Goaltending is hockey's only truly individual position, but the team in front of the goalie has a responsibility to give him a reasonable opportunity to make saves. Team defense and goaltending are intertwined: if both are strong, the team will have a chance to win every night even when goals are hard to come by at the other end. On the flip side, it is hard for any team to consistently outscore its own defensive breakdowns and questionable goals against.
Looking at the current Flyers team, it is not hard to envision Carter Hart someday evolving into a superstar caliber workhorse starter. For now and the short-term future, however, the 21-year-old is best used as part of a tandem of quality netminders. The sheer number of back-to-back, three-in-four and four-in-six stretches of games on Philadelphia's schedule demand that the workload be shared between two goaltenders.
The Flyers took a leap of faith this past summer by re-signing Brian Elliott to a one-year contract extension. The 34-year-old veteran was coming off back-to-back seasons where he dealt with core muscle issues that kept him out of the lineup for extensive periods of time. Elliott finally got healthy in the latter portion of last season, and general manager Chuck Fletcher banked on the goalie being able to hold up to work as the "1B" in partnership with "1A" youngster Hart.
Elliott is a true professional: highly competitive with a great work ethic. He's had seasons in his career where he's had great stats -- he's a former Jennings Trophy winner -- and ones where he's had ordinary-looking stats. He's been a workhorse at times, a split-time starter at others. Any which way, Elliott puts the team first. He cares a lot more about a "W" at the end of the night than what his stats looked like.
At the same time, every player wants to play. That includes goalies, and only one guy is going to start. Elliott and Hart support one another by challenging and competing with each other in a positive way. Each one uses the other's success as motivation to himself keep playing well.
It's not always that way with every team. I've seen situations on teams where the competition is of the not-so-supportive type; neither guy openly roots for the other guy to fail -- because then the team itself will also fail -- but also not seeming nearly as engaged in what happens on the nights where "the other guy" is going. It's unspoken but you can see in body language and demeanor.
Elliott does not want to be a mentor to Hart -- a redundancy to the role that goaltending coach Kim Dillabaugh plays, except actually getting into games on nights the schedule dictates a night off for the starter. Rather, Elliott supports Hart by focusing on being a viable starting option himself and cooperatively raising the bar to make the goaltending position a strength for the team.
Besides, Hart is an exceptionally mentally strong kid and mature beyond his years. He doesn't need a pat on the back from Elliott -- or Dillabaugh -- after the occasional bad goal or rough night that every goalie in the world sometimes has to deal with.
Thursday night's 3-1 loss to Arizona aside, as we sit here in the early part of December, it is accurate to say that the consistency of the Flyers' goaltending this season -- regardless of whether it's Hart or Elliott in net -- has been the backbone of the team's success so far this season. Now, I don't wanna say that you can ride a two-goalie tandem to a deep playoff run come springtime because that is very hard to do, and rarely works.
The head coach has to make one goalie the playoff starter and go with him game after game. Mid-playoff switches unrelated to injury a sign of trouble; sometimes even desperation. I believe that Alain Vigneault will go with just one guy when the time comes.
However, during the regular season -- especially in the first half -- having two goaltenders that start with some frequency and both enjoying success is vital. Rack up as many points as possible to make life easier come the stretch drive, when every game becomes a dogfight and teams that are forced to play catch-up in the standings can burn themselves out by early April even if they do make the playoffs.
Looking back at my own Flyers career, we had a dizzying array of goaltending arrangements over the years. My rookie year, 1994-95, was the year when Ron Hextall returned for his second stint with the team. He was our undisputed number one goalie, with Dominic Roussel as the backup. Roo had previously been in a tandem arrangement with Tommy Soderstrom, with both guys showing potential but lacking nearly enough consistency to become the guy who got the bulk of the playing time.
I liked playing in front of Hexy my first two years. We felt like we'd have a chance to win most nights. In year two, Hexy remained our number one starter and there was competition between Roo and Garth Snow to be the backup. Roo was our No. 2 at first but then Snowy, who had some stylistic and personality similarities to Hextall, supplanted him. When the chips were down, though, we all knew Hexy would be the guy.
Year three was a little different. Ron and Garth ended up in more of a tandem arrangement. Although each was capable of winning a game at any time, neither was able to get into a sustained groove. Hexy might have had the second-best year of his career in 1995-96 but his 1996-97 season wasn't nearly as consistent. In the spring, Terry Murray realized that neither goalie was playing to the level of a true No. 1 goalie on a Cup contending team.
As a result, Murphy switched back and forth between Hextall and Snow throughout the playoffs. He'd go with one until the guy faltered and then go with the other until his play dropped below a certain level. We still managed to make it to the Stanley Cup Final -- beating Pittsburgh, Buffalo and the New York Rangers -- because our roster was pretty stacked otherwise and there were certain games where we also got excellent goaltending. Along the way, there were some games where Ron or Garth was our best player. Unfortunately, neither guy could sustain that level.
By the time we got to the Stanley Cup Final against Detroit, however, both Ron and Garth had gone cold. Goalie performance was certainly not the only reason we lost the series -- the Red Wings had an outstanding team and, objectively speaking, outplayed us in three of the four games -- but it probably figured into why we got swept. Mike Vernon had a very solid series for Detroit and we had issues in net.
If it could be done all over again, with all due respect to Garth, I think Hextall was the one who had a better chance at playing through the rougher patches and getting back on top of his game. But Murph did what he felt he had to do for our team. He kept hoping one guy would pick up the slack after the other faltered. It worked well for three rounds, but not the fourth.
