards, winning MVP, Goaltender of the Year, and Rookie of the Year honors.In 35 games, he posted a 1.94 goals against average and a stellar .933 save percentage. 

At the 2018-19 World Junior Championships, Ersson took the starting job for Team Sweden and ran with it, playing an excellent tournament despite the Swedes suffering an upset loss the medal round quarterfinals after an undefeated preliminary round. 

Sweden's goaltender development programs, both nationally and at the club-team level, are arguably the best in the world at present. With Ersson not even turning 20 until Oct. 20, 2019, Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher said that the organization is very comfortable with letting him continue his development path in his home country for another season or two before he makes the transition to the small-rink game in North America. Ersson will attend the Flyers' 2019 Development Camp this summer before returning to Sweden for the season.

The 6-foot-7 Fedotov, who will turn 23 on Nov. 28, established himself this past season as a regular starter in the VHL, one league below the KHL. In 26 games for Traktor Neftekamsk, he posted a 1.67 GAA and .929 save percentage. His KHL rights belong to Traktor Chelyabinsk. Fedotov, who still ultimately dreams of an NHL opportunity, has been an attendee at the Flyers Development Camps in July before returning to Russia for the season.

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