The late comedian Mitch Hedberg used to tell a joke about how long it takes to cook a baked potato in a conventional oven. “Sometimes, I'll just throw one in there, even if I don't want it,” he said. “By the time it's done, who knows?”
Developing goaltenders is much the same. In the elapsed time between the drafting of a goaltender and his readiness to challenge for an NHL starting spot, there’s often no telling what the organizations’ needs and opportunities in goal will be by time the finished product emerges.
While there’s the occasional young goalie such as Steve Mason, who broke in the NHL at age 20 with the Columbus Blue Jackets and won the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year, that is not the norm. The typical development cycle for goaltenders to go from prospect to NHL takes the longest of any position.
As such, it is good practice to maintain a solid pipeline of goaltending talent within an organization – even one such as the Philadelphia Flyers, who are presently “set” in goal at the NHL level with Mason and Michal Neuvirth.
There is also strength in numbers when it comes to goalie development. An organization cannot put all its eggs in one basket, not matter how highly regarded a certain prospect may be.
Within the last year, the Philadelphia Flyers have made great strides in bolstering the depth of goaltending prospects in the system. Heading into the 2015 NHL Draft, the Flyers only had two goaltending draftees under the organization’s prospect umbrella: Lehigh Valley Phantoms goaltender Anthony Stolarz (selected in the second round of the 2012 Draft) and Harvard University netminder Merrick Madsen (a 2013 sixth-round pick).
In the 2015 draft, the Flyers selected a pair of well-regarded goalie prospects in the third round, taking Swedish goaltender Felix Sandstrom and Matej Tomek. In the seventh round, Philadelphia took a flier on huge-framed (6-foot-6) Russian junior league goalie Ivan Fedotov.
In April of this year, the Flyers secured an entry-level NHL contract with 23-year-old Yale University goalie Alex Lyon, who was the most sought-after collegiate goalie by a host of National Hockey League teams. When the 2016 NHL Draft rolled around, the Flyers used one of their three second-round picks (the 48th overall pick, to be precise) to make Everett Silvertips (Western Hockey League) workhorse starter Carter Hart the first goaltender to be selected in this year’s draft by any team.
Over the last year, the Flyers have also joined the ranks of the ever-increasing number of NHL teams to employ a full-time goaltending developmental coach with the hiring of Brady Robinson.
Stolarz will enter his third professional season in 2016-17. He no longer a Development Camp participant, after taking part from 2012 to 2015.
The other six goaltenders in the system, however, will all be there working daily with Robinson. Robinson and Flyers goalie coach Kim Dillabaugh, who served as the LA Kings goalie development coach before joining the Flyers, already knew each other well before the two came to Philadelphia.
Robinson and Dillabaugh worked together in the past, primarily in conjunction with the Goaltending Development Institute (GDI). The GDI was founded by Ian Clark, now the goaltending coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets, in 1996. Dillabaugh, who started out as a GDI student, became its British Columbia regional director.
Robinson graduated the University of Lethbridge in 2006 with a BA in kinesiology. He played his junior hockey for the BCHL's Trail Smoke Eaters. Although Trail, BC native Robinson is just 32 years old, he brought a wealth of goalie coaching experience to the table before the Flyers added him.
From 2006 to 2015, Robinson served as the goaltending coach for the Chilliwack Bruins and Victoria Royals; the Chilliwack franchise relocated to Victoria in 2011. He was also selected to serve as the western regional goaltending consultant for Hockey Canada.
In addition to working with Flyers goaltending prospects below the NHL level and staying in frequent contact with Dillabaugh, Robinson also serves as a Flyers amateur-level goaltending scout.
This past season, Stolarz got off to a torrid start for the Phantoms, and was rewarded with a spot in the American Hockey League All-Star Game. Although his play was not as consistent in the second half of the season, the goaltender’s second pro season was a step forward in his development. He also served as the Flyers’ backup goaltender for much of the stretch drive, when Neuvirth was out with injury.
Stolarz gives a large share of credit to Robinson for his progress over the past year.
“Brady has been huge for me,” Stolarz said in late November. “We clicked right from training camp, and I'm seeing results in my game. He's helped me with my patience and with my angles. I think I have more composure back there. I'm not flopping as much as I did last year. I'm just letting the play come to me.”
Both Robinson and Dillabaugh are big proponents of head tracking: a technique for surveying who is on the ice and where they're located. That is something Stolarz worked regularly on with Robinson since training camp and even going back to the Development Camp last July. Stolarz said in late November that it was another area where he started seeing positive results.
