A storybook 2016-17 season for Flyers goaltending prospect Felix Sandstrom lacked a happy ending. Nevertheless, as he turns the page to prepare for next season and beyond, the 20-year-old Swedish netminder is looking at a bright future.
Drafted by the Flyers in the third round of the 2015 NHL Draft (70th overall), Sandström has progressed rapidly in his development. The 6-foot-2, 194-pound Brynäs IF Gävle goaltender has already logged 49 regular season games and 13 playoff matches at the Swedish Hockey League (SHL) level; a lot for a goalie his age. He has also shined on the international stage.
The Flyers' organization is pleased with Sandstrom's development to date. Along with 2016 second-round pick Carter Hart, Lehigh Valley Phantoms netminders Anthony Stolarz and Alex Lyon and 2017 third-round pick Kirill Ustimenko, the Flyers have one of the deepest pools of highly regarded goaltending prospects in the NHL.
Sandstrom's long-term plan is push for an NHL job with the Flyers. In the immediate future, however, he plans to spend one additional season with Brynäs.
"I'm in a good position at home in Sweden. I get to play a lot. I really like my goalie coach, too. I think I'm in a good position at home. There's no reason to rush. I think I needed and want one more year to develop more and be even more ready to come over here," Sandstrom said during the Flyers Development camp.
The Flyers are on board with this plan.
"We are very comfortable with the way Felix is coming along and he is playing in a good league over there. Every player has his own path," Flyers general manager Ron Hextall said.
As much as his considerable athleticism, it is Sandstrom's ability to take things in stride that makes him an unusually mature goalie for a 20-year-old. He's had a few bumps in the road - and knows there will be more to come - but tackles adversity head on without getting intimidated.
Sandstrom made three appearances for Team Sweden at the 2015-16 World Junior Championships. He primarily saw backup duty. After an achingly narrow semifinal loss to archrival Finland, a listless Swedish side got punished in the bronze medal game against speedy Team USA, especially on the defensive side of the puck.
Rather than shrinking back at the adversity, Sandstrom bounced back strong as Sweden's starter in the 2016-17 tournament. He captured tournament Best Goaltender honors from the International Ice Hockey Federation directorate, posting a 2.17 goals against average and .915 save percentage in six appearances during the tourney.
In SHL action with Brynäs, Sandstrom shared goaltending duties with veteran David Rautio. Sandstrom played 28 games, with a 2.25 goals against average and a pair of shutouts. In the playoffs, BIF head coach Thomas Berglund repeatedly switched between his goaltenders as the team fell just one win short of capturing the Swedish championship.
The biggest playoff highlights for Sandstrom came in Games 6 and 7 of the semifinals against Frölunda Gothenburg and Game 5 of the finals against HV71 Jönköping. Sandstrom backstopped his team to a comeback victory in the semis as he notched a 32-save shutout on home ice in the sixth game to force a Game 7 in Gothenburg and then turned back 37 of 38 salvoes to propel BIF into the finals. In the final series, Sandstrom replaced Rautio as the starter in Game 5, and responded with a 24-save shutout. Pre-series underdog Brynäs took a three games to two lead in the series with a chance to win the championship on home ice. The game that was scoreless until the final minute of the second period and was a one-goal margin until a BIF empty netter iced the win in the final five seconds.
Disappointment followed. Sandstrom got the start in net in Game Six but lasted just 9:10 and five HV71 shots into the first period. At 5:35 of the first period, a flukey power play goal on a Kristofer Berglund gave Jönköping a 1-0 lead. Not realizing the puck was arriving in his pads, Sandström popped up to a standing position. The puck then squeezed through the pads and trickled into the net.
At the 9:10 mark, Simon Onerud scored on a backhander from the right slot. Berglund made a goalie switch at that point, pulling Sandstrom and sending in Rautio for the duration of the series. A BIF comeback bid fell short in Game Six and the team went on to lost an overtime heartbreaker in Game 7.
"Of course it was disappointing, for all of us," Sandstrom said. "You feel like you had more to give, and we were so close to winning. But that is hockey, and it is motivation to improve and, hopefully, next season we will win the championship."