Sometimes brilliance blooms only in retrospect. Chuck Fletcher would be the first to admit as much, at least when it comes to finding and acquiring a franchise goaltender. As the general manager of the Minnesota Wild, he found his in January 2015, when he traded a third-round draft pick to the Arizona Coyotes for Devan Dubnyk, who won the Masterson Trophy and finished third in the Vezina Trophy voting in his first season with the Wild and has yet to relinquish his grip on the team’s No. 1 spot since.
Easy, right, Chuck? Just reach into that top hat and pull out a goalie. Fletcher wishes it were. So, of course, do the Flyers.
“There were different things,” Fletcher was saying Wednesday afternoon, after he’d been formally introduced as the Flyers’ new GM, in explaining how and why he and his staff had targeted Dubnyk. “We looked at some numbers. We felt that if he played behind our defense in Minnesota, his numbers would have been dramatically better than where he had played before. Minnesota was a bit better structured team, a little bit more established than where he’d been in the past.
“You had to do your work. You had to get lucky, in the sense that he was available. Still, honestly, sometimes you feel like you have a blindfold on and you’re throwing a dart.”
In such an exercise, you’d think the Flyers would settle for hitting the wall behind the board, but their aim hasn’t been even that good in a long time. Goaltending has bedeviled them since Ron Hextall won the Vezina in his rookie season, 1986-87, and the obvious irony of his just-ended tenure as GM is that the Flyers’ last great goalie had no more success in solving this riddle than anyone else in the organization has. He counted on Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth – a pair past their 30th birthdays, both of whom underwent offseason surgeries – returning healthy and getting through 82 games or more before the organization started fresh next season. (The Flyers have no goalies under contract for 2019-20.)
It was a bad bet from the start, and somehow it’s gotten worse. At a time when NHL goaltending has never been better, the Flyers, relatively speaking, have arguably never been worse at the position. They rank last in save percentage, even though, according to the statistical database Natural Stat Trick, they have given up the third-fewest high-danger scoring chances in the league. For all the presumption that Dave Scott and Paul Holmgren have charged Fletcher with speeding up Hextall’s slow and deliberate rebuild, it would seem impossible for Fletcher to get a full and accurate sense of who he should keep, who he might trade, and how good the Flyers can really be until the goaltending situation stabilizes itself. Or until Fletcher, as he did in Minnesota, stabilizes it.
“Sometimes it’s a tough position to figure out because there’s only one number-one goalie in most places,” Fletcher said. “There’s only one net. Inevitably, there’s somebody who’s a backup who’s probably not playing as much as they want to, and it’s often hard to figure out how good that goalie would be if you gave him more starts.
“There is a little bit of hit-and-miss to the projecting of goaltending. Analytics is actually an area that, I think, is starting maybe to shed a little more light and cut through some of the noise and maybe make better projections on goaltenders. It’s critical to find a solution. … I don’t think there are any easy answers.”
In theory, the easiest answer, and maybe the best, could present itself without Fletcher having to do much of anything. Though he drove from South Jersey to Allentown on Wednesday afternoon to watch Carter Hart and the Phantoms, Fletcher dispelled the idea of promoting Hart from the minors anytime soon. “I really believe goaltenders need seasoning,” he said. And counting on Elliott and/or Neuvirth to play at a high level over a prolonged period seems a fool’s errand, based on their recent injury histories.
But in 2012, the Flyers did use a second-round draft pick on a goaltender whom, at the time, they projected to be a part of their future. And, well, Anthony Stolarz turns just 25 next month, and he is coming off a terrific performance in a victory over the Penguins on Saturday, and because he has just 10 games of NHL experience, it will take time to know exactly what he is and can be. “The guy who’s doing the job should have the net,” Fletcher said. “It should be a meritocracy. It should be, whoever’s playing best gets the net.”