One would not be wrong to think that goaltending, or a lack thereof, has been an ongoing problem for the Philadelphia Flyers since the days of Bernie Parent. We have seen the likes of John Vanbiesbrouck, Garth Snow, Brian Boucher and Roman Cechmanek pass through the Flyers' crease without a Stanley Cup result. So, you certainly cannot blame Flyers fans for being concerned this past offseason about the Philadelphia goaltending situation.
With Martin Biron walking away as a free agent, the Flyers ended up deciding to go with a low-cost, high-risk alternative in the enigmatic Ray Emery. Emery signed for the relatively cheap price of $1.5 million for one season on Broad Street. The signing was a divisive issue among Flyers fans. Some applauded it for its high upside; while others pointed to the greater potential for risk than reward. With Philadelphia currently standing as the third-worst team in the Eastern Conference standings and Emery sidelined due to an abdominal injury, rewards have been few and far between this season.
Before recently undergoing surgery, Emery posted 11 wins, 8 losses, 1 overtime loss, a .901 save percentage and a 2.83 G.A.A. Emery's save percentage places him a measly 39th out of 46 eligible goaltenders in that respect. It would be easy to frown on such a performance and write off 2009-10 as another season in which the Flyers had the wrong man in the crease. However, closer examination shows Emery may in fact be the right man for the job. And when he returns, the Flyers still have a shot at the playoffs.
Prior to his abdominal surgery, Emery was playing hurt, no doubt impacting his performance. In fact, some suspect he played as many as 10 games with his injury. If that is the case, the stats he posted don't accurately foretell his potential going forward.
Over his last seven games prior to his surgery, Emery posted a save percentage above .900 on only one occasion and allowed 26 goals over that same span. Those are awful totals, but if you look at Emery's performance prior to that stretch, it was actually quite solid. In fact, his .923 save percentage would place Emery ninth in the NHL in that category.
Those numbers suggest that the Emery signing may, in fact, have been a good decision. Particularly considering how the team decided to allocate its cap space during the offseason.
Instead of spending money in the crease, the Flyers decided to address their defense, trading for Chris Pronger from Anaheim. Simply put, that was the right decision.
Puck Prospectus uses the proprietary metric of GVT (for a detailed definition, click here) to evaluate both teams and players, quantifying performances in terms of how many goals a player/unit create or cost a team. Last season the Flyers had an even-strength offensive GVT of 12.4, an even-strength goaltending GVT of 12.5 and an awful even-strength defensive GVT of -20.3. That even-strength defensive GVT was actually the third-worst mark in the NHL. So, the team's choice to address its defense first and foremost was the right concern.
Pronger's impact on the blue line has been immense. This season, the team's defensive GVT is now in the positive rankings at +3.6, an improvement of almost 24 goals. And remember, the only real significant addition to the Flyers' back-end this off-season was the acquisition of Pronger. That move sure seems like money well spent. Extending Pronger didn't leave a lot of money to spend on goaltending however, meaning the team would be shopping in the bargain bin, where they found Emery. While there have been some surprises from last year's free agent goalie crop, the Flyers should feel pretty good about their decision. Let's look at the other options.
The Free Agent Field
Signing Ray Emery was a big gamble for the Flyers, but aside from some suprising starts, the rest of the free agent goalie crop wasn't particularly appealing.
2009-10 2009-10 2008-09
Goalie Team Cap Hit W-L GAA Save Pct. GVT
Nikolai Khabibulin Edmonton $3.75M 7-9 3.03 .909 14.3
Martin Biron N.Y. Islanders $1.40M 2-11 3.22 .900 4.6
Dwayne Roloson N.Y. Islanders $2.50M 14-7 2.75 .914 14.2
Craig Anderson Colorado $1.80M 18-9 2.67 .917 12.9
Scott Clemmensen Florida $1.20M 5-5 3.53 .888 11.6
Josh Harding* Minnesota $1.10M 2-5 3.40 .900 8.3
Antero Niittymaki Tampa Bay $0.60M 7-5 3.03 .919 6.2
Brian Boucher Philadelphia $0.925M 4-10 2.66 .902 5.9
Kari Lehtonen* Atlanta $3.00M Injured N/A N/A 5.1
Kevin Weekes Retired N/A N/A N/A N/A 4.6
(* Denotes restricted free agent; Salary figures from nhlnumbers.com)
Nikolai Khabibulin received a monster four-year contract from Edmonton pushing him past the Flyers' limits. Biron was strong for the Flyers by our metrics last season, but the Biron issue is very, very tricky. Yes, Biron signed for less than Emery, but Biron was unhappy with the Flyers' initial offer and almost assuredly would have never accepted a one-year $1.4 million offer from the Paul Holmgren and company. Looking at it in a vacuum, Biron at $1.4 million sounds like a very good deal but he just was not available to Philadelphia at that price.
Craig Anderson's hot start may get Flyers fans a little frustrated, but entering last season, Anderson was largely unproven. The American netminder had only played in 109 games coming into this season. Scott Clemmensen, another option who looked strong filling in for Martin Brodeur in New Jersey last season, similarly had little experience as a No. 1 netminder. On the other hand, Emery had played in a Stanley Cup Final with Ottawa. Still, Anderson's affordable price tag will likely have Flyers fans wondering what might have been.
After the Pronger trade, the Flyers had to pass on both restricted free agents Josh Harding and Kari Lehtonen, who would have required draft-pick compensation they no longer had.
Finally, from the Flyers' point of view, Antero Niittymaki was a known quantity. Niittymaki, had a number of seasons to prove himself in Philadelphia and the Flyers never seemed to be overly impressed. Last season was, in fact, Niittymaki's best as an NHLer, as he posted a .912 save percentage in 32 games which placed him 22nd in the NHL in that regard. At 29 years old, the Flyers thought they had probably seen the best Niittymaki had to offer and decided to let him go. Despite a fast start, a .877 save percentage in five December starts suggests they Flyers' brass might have been right about the new Tampa Bay Lightning netminder.
When you lay out the field and consider his injury, Emery seems like a strong choice. And when he returns, the Flyers should make a charge up the standings.
Prior to the season, Puck Prospectus projected the Flyers to be the eighth-best team in the NHL (92 projected points) with Ray Emery minding the net. The Flyers currently sit 24th overall (38 points) in the NHL standings, but there are still 44 games remaining on the schedule. Sure the Flyers need better goaltending, but as mentioned above, the goaltending of Ray Emery pre-injury was more than fine.
Instead, the Flyers' turnaround will depend on whether the team's offense returns to its old form. Remember, the Flyers finished fifth in the league in goals-per-game last season with a total of 3.17. This season, Philadelphia's forward corps consists of the same core players from last year's group -- save Mike Knuble. The fact that the Flyers sit 16th in the league in goals-per-game with a 2.71 total (down almost half a goal from last season) is the biggest issue currently facing the Flyers. For once, however, they may finally have found the right fit in goal.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .
Richard Pollock is Editor for the hockey website Illegal Curve.