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Meltzer: The key to back up goaltending

With Hart expected for a larger role, Flyers contributor examines possible back ups

by Bill Meltzer @billmeltzer

Amid a disappointing roller coaster of a 2018-19 season for the Flyers, the rapid development of Carter Hart during and after a two-month apprenticeship in the American Hockey League was one of the most promising developments. 

Barring an injury before the season, Hart scarcely has to worry about whether he can stake down an opening-night NHL roster spot when the Flyers depart for the 2019 Global Series in the Czech Republic. That's rare territory for a netminder who won't even turn 21 until August 13.

As of now, the plan is for Hart to be at least a tandem starter in the NHL to start next season. It remains to be seen whether he quickly becomes a full-fledged No. 1 goaltender, starting 50 or more of the season's 82 games. That will depend both on performance and health.

In no way, shape or form do the Flyers want -- or intend -- to come anywhere close again to using eight different goaltender next season as they did in setting a dubious NHL record this past season. The objective is to have an NHL tandem plus a capable third option at the American Hockey League level.

It is fairly easy to predict the third-option plan for next season. Lehigh Valley Phantoms figure to once again feature Alex Lyon, who has one year remaining on his contract, as he enters his fourth pro season after being signed as a free agent out of Yale University. Lyon has gained some NHL experience over the past two seasons, and is a viable option for recall to the Flyers if needed for a few weeks. He will be joined next season by incoming rookie goaltender Felix Sandström. The Swedish goalie will likely need some time to adjust to the shooting angles and crash-the-net style of play on the North American rink.

The bigger question: In conjunction with Hart, who will be the second goaltender on Philly's opening-night roster? The Flyers have three pending unrestricted free agent goaltenders on the NHL roster. 

Brian Elliott, who recently turned 34, has had significant injury issues in each of his two seasons with Philly. When healthy, he has generally played well. Would the former Jennings Trophy winner want to be brought as a veteran mentor for Hart?

"I talked about that with Chuck [Fletcher], too. The mentor thing gets kind of caught up. Its a tough word choice. I think he needs someone that is going to help him along the way and push him to be better," Elliott said at his Exit Day press conference on April 7.

"Hartsy is a great young goalie and is going to be good in this league for a long time. The Philly fans have a lot to look forward to. He was really good, especially as a young guy coming in. I don't know where management heads are right now. I think it's going to take a little time to digest on both sides. I think I fit well in this group and have made a lot of friends over the last two years."

Two seasons ago, Cam Talbot placed fourth in the Vezina Trophy balloting as the veteran emerged as a workhorse (73 games played, 2.39 GAA, .919 save percentage) for the Edmonton Oilers in the regular season. The 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons did not go as hoped, however. Talbot made only four appearances (three starts) after waiving his partial no-trade clause to come over the Flyers in a mid-February trade for Anthony Stolarz.

Despite his scarce playing time after the trade, Talbot has made clear that he would like to stay in Philly and felt he at least had a chance to get acclimated to the area and the Flyers' facilities while getting to know his teammates and the staff. Even before he was traded to the Flyers, Talbot worked out with Hart and struck up a friendship last offseason.

"From what I saw with this group and from the organization, there's a lot of positives I can take away from this time. ... I think from a goaltending standpoint, if you have two guys pushing each other day in and day out, it's only going to make each other and only going to make the team better. Anytime you have that internal competition, I feel like everybody kind of wins in that situation. You push each other to be better. You're fighting for those starts. I think that's always a good thing," Talbot said on April 7.

One week later, the Flyers hired Alain Vigneault as head coach. He and Talbot have worked together in the past during their respective stints with the New York Rangers. During the 2013-14 and 2013-15 seasons, Talbot served as the backup goaltender to Henrik Lundqvist. Talbot appeared in 21 and 36 regular season games during those seasons.

The most likely scenario for the Flyers this off-season is that they will pursue re-signing either Talbot or Elliott to partner with Hart. If that does not work out, they will scour the UFA goaltending and trade markets for a moderately priced but experienced option. 

The final in-house option is Michal Neuvirth. Now 31 years of age, the impending UFA's extensive injury history has put his NHL career in jeopardy. He's shown himself capable over the years of playing at a high level when healthy and on his game, but health and consistency have been elusive the last few seasons. 

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