The Philadelphia Flyers would be hard-pressed to say that they had a position of strength during the 2022-2023 season when they were the 3rd-worst team in the Eastern Conference and the 7th worst in the NHL. Still, it is safe to say that the Flyers have fewer questions in some positions than in others. As interim GM Danny Briere pores over his roster during the coming weeks, he will spend relatively little time looking at the goaltending group, which, led by a newly-reliable Carter Hart, may undergo very few changes before next season.

Who Stays?

The short answer could be “everyone.” Hart is here to stay, and, for better or worse, the organization is not done with backups Felix Sandstrom and Sam Ersson.

Hart started in the cage for the lion’s share of the Orange and Black’s games this season and went a long way towards undoing the backslide he suffered from 2020-2022. In 72 games over that span, Hart limped to a 22-35-12 record. The former Everett Silvertip could hardly blame his help, as his ugly 3.34 GAA and .895 save percentage made clear that Hart himself was a large part of the problem. As such, Flyers brass expected KHL standout Ivan Fedotov to challenge for the starting position last summer. Instead, Fedotov was arrested and conscripted into the Russian military, making Hart the starter by default for 2022-2023.

Hart turned a corner and made strides toward fulfilling the immense promise he showed over his first two seasons in the NHL. He was a legitimate full-time number 1 goaltender for the first time in his career. While Hart had previously been spelled by Brian Elliot or Martin Jones for long stretches, he played 55 games and shattered his previous career-high this season. His numbers (2.94 GAA, .907 save percentage) were not world-beating, but behind a team with the league’s 7th worst goal differential, even average statistics are impressive. Struggling teams are simply more likely to surrender high-quality chances. Moreover, the 24-year-old claimed 22 of the team’s modest 31 victories.

Hart is locked in as next season’s starter after enjoying his best season since 2019-2020. His player profile as an athletic shot-stopper who sometimes gets lost in his crease will not change, but he is an above-average homegrown starter that the Flyers should not take for granted. The real question is when and for how much Briere will re-up his expiring deal.

As for the backups, the Flyers will not be quite so optimistic. Felix Sandstrom started the second most games for the team and showed why after five years of observing him in the minors, the Flyers tried to go with Fedotov. Sandstrom has no one plus trait that he can ride to NHL success. He gives up the same soft goals as Hart without balancing them against the agile stops his Canadian counterpart is capable of. Sandstrom struggled to a 3.72 GAA and .880 save percentage in his first significant NHL action. That is not good enough to justify regular backup minutes, and John Tortorella made clear that Ersson would have had the job if not for the front office’s unwillingness to pass Sandstrom through waivers.

Sam Ersson got off to an incredible 6-0 start to his NHL career but is still very green and could probably use another year in the AHL. He will not get it, as Tortorella is high on him, and the Flyers are all but sure to install Sandstrom as the third-choice netminder; they have already made clear they will not lose him for free. That leaves Ersson as Hart’s likely full-time backup.

Unlike Sandstrom, Ersson has some pro qualities that will serve him well. His positioning is solid and prevents him from relying on jaw-dropping saves, and he tends to play better when faced with pressure. As such, Ersson’s worst outings, a 7-goal drubbing by the Devils notwithstanding, were off the bench. Still, he is not the athlete that Hart is, and he may not even be the athlete that Sandstrom is. While the former fifth-round pick is usually where he needs to be, he will not fly post-to-post or win games on his own. Ersson allowed 3.07 goals per game while stopping .899 percent of shots in 12 NHL appearances; with the AHL Phantoms, his numbers (2.84 GAA, .900 save percentage) were bizarrely not much better. Ersson is 23 to Sandstrom’s 26 and has plenty of time to improve, but if he implodes next year, the Flyers will have nowhere to go but back to Sandstrom.

What Changes?

The primary difference between this season and next will be the order of Ersson and Sandstrom on the roster. By starting Sandstrom with the Phantoms and Ersson on the bench, the Flyers will avoid the waiver shenanigans that kept the former on the team despite his struggles.

In terms of personnel, these are almost certainly the three goaltenders that will appear for the Flyers in 2023-2024. Sandstrom may be moved on for a late-round pick while the Flyers pursue a more experienced third goalie, but if they like Ersson as much as it seems they do, that position should not be significant.

Financially, Ersson and Sandstrom are dirt cheap and fully team-controlled, while Hart could be in line for a raise. Briere will hope to sign him long-term in the summer before his play takes another expensive leap.

The Outlook

If the Flyers continue with their current goalies, they will have a cheap NHL duo with a combined age under 50 and plenty of upside. Still, there are risks to starting Erssson on the NHL roster this season and retaining Sandstrom. With a Jones or an Elliot in place, Ersson could continue his development in the minors with Sandstrom cast to the wayside. Now, the Flyers have no veteran option to fall back on if Ersson underwhelms or Hart falls into old habits. Tortorella and Briere will hope it does not come to that.


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