The Philadelphia Flyers have found themselves in a very… unfamiliar position. One that seems so foreign, so bizarre that many fans aren’t even really aware of it. (And if they are, they aren’t talking about it.)
No, I’m not talking about the nine-game winning streak. And I’m not talking about the fact that the Flyers are sitting at fifth in the league, just three points behind the league-leading Habs and two points behind the Metropolitan division leading, and reigning Stanley Cup champion, Penguins. Though all of this is starting to make me feel like we’ve slipped into an alternate dimension of some sort.
The craziest thing that’s happening right now in the City of Brotherly Love is the goaltending situation.
Steve Mason, Anthony Stolarz, and… Michal Neuvirth. Remember him? If you don’t, it’s okay. It’s easy to see why you might have forgotten about him, since Mason and Stolarz have been stealing the show not only in Philadelphia, but across the league.
Neuvirth suffered a lower body injury on November 12 against the Minnesota Wild, and the Flyers were quick to announce he’d be out 4-6 weeks. It’s been just over four weeks since that announcement, and besides skating alongside Sean Couturier on December 7, there’s been no news on his recovery.
— Dave Isaac (@davegisaac) December 7, 2016
It’s unfortunate for Neuvirth, but the Flyers haven’t really missed him since he got hurt. They’ve gone 11-3-1 since November 12, including the current nine-game win streak. Mason has gone 9-3-1 and earned himself the NHL’s first star honors for the week ending on December 4. And Stolarz has played well, too, going 2-0 in his first two NHL starts, including his first career NHL shutout this past Sunday.
So the question remains: What happens when Neuvirth is ready to return?
The short term answer is simple. Stolarz will return to the Phantoms, where the team has gone 7-3 so far in his absence. He will take over the primary goaltending duties from Alex Lyon, who has had an impressive rookie season so far with a 10-5-1 overall record, and will continue his own development. Neuvirth will be placed back into the backup goaltending role behind Mason, and hopefully everything will continue on as it’s been going.
The long term answer? Well… that’s a different story.
At the end of this season, both Mason and Neuvirth will become unrestricted free agents and Stolarz will become a restricted free agent. Realistically, there’s absolutely no way the Flyers will be able to sign all three of them to new contracts. So they’re going to have to pick and choose.
Stolarz has such a bright future ahead of him, and the Flyers have put so much time and effort into his development, it’s hard to see Ron Hextall letting him go. And in the last few seasons Mason has proven himself as Philadelphia’s go-to guy for the time being. So unless they can’t come to an agreement, it’s unlikely Hextall will let him walk, either. Which leaves Michal Neuvirth as the odd man out. It seems as though Neuvirth’s future in Philadelphia is precarious, at best. Chances are, his tenure in Philadelphia is coming to an end.
So is that it? Do the Flyers just wait until the end of the season and then say thanks for your service, good luck with the rest of your career?
It’s possible. But isn’t it more fun to think about other possibilities? Hextall has made it pretty clear that he’s not afraid to make moves at the trade deadline, so it’s not a stretch to think he might look to deal Neuvirth to a team looking for a decent backup goalie going into the end of the season and the playoff push. And as long as he feels confident going into the playoffs with Mason and Stolarz, it’s probably the smarter way to go.
Michal Neuvirth’s salary for this season is $1.6M, which might not be too bad for a team who needs the help. So what are Hextall’s options?
Dallas Stars: Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi are the highest paid goalie tandem in the NHL with a combined $10.4M salary. But neither has been a playoff-caliber goalie. The Stars are currently 11-13-6, and sit at 24th place in the league. That’s not at all where you’d expect a team headlined by Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin to be. But they’ve got $2.8M in cap space, so if they decide they want to bring someone in to help them along, Neuvirth is definitely an option for them.
Los Angeles Kings: With Jonathan Quick currently on the long term IR, the Kings have a huge hole on their team that they haven’t really been able to fill. Peter Budaj has done his best, but he’s hardly comparable to the guy who helped them win two Stanley Cups in three years. Right now the Kings barely hold the second wild card spot in the West, but it’s definitely more of a testament to the rest of their team than their goaltending. In short: the Kings goaltending needs help. But Quick is expected to return in about a month, and by the time Neuvirth returns to playing it’s unlikely the Kings will be looking to add anyone else besides him.
Winnipeg Jets: The Winnipeg Jets are currently sitting at the top of the playoff bubble. They’re just one point behind the Kings, and four points behind San Jose. They have $7.9M in cap space, so they have the ability to bring in a guy like Neuvirth in hopes that he can help them bridge that gap. But the Jets currently have a goaltending log jam of their own in Hellebuyck and Hutchinson, and unless one of them gets injured it’s unlikely they’ll want to bring someone else in.
New Jersey Devils: The Devils are currently suffering from being in a very hot Metropolitan division right now. But as the current holders of the first spot outside of a wild card in the East, they shouldn’t be overlooked when it comes to potential playoff contenders. They boosted their offense this summer with Taylor Hall and have plenty of pieces to build for the future. They’ve currently got Corey Schneider as their starter but their backup, Kinkaid, has been up and down between the AHL and NHL for four seasons and doesn’t seem to have made a permanent spot for himself on their roster. Kinkaid will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the year and with their $9.3M in cap room, the Devils could certainly be the team looking to sign Neuvirth once free agency begins anyway. I think this could be the most likely possibility for a trade.
Toronto Maple Leafs: This is probably a stretch, but hear me out. The Leafs are currently just seven points behind Ottawa and Boston, who are second and third in the Atlantic division, respectively. They have $1.8M in cap space, and a backup goalie who has only played one game in the NHL so far. The playoffs are within their reach for the first time in what feels like forever, and what’s one way that could help them get there? Find a suitable backup goalie. It’s completely unlikely, but weirder things have happened. (Remember Grossmann and Pronger’s contract to Arizona for Sam Gagner?)
At the end of the day, there are a lot of factors to take into consideration concerning Neuvirth’s future. When he comes back, will they showcase him and will he be good enough to gain interest from other teams? Will teams want to trade for him? Will Hextall like what they offer in return? Will the Flyers even want to trade him?
Personally, I think trading him would be the best option for the team. They might not get much out of it, but even a late round draft pick would be worth more than just letting him go at the end of the season.
Note: All salary and cap information is from capfriendly.com, and standings are current as of the end of games on 12/12.