In year four of my career, Bob Clarke traded Snowy and brought in Sean Burke (for the first of two short stints with the Flyers) to be our 1A with Hexy dropping a notch to 1B. Burkie had played at a very high level at junctures of his career but, for whatever reason, his Philly stints weren't his best. He was good when we needed great, and average when we needed good. Sometimes it just works out that way. That was kind of how much of that whole 1997-98 season went for our entire team; good at times, not good enough overall.
That's when Clarke decided to get two-time Vezina Trophy finalist (one-time winner) John Vanbiesbrouck during the 1998 offseason. Beezer was a bonafide number 1 starter with New York and in Florida where he had a ton of success for a team that Clarkie had built as its inaugural GM. John was also familiar with Roger Neilson, who was in Florida as well, and the two had a great relationship.
Beezer came in and was great at first with his technically sound style. He shut out his old team, the Rangers, in his Flyers debut and allowed a grand total of three goals in his first games with us. I remember thinking at the time, "Here we go! This is going to be great!"
Well, it didn't quite work out that way. From a statistical point of view, Beezer was good (2.18 goals against average, six shutouts) and definitely a workhorse (playing 62 of our 82 regular season games and every playoff games) but not great (an ordinary .902 save percentage). From a real-life hockey standpoint, it was the same: good but not great.
Hindsight is always 20/20, right? In the summer of 1998, Curtis Joseph and Mike Richter were also on the unrestricted free agent market. CuJo went to Toronto, and the Leafs beat us in the first round of the playoffs in six games.
That series was a case where Beezer's stats were outstanding (1.46 GAA, .938 save percentage, Game 1 shutout that included a vital penalty shot save on Hall of Fame center Mats Sundin) but the timeliness and potential stoppability of a couple of crucial goals against were the lasting image of the series against CuJo's brilliance in all four Leafs wins. CuJo presented Beezer and us with no margin for error. Beezer came close to matching it, but fell a tad short.
I felt bad about it, and still do. Our losses in that series were by scores of 2-1, 2-1, 2-1 in OT and 1-0 in the final game. The fact that we couldn't solve CuJo in four of the six games wasn't Beezer's fault. This, however, was a case where one goalie stole a series for his team.
Fast forward one year to 1999-2000. Hexy, who had become Beezer's little-used backup the previous year and was dealing with major physical problems, retired. Rookie goalie Brian Boucher came in. At first, he was Beezer's backup. But in the second half onward, Boosh took over as our starter. He had an outstanding season, playoffs included. Unfortunately, we fell one win short of the Stanley Cup Final on the best and closest-knit team I ever played for in my NHL career.
Boosh would tell you the same thing: His outstanding rookie year was both a blessing and a curse in his career. He had a good career thereafter, but the bar had been set so high by what he'd done as a rookie that he never could quite duplicate or exceed it. Boucher struggled in particular in his second season, and Roman Cechmanek became our starter.
To be honest, I've never quite know what to make of Roman. For one thing, to call his style unorthodox is an understatement. Every goalie occasionally takes a puck off the noggin but Chemo was the only goalie I've ever seen who repeatedly and intentionally used his mask as part of his save repertoire, deliberately head-butting airborne pucks out of the way. He'd make other saves where he'd get spun around and be facing the end boards. Other times, like countryman Dominic Hasek, he'd intentionally cast his stick aside and play without one.
When Cechmanek was on -- and he usually was for us in the regular season and once in awhile even in the playoffs -- he was unbelievable. To this day, he's still the most recent Flyers goalie to finish as a Vezina Trophy finalist and two-time winner of the Bobby Clarke Trophy as team MVP. Style points mean nothing. Stopping the puck means everything.
But when Chemo was off -- which would happen periodically in the regular season and at the worst possible times in the playoffs, especially elimination games -- it was like he was roller skating on ice, trying to guard a soccer-sized net. He'd drift way out position. He'd give up leaky goals. When things went downhill, there were even times where it seemed like he simply stopped competing for saves and was just waiting for his backup to enter the game.
That said, I will point a few things out in fairness to Roman. In back-to-back years, we lost to Ottawa in the playoffs; once in five games in the first round and then in six games in the second round the next. All three of our wins came in games where we shut out the Senators; including one that was a 1-0 win in OT. Cechmanek also outplayed Ed Belfour in our seven-game series against Toronto the second year.
So it wasn't all bad, all the time. Unfortunately, and in total candor here, Cechmanek's level of inconsistency and unpredictability made it hard for us as his teammates to have confidence that his successes would last or that he'd bounce back after a tough night.
This is the best way I can describe those three seasons with Roman as our starter. It was like our starting goalie was a world-famous tightrope walker. His act was to do the walk 100 feet in the air, not only doing it without a safety net, but in 40 mile-per-hour crosswinds.
When he didn't fall off the tightrope, it was quite a sight to see. When he inevitable stumbled, though, the results were ugly and messy.
I did not finish the 2003-04 season with the Flyers -- I was traded to Dallas -- but Robert Esche (who had split the Jennings Trophy with Cechmanek the previous year) emerged as a solid starter. Clarkie brought back Burke for a second stint late in the season, but Chico played the best hockey of his career and Burkie wasn't needed in the playoffs. The Flyers came within a 2-1 loss in Game 7 against Tampa from reaching the Cup Final.
I returned to the Flyers in a seventh defenseman role in 2005-06. Chico, who was a pretty intense competitor, was not as healthy or as consistently effective as he'd been in 2003-04 but had some solid moments in the regular season and early in the playoffs against Buffalo.
Let's finish up this week back where we started: Talking about the current Flyers and the goaltending play the team is getting.
What's happening right now in South Philadelphia is something special and we are seeing the importance of what quality goaltending can do for a team. It's been a pleasure to watch and nobody wants to see this thrilling ride stopped anytime soon.