“Last year, there were a lot of plays where they'd send it out to the high slot from behind the net, and I'd be kind of guessing where to go, like if it's lefty or righty,” Stolarz said.
“You don't want to be centered to his body, you want to be centered to his stick. That was a main focus in training camp. If you have a chance, just take a look. If you go cross-crease, just take a look back to see where guys are at. I think I'm tracking better and it's helped me for sure.”
The biggest benefit to having Dillabaugh and Robinson working side-by-side in the organization is to have as much uniformity as possible in how the organization wants its goaltenders to play as they rise up the ranks from prospects to potential NHL pros. Receiving conflicting advice – for example, one coach moving a goalie back in the crease and another telling him to be more aggressive in coming out to challenge the shooter – can mess up a young goaltender.
While no two goaltending coaches are identical in all ways, there is a lot of continuity between the beliefs and techniques of Robinson and Dillabaugh. Additionally, both are focused solely on doing what’s best for their charges and for the organization. There’s no clash of wills.
According to Pryor, the selection of Hart in the second round was partially based on a positive assessment of the goaltender by Robinson, who knew the young goaltender from having worked with him before in western Canada. This season, the 6-foot, 177-pound Hart was selected as the CHL’s goaltender of the year. Statistically, he posted a 35-23-4 record with a 2.14 goals against average and a .918 save percentage.
Having three picks in the second round enabled the Flyers to use one of them on the player the organization felt was the best goaltender in the draft.
“We were very comfortable with taking Carter in the second round of the Draft. This wasn’t a real deep draft in terms of goalies but we think Carter would be a good candidate to get selected pretty high in any draft. He has a lot of good tools, and he’s got a good body of work so far. Hexy and Brady both really like his skill set but also the attention he pays to detail. Also he’s got a good work ethic,” Pryor said.
While righthanded netminder Hart will not even turn 18 until August, Lyon will turn 24 in September. The Flyers had plenty of competition for the services of the 23-year-old native of Baudette, Minnesota. The abundance of NHL interest in the six-foot-one, 201-pound Yale goaltender was enough to convince him to forego his senior season at the Ivy League university.
Lyon is a quick and fluid young goaltender, who is pretty polished for someone who has never played professionally. He makes tough saves look routine because he plays his angles well and reads the play. Lyon has OK size for a current-day goalie but is far from one of those gargantuan netminders that have become increasingly common in hockey.
Lyon came onto the scene a little late. He played high school hockey for Lake of the Woods in his native Baudette -- the same town that produced longtime NHL defenseman Keith Ballard. It was not until he graduated high school and moved on two years of USHL play with the Omaha Lancers that Lyon started to get a little wider exposure.
The young goaltender had a tremendous collegiate career in the ECAC. For two straight seasons, he has been a finalist for the Mike Richter Award (the NCAA equivalent of the Vezina Trophy across all conferences). He's won the Ken Dryden Award (top ECAC goalie) in back-to-back years.
Flyers goaltending prospect Madsen (Harvard) enjoyed a very strong sophomore season in 2015-16 but there was no doubt that Lyon was the best goalie in the conference and one of the elite collegiate goalies throughout every NCAA conference. Lyon has also taken ECAC First Team, All-Ivy League First Team and the All-New England First Team honors in back-to-back years. Lyon was a Hobey Baker Award (NCAA most valuable player) finalist this past season.
A year ago, Lyon was even selected to the Team USA roster for the 2015 IIHF World Championships in the Czech Republic. He was the squad's third-string goalie and did not play in a game, but he did dress as a backup for one match. The American team won the bronze medal. Simply being chosen for the roster was a tremendous accomplishment for the undrafted collegiate goalie.
Come next season, Lyon and Stolarz will push one another for playing time with the AHL’s Lehigh Valley Phantoms; an arrangement that could help both prospects elevate their games.
The abundance of awards and international recognition are evidence of the high regard in which Lyon is held, more than his stats alone. However, the statistics from this past season are also excellent: 19-8-4 record, 1.64 GAA, .936 save percentage and five shutouts in 31 games. He finishes his collegiate career with 15 shutouts in 93 games.
Madsen, who appeared in just one game for Harvard his freshman year, became the team’s starter this season. Somewhat like defenseman Philippe Myers, the rate of progress Madsen over the course of one season was extremely impressive.
“Just as with Philippe, if you told Merrick this time last year that he’d do what he did this season, he would probably have given you a bit of a look. No one could have predicted he’d come as far as he did, and that’s to his credit,” Pryor said.
