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Meltzer's Line Play: The Goalie Rotation

Final part of the Line Play series take a look how each goalie should be deployed

by Bill Meltzer @BillMeltzer / philadelphiaflyers.com

Murphy's Law applied to the Flyers' goaltending last season in a major way: Whatever could go wrong, did. 

This was primarily true in the first half of the season, but also at times in the second half. Between an unrelenting wave of injuries to the projected primary (and even secondary) options and subpar performances by would-be stopgaps, the Flyers crease was a revolving door of masked men. The team set a dubious NHL record by using eight different starters over the course of the season. 

Thankfully, there was a silver lining to the dark cloud. Once he got settled in as a pro, which took a little over a month at the AHL level to start to click, rookie Carter Hart was one of last season's brightest spots for the team in the big picture. 

Called up to the NHL ahead of schedule, Hart showed considerable promise in most of his 31 appearances following his mid-December recall. In a league where the median save percentage in recent years has been around .915, Hart posted a .917 save percentage -- especially notable not because of his tender age but also because none of the other seven goalies the Flyers used last season was able to reach the .910 mark and five had save percentages below 90 percent. 

It was not as if Hart had no adversity his rookie year. He had a rough first month or so in the AHL as he got acclimated both on and off the ice. He was pulled three times in games he started for Philly, including in the first period of back-to-back starts in February. He also dealt with an injury that rendered him unavailable for even backup duty in the Stadium Series. 

Each and every time, Hart showed that he is mentally tough and mature. He put the adversity behind him and went right back to playing at a high level. As much as his overall strong stats from his rookie year and his technical prowess in playing the angles, it is Hart's exceptional maturity that bodes well for his future. 

Now 21, it is not a question this September of whether Hart will make the Flyers' NHL roster. Rather, it's a matter of not expecting too much too soon from the still-inexperienced player and overburdening his workload. 

There was another bright spot in net during the latter portion of last season. Brian Elliott got healthy for the first time in over a calendar year and finally seemed to overcome an interrelated series of core muscle issues (and two surgical procedures) that severely limited both his availability and his effectiveness during the brief stretches when he was able to play.  

Starting with the Stadium Series Game and the stretch of roughly two weeks thereafter when Hart was unavailable due to injury rehab, Elliott re-assumed the team's starting chores for awhile. Although Hart eventually returned to the ice and to form, Elliott gave a strong accounting of himself the rest of the way. He finished with a .907 save percentage and a goals against average below 3 despite being hung out to dry repeatedly in a disastrous road finale in St. Louis.

In conjunction with the emergence of Hart and the healthy return of Elliott, veteran acquisition Cam Talbot was limited to just three starts and one relief appearance following his acquisition from Edmonton. During the offseason, general manager Chuck Fletcher decided to re-sign unrestricted free agent Elliott to play in tandem with Hart in 2019-20. Talbot, also a UFA, signed with Calgary. 

How will the workload be divided between Hart and Elliott, assuming that both stay healthy? New Flyers head coach Alain Vigneault does not want to put target numbers on it ahead of camp. He will only say that he plans for both guys to get substantial work.

"I think the days were you see one goalie play 65 games -- or 70 to 75 with a guy like Martin Brodeur -- are done. You need two guys who play for you with some frequency during the regular season. More and more, I think teams are using a model like the one Boston had [last] season," Vigneault said in July.

"With all the back-to-back, three-in-four, four-in-six games on the schedule these days, I think you have to do it that way or you will wear your goalie down. I anticipate that we'll get a lot of work for both Carter and Brian Elliott and then, in the playoffs, the model may change."

The guesstimate here is that, if both goaltenders stay healthy and play reasonably close to their capabilities, is that Hart gets 52 starts and Elliott gets 30. 

There could be more of an alternating pattern early or during especially busy stretches of the schedule, but that will also be dictated by how the two goalies have performed in the games leading up to those stretches and on whether the team can avoid the sort of streakiness that has put them into half-season long "sprint" modes because they already used up their margin for error in the first half.

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