Goaltending was the position the Flyers needed to upgrade the most in free agency. Did they improve it greatly Wednesday by signing Martin Jones?
On one hand, Jones, 31, is an upgrade over backup Brian Elliott because he is five years younger and more durable. If Carter Hart doesn’t bounce back from a dismal season, the Flyers will need someone who can play a lot of games without reducing his effectiveness.
On the other hand, the 6-foot-4, 190-pound Jones has struggled mightily the last three seasons, and there were other free-agent goalies on the market who were more attractive.
Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher is banking on goalie coach Kim Dillabaugh to help Jones rebound. The two were together in the Los Angeles Kings’ system and had a great rapport.
“I know he has a strong relationship with Kim,” Fletcher said after signing Jones to a one-year, $2 million deal. “I think Kim knows his game and feels he can work with him and help him get back to where he was. This is a guy that’s used to playing 60 games a year, so he’s coming into a tandem situation now. I think there’ll be opportunities here to get practice time and to work on things. Sometimes a chance to reset and recharge in a new environment is a good thing, too.”
With Dillabaugh guiding Jones when he played for Los Angeles’ AHL team in Manchester, the goalie developed a strong base. He then had two strong seasons with L.A. before being dealt to San Jose, where he flourished for three years — he took the Sharks to the Stanley Cup Final in 2016, when they lost to Pittsburgh in six games — before his play dipped dramatically.
In each of the last three seasons, his save percentage was .896, and his GAA climbed from 2.94 to 3.00 to 3.28.
That’s why San Jose bought out the final three years of his contract (annual cap hit: $5.75 million), making him an unrestricted free agent.
But Jones had some brilliant seasons, and playoff runs, with the Sharks. In the 2016 playoffs, for instance, he had a 2.16 GAA, .a 923 save percentage, and three shutouts in 24 playoff games, steering San Jose to within two wins of the Cup.
“We don’t go to the Stanley Cup Final without Martin Jones,” San Jose general manager Doug Wilson said in a conference call earlier in the week, announcing his buyout plans. “It’s mixed feelings, but we understand that sometimes goaltenders get too much credit when you win and too much blame when you lose. But that’s the reality of that position. We came to the conclusion that change was needed.”
Jones’ decline, Wilson said, may be because of his workload. In his first four seasons with San Jose, he played in 65, 65, 60 and 62 games, respectively. He is expected to play 30 to 35 games with the Flyers this season.
“I think he played so much hockey, maybe too much hockey,” Wilson said. “I think that might have taken its toll on him.”
The Flyers finished last in the NHL last season, allowing 3.52 goals per game and causing a defensive makeover. They acquired veterans Ryan Ellis and Rasmus Ristolainen in trades. On Wednesday they signed free-agent Keith Yandle.
Combined, the three have played in 2,136 NHL games. They replace Shayne Gostisbehere, Phil Myers, and Robert Hagg, who have played a combined 732 games.
“Making the playoffs is obviously the first step,” Jones said. “Bringing in some of these guys, like Yandle and some of these other veterans, that’s always a good thing when you can lean on guys that have experience. Hopefully, that helps move us along here.”
The defense also includes veteran Justin Braun, who played in front of Jones in San Jose. The two talked Wednesday morning.
“He’s a great teammate. Great guy to play behind,” said Jones, an NHL All-Star in 2017. “I’ll be talking to him more in the next little bit. and I’m sure he’ll have great things to say about Philly.”
After three straight subpar seasons, Jones said he has “something to prove now” and that a change of scenery should be beneficial.
“Anytime you get a little extra motivation, that can be helpful,” he said. “For me, I know what my expectations are of myself, and they’re a lot higher than what the last few seasons have shown.”