As a goaltender who has been a part of tandem-starter arrangements for much of his career, veteran NHL goaltender Brian Elliott had no qualms about the idea of sharing playing time with Michal Neuvirth when the Flyers came calling to Elliott as a restricted free agent this summer. Elliott signed a two-year contract on July 1.
Elliott pointed to the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins' handling of Marc-Andre Fleury (now with the Vegas Golden Knights) and Matt Murray this year as an example of how the arrangement could be successful.
"I think you saw it in the playoffs with Pittsburgh. They had to have two goalies who can play and win games for them. Every goalie in the NHL is so good that on any given night they can be the best goalie in the league," Elliott said.
"This is a 'Show-me' league. If you're not winning, someone's going to take your job. The margin is pretty narrow, because there's so many good goalies available. Whoever's going well at a given time will usually be the one who plays the next game. But it can go back-and-forth over the year. I've experienced that in my career. For myself, I just try to keep working hard and eventually things turn in your favor and you end up playing the bulk of the games. I want to be a guy for the Flyers who can be counted on game in and game out back there."
Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol has shown that, even in a context of a platoon arrangement, he will often run with one goalie or the other for prolonged stretches. At times last season, it entailed not only having one goalie start both ends of back-to-back games but also every game of three-in-four and four-in-six stretches. At other times, it was more of an alternating-game basis. It depended on the team's recent play, the goalies' recent play and their health.
The playing time split between Elliott and Neuvirth in 2017-18 is something that will be determined over the course of the regular season. During training camp and the exhibition game slate, Elliott's primary focus is on getting to know his new teammates on and off the ice, establishing a work routine with goaltending coach Kim Dillabaugh and getting his own timing down before opening night.
On any successful team, a goalie must be in synch with the players in front of him. There is a strong possibility that the Flyers' lineup this season will feature a lot of youth, especially in the defense corps. Elliott brings to Philadelphia the reputation of being a good communicator.
"That's something I talked about for the past few years with Marty Turco and some others. He was one of the best at handling the puck and communicating with his D-men. You have to recognize each other's voice. You have to have patterns when you are setting up to break out of the zone. You have to have predictability back there with one another," Elliott said.
"Last year in Calgary, I learned a lot. For awhile there, we were a bit sloppy, but we worked on it and eventually we cleaned most of that up. You have to have a plan back there in terms of the words you use. It needs to simple and quick but distinctive to where there's instant recognition. For the young D going out there, there has to be game plan, rather than just winging it. I'm looking forward to start hitting the ground running a bit like that, getting to know those guys, try to talk things out during camp. Talk out where they like to be and where I like them to be, the little things that it takes time to build. Going through that last year in Calgary, it really gave me the experience to not be afraid of it and embrace that change, and hopefully we can have some good communication going that way."
Now 32, Elliott posted stellar regular season statistics as a platoon player while playing behind very good defensive teams in St. Louis under head coach Ken Hitchcock. Most notably, he and Jaroslav Halak shared the Jennings Trophy in 2011-12. That year, while appearing in 38 regular season games, Elliott posted a 1.56 GAA, .940 save percentage, nine shutouts and 23-10-4 record.
Overall, for the St. Louis portion of his career, Elliott posted a regular season 104-46-16 record, 2.01 GAA, .925 save percentage and 25 shutouts. Elliott's reached a Conference Final in 2016 (9-9 record, 2.44 GAA, .921 SV%, one shutout).
This past season in Calgary, Elliott posted a .910 save percentage and 2.55 GAA in 49 games of split-time duty shared with Chad Johnson. Elliott had his best year in terms of helping his team gain bonus points from shootouts. He stopped 10 of 12 attempts; good for the fourth best save percentage among goalies leaguewide who faced at least 10 shootout attempts in 2016-17. Moving backward in time, he went 13-for-20 for the Blues in 2015-16, 19-for-26 in 2014-15, 14-for-20 in 2013-14 and 111-for-165 (.673 SV%) for his career to date.
A native of Newmarket, Ontario (the same hometown as former Flyers goalie Rob Zepp), Elliott starred at the University of Wisconsin before joining the Ottawa Senators, who selected him in the ninth round of the 2003 NHL Draft. For his NHL career, Elliott's overall .913 save percentage breaks down as a .921 save percentage at even strength, .879 on the penalty kill and .926 on opposing shorthanded bids.
The left-catching Elliott is considered an average puckhandling goalie by today's NHL standards. He prefers to simply stop the puck behind the net on dump-ins and leaving the puck for a defenseman rather than aggressively trying to pass the puck.
As with Johan Hedberg and Flyers Alumni defenseman Andre Dupont, Elliott is nicknamed "Moose." The back story is that a close family friend of the Elliott clan, a champion moose caller, passed away during Brian's freshman year at Wisconsin. To honor his memory, Elliott put an image of a moose on the back of his mask, and kept it there ever since. That tradition has continued on the back his new Flyers mask.
A family man at heart, Elliott found that the adjustment last season in switching teams from St. Louis to Calgary was challenging off the ice as well as in game situation. It was a learning experience for him.
"Right before the season started, I had my first child. It was a hard time to deal with everything, being away from family, you feel like you need to get home right after practice and try to help out as much as possible. You didn't feel some of those connections that you usually have when you didn't have a kid to come home to - you could go out to lunch, you could talk to the guys. It took a while before my wife and I were both comfortable with you know, 'OK, now do what you need to do and we'll be fine,'" Elliott said.
As a veteran, Elliott is keenly aware that ups and downs are part of every goaltender's life. He prides himself on being a low-maintenance player who keeps things on an even-keel, believing that having such a mindset is crucial to longevity at the position. Elliott said that knows how passionate Flyers fans are, and that goaltenders tend to be the focal point.
"As a goalie, you have to have tunnel vision and a short memory. Everybody's been the best goalie in the NHL one night and everybody's been the worst. It's how you respond from those situations. The details are so small, it's how you respond from your bad nights and how you react and come back. That's what you really learn from," Elliott said.
"It takes time and I think that's why for a goalie, it takes a little bit longer to get into your prime years because you have to go through those tough situations and battle through them to become mentally tough. The NHL, there's so much pressure on every night that you have to perform. If you can't handle it, that's when guys kind of slip away, slip through the cracks and you don't see them very much anymore."
If both ends of the Flyers new tandem hold up and perform to their career-norm capabilities, the Flyers should be fine in goal. Two seasons ago, the tandem of Steve Mason (now with the Winnipeg Jets) and Neuvirth combined to make goaltending one of the Flyers' primary strengths for most of the 2015-16 season.
The keys to success for the Flyers this season will the rapid maturation of the blueline corps, improved teamwide 5-on-5 play and penalty killing as well as more consistent goal support. The goalies will have to do their part as well. Both Elliott and Neuvirth are capable of giving the team a chance to win if the other elements are in place.