Hockey, the Flyers and Goalie Angst

There's no magic formula; success at the net is a crapshoot

Goaltending clichés might be my favorites in all of sports. Stacking the pads. Flashing the leather. Standing on his head. Then there are the Flyers netminders, who inspire a different sort of description every year. Missing in action. Choking when it counts. Head cases. As the Flyers take the ice tonight—perhaps for the last time this season—they’ll continue their most ridiculous game of musical goalies ever. For a team with such a long history of trouble between the pipes, that’s saying something.

All my fears heading into this series with Boston have been realized. There’s no feeling of déjà vu this year. A comeback isn’t coming. The only question worth asking now is what went wrong? Goaltending, as usual, will be the greatest source of angst among the Flyers faithful. Not since Ron Hextall has there been a puck-stopper with franchise potential on Broad Street. Should the team give rookie Sergei Bobrovsky another year to mature? Or should they pursue a free agent like Tomas Vokoun?

I can already hear the whining about how the Flyers don’t care about goaltending and how they never try to get a quality starter. The organization’s track record doesn’t dispel that notion. But the truth is that goaltending is the most quirky, unpredictable position in pro sports. Buffalo’s Ryan Miller is arguably among the top five netminders in the league, and even he couldn’t save the Sabres from defeat this season. The Rangers have one of the best netminders in the league, Henrik Lundqvist, and they can’t catch a whiff of the finals. Meanwhile, Boston was reportedly ready to trade Tim Thomas prior to this season; they never anticipated he’d start playing like he was possessed by the ghost of Jacques Plante.

Only three goalies in the past two decades can truly qualify as elite: Martin Brodeur (three Stanley Cups), Patrick Roy (three), and Dominik Hasek (one). Otherwise, there’s no single backstop who would have guaranteed a parade for the Flyers. It’s fair to say there were years when the team went cheap (Vanbiesbrouck) or more often, simply made the wrong call on guys they thought would be the solution between the pipes (Pelletier, Ouellet, Cechmanek, and Esche, among many others). As for why goaltenders are to the Flyers what drummers are to Spinal Tap, it seems to be a combination of bum luck and bad talent evaluation. But to say the team doesn’t value the position is absurd.

We tend to have a somewhat myopic view of sports in this town. If you look at how other teams handle their net protection, it’s proof that this position isn’t science—it’s a crapshoot. The Islanders thought they found a franchise goalie in Rick DiPietro, who hasn’t come close to living up to his 15-year, $67.5 million contract. Meanwhile, the Chicago Blackhawks let Antti Niemi, who just helped them win a Stanley Cup over the Flyers, walk away. Now Niemi is in San Jose and nearly halfway to a second consecutive championship. The Flyers aren’t ignoring a winning formula for finding the next Pelle Lindbergh. That formula simply doesn’t exist.

The way the Flyers played in front of Brian Boucher on Wednesday, not even Bernie Parent could have saved them from defeat. No matter which path they take next year—going all-in on Bob, or signing a veteran—it’s sure to cause agita among the fans. Stock up on Pepto-Bismol now, folks. The season is almost over and the goalie debate is about to begin once again.