Madsen got off to a start that was beyond belief. In his first seven games, the sophomore posted a 0.98 goals against average, .966 save percentage and four shutouts. Naturally, that sort of pace was unsustainable for any goaltender but Madsen played well overall throughout the season and finished with a 2.00 GAA, .931 SV% and the four early-season shutouts in 29 games played.
While Madsen’s dramatic surge was a very pleasant surprise for both the Crimson and for the Flyers’ organization, Swedish prospect Sandstrom impressed as a teenage goalie playing at the country’s top professional level for Brynäs IF Gävle. Flyers forward prospect Oskar Lindblom is a teammate.
When the club’s veteran starter, Bernhard Starkbaum, went down with an injury early in the season, Sandstrom was pressed in starting service for a couple of weeks. He thrived in the role, and had his best stretch of play during the season. Although he had ups and downs over the remainder of the season, the fact that he is already playing in the SHL and experienced stretches of success portends well for the athletically gifted, smooth-skating 6-foot-2 netminder.
At the World Junior Championships, Sandstrom had one preliminary round relief appearance and later got the start for Sweden against Team USA in the bronze medal match.
After an achingly narrow semifinal loss to archrival Finland, much of the Swedish team was listless against speedy Team USA, especially on the defensive side of the puck. Unfortunately, Sandstrom paid repeatedly for the sins of the team in front of him.
The 18-year-old netminder was strafed for eight goals on 29 shots; many of which were close to unstoppable and several of which saw Sandstrom abandoned with multiple USA players nearby. The results were ugly, and he was left in to absorb the entire beating.
“Well, Felix, holy smokes! You might have been the good Lord to stop most of those goals. It was a tough game. Sweden was a very good team and I was surprised that happened to them,” Ron Hextall said shortly after the tournament.
“I looked at Felix and said, ‘How many goals were even remotely stoppable?’ Again, it's good experience for him. The one [preliminary round] game there he went in with 3 minutes left, I’m still not sure what happened to the other goalie, but he went in with a one-goal lead and made two huge saves for them, so I think the character of Felix showed up there and it'll be valuable for him.... I thought for the most part, he played well.”
Sandstrom climbed right back on the horse after the beating he took at the WJC; same as he did after a World Junior Championship team evaluation camp game in Lake Placid last August that went very much like the team’s WJC debacle months later. Handling adversity is part of the job description for any high-level goaltender and Sandstrom passed that mental resolve test.
“We talk about moxy and character, and Felix showed his mental toughness. Apart from his physical skills, that’s one of the things we like about him,” Pryor said.
As with most goaltending prospects, Sandstrom will need additional seasoning before being ready for the American Hockey League, much less consideration for an NHL job. However, he likely has the inside track to become Sweden’s WJC starter next year, when the tournament returns to Canada.
“That’s a good goal for him; start in the World Juniors and take the next steps playing in Sweden. At this point, he’s right where we expected,” Pryor said.
Tomek went through a frustrating 2015-16 season as a freshman for the Frozen Four champion University of North Dakota. It started with a preseason injury that prevented the highly touted recruit from being available during the first month-plus of the season. In the meantime, sophomore goaltender Cameron Johnson played stellar hockey to nail down the starting job – a pace he maintained all the way to the national championship. Diminutive freshman goaltender Matt Hrynkiw also played well in 14 appearances.
The result: even when he was cleared to return to the ice, there was nowhere for Tomek to play. Johnson kept winning and winning (24-4-2 overall) and showed no signs of slowing down. Tomek ended up not playing in a single game all season.
“It was adversity for Matej, no doubt about it, but all goalies have to go through different types of adversity. There’s also no doubt that he needs to play. But we think he will get to play this year and it will be an opportunity for him to earn more time,” Pryor said.
Fedotov, who will turn 20 in November, has been a good goaltender at the MHL (Russian Junior League) level. He made his Kontinental Hockey League debut for HC Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk during the 2014–15 KHL season. This past season, the 6-foot-6-plus teenager saw some KHL backup duty but did not get into a game.
After the season, he transferred from Neftekhimik to Salavat Yulaev Ufa, whom he will join for the 2016-17 campaign. On the roster for Flyers Development Camp, it will be his first time stepping onto North American ice.
Flyers Development Camp kicks off this Thursday, July 7, at the Virtua Center Flyers Skatezone in Voorhees, NJ. For a full detailed roster and complete schedule click below...