The current and future states of Flyers’ goaltending

Justin Goldman runs the site The Goalie Guild and is a goalie scout. He began playing hockey at the age of 10 but passed up the opportunity to play juniors to attended Colorado State University. He has written about goalies on a number of different sites over the last three years and has recently been working on different project with Dallas Stars goalie coach Mike Valley and former NHL goalie Steve Shields. He credits Valley and Shields with helping his professional development.

If you are one of the 2,000+ people who follow Justin on Twitter, you know that he has a great skill for observing and critiquing goaltenders. He says he has “an extremely keen eye for the position and use some very unique philosophies to absorb everything I can about the position. One example of this is what I call mimicry, where I watch an NHL goalie, then go out on the ice myself and emulate their stance and style. It allows me to understand how they move, how they react, and how they read plays.”

Justin agreed to put his skills to use for us by answering a few questions about the Flyers goalies.

FF: What are your thoughts on Michael Leighton? Brian Boucher? Did their ’10 postseason performances impress or surprise you?

JG: I was impressed with the play of both Flyers goaltenders in the Stanley Cup playoffs. But I was not surprised, as both of them have always been capable of winning big games and making big saves. It was fun to watch, mainly because they are such different goalies at different points in their career. Brian Boucher has seen it all, so he’s much more experienced and knows how to handle the pressures of a must-win game. I was impressed with his durability, especially since his career is coming to a close. His style is very traditional, but not outdated. It was really fun to watch him compete in that classic style and be competitive. I was heartbroken when the injury occurred and it was an extremely frustrating play to watch. Leighton is just coming into his own as an NHL goalie, and his ability to play so well on home ice was the highlight for me. Even though he suffered a tough loss in the Winter Classic, I think that game really proved to himself that he had the confidence and capability to win big games. That game went a long way into molding a mentally tough goalie that will be even better next season.

Regardless of how good or bad a team plays, a goalie has to stop every puck that comes his way. Sometimes it’s a lot of quality scoring chances, sometimes it’s very few. But the fact remains that every play is different and every game presents unique situations. It was clear they had a great defensive effort on most nights, but that is just a dynamic of hockey that depends solely on the game itself.

FF: Why has Leighton never really amounted to much in the NHL? Did he get overpaid or underpaid in his new contract?

JG: Well I would say that Leighton is capable of amounting to plenty, but he never got the opportunities until he arrived in Philly. In Chicago, he was still developing and just trying to get the exposure needed to gain special recognition. It didn’t happen. In Carolina, he had to work extremely hard to play behind Cam Ward, which is not an easy task. Ward deserved the starts he received and that limited the ability for Leighton to play at his best. This is just the nature of trying to break into the league as a slightly above average pro goalie. Goalies at his skill level are a dime a dozen, so every chance a goalie gets, they have to be perfect, or at least display an elite skill level in certain areas in order to stand out. Leighton continued to develop and displayed plenty of upside in his limited starts, but Carolina either didn’t recognize it or didn’t care. They chose to waive him and the Flyers did an excellent job of snatching him up and giving him the opportunity to play more than two games in a row. When that happens, a goalie is able to adjust and get into a rhythm, which usually results in them playing at their best. This is what the Flyers allowed Leighton to do and the rest was history. Because of all of this, I don’t think he was overpaid at all. It’s a fair contract.

FF: Did the Flyers make a mistake by retaining both Boucher and Leighton? Should they have signed or traded for someone else? If so, who? Or, do you think the Flyers might still make a move for another goalie? What can we expect from the Flyers goalies this year?

JG: No, I wouldn’t consider it a mistake at all. I think the Flyers do a great job of trusting their instincts. Boucher is a solid backup and Leighton has the ability to win games in the playoffs. What more could a team want at that salary hit? Of course there are many goalies that are more talented or fan friendly, but both goalies now have legitimate playoff experience on that team and that is a comfortable situation for the team to be in.

FF: Do the Flyers have the deepest D in the league? With their current defense, does it matter who is in net?

JG: Regardless of how good a team’s defense happens to be, it always matters who is in net. Every goalie compliments a system differently. They all act and react differently on different teams. If you consider the Flyers as having a strong defense that doesn’t give up a lot of quality scoring chances, you want a goalie that is mentally tough and knows how to stop the puck when he’s not seeing it on a consistent basis. If you’re a weak defensive team, you want a technically solid and efficient goalie that can maintain high levels of energy for as many games as possible. This is what makes player development and scouting so crucial to a team’s success. Goalies have to fill certain roles depending on the team’s systems and philosophy. Some work better than others.

FF: What are your thoughts on goaltending coach Jeff Reese? How much of an impact did he have on Leighton’s game last season?

JG: I think Reese is a quality goalie coach that continues to hone his trade as time goes on. He doesn’t have as much experience as a lot of the coaches around the league, but that doesn’t really matter. It’s all about communication and relationships. I think he gets along very well with Leighton and Boucher and therefore they are willing to work hard for him in practices and in games. He’s a good fit for the Flyers, but he’s not the most talented coach out there. I still think he can make some tweaks that will really improve Leighton’s ability, but overall he’s doing a great job. It’s very tough to evaluate goalie coaches in the NHL because there’s not a lot of information or reports out there, so you kind of have to search around. So to be honest, I don’t know much about Reese’s impact on Leighton. But it was noticeable that he was continually refining his game as the season went along.

FF: What did you think about Leighton’s 98-save AHL game?

JG: I thought it was a typo when I first read the story. I wish I had seen it, but it will of course always be remembered as one of the most insane goalie performances in pro hockey history. It’s just proof of his durability, mental toughness and puck stopping prowess. A true performance for the ages of time!

FF: Will current prospects Joacim Eriksson, Sergei Bobrovsky, and Johan Backlund amount to anything? Which will have the biggest impact? Who will reach the NHL first (for more than just a game or two)? Would you consider any of them to be “elite” or “franchise” goalies?

JG: Backlund is already at the age where he’s really not going to be anything more than an NHL backup with a possible taste of being a starter. He’s a solid AHL starter, but I think the NHL backup role is his ceiling as far as skill is concerned. Bobrovsky is a great young talent, but his size is not appealing in today’s NHL and he’ll have to work extremely hard to curb out a long-term NHL career. It’s not to discredit his skill, but Russian goalies usually take longer to develop into a full-blown NHL starter and so it’s really too early to tell. If he lands a spot in Adirondack this season, it will go a very long way in helping him develop at a quicker pace than most others at his age. He’s still a quality prospect to own, as you can see by how hard the Flyers pushed to sign him. Eriksson is the goalie that I consider having the ability to turn into an “elite” or “franchise” goalie. Although he’s only playing in Sweden, he has all of the traits and mental characteristics needed to evolve into a star in the NHL. Backlund probably reaches the NHL first (he already had a sip of the NHL) and I could see Bobrovsky getting a chance due to injuries in the next few years, but Eriksson is a legitimate future star in the NHL. The Flyers need to focus most of their energy on him – he’s the real deal in every sense of the word.

FF: The Flyers have not had much success drafting goalies in the past. Bobby Clarke did not put much of a priority on it but Paul Holmgren seems to be more concerned about it. What does he need to do to successfully draft a top-notch goalie?

JG: Drafting good goalies is all about keen scouting. You need to know exactly what you are getting in a goalie, both mentally and technically. It is not wise to draft a goalie that you don’t know inside and out, because their training and development is so important. Drafting is just part of the key to having world-class goalies. More importantly, developing goalies is all about providing them as many opportunities as possible to play at a higher level. This is where I think the Flyers struggle the most. They have so many goalie prospects in the system over the past two years that there’s not enough playing time to go around. Injuries are tough to deal with, but they provide goalies with opportunities to prove their capability at a higher level. But when you bring in free-agents or sign guys off waivers, it stops that from happening and doesn’t really allow the goalies to move up the depth chart. It’s never a bad thing to have a ton of prospects in the system, but if you don’t have specific routes for each of them, you’ll quickly lose a grasp on where they fit and what they are capable of doing long-term. It should also be said that drafting goalies is one of the trickiest arts in the game. It’s much better to take them very late as opposed to early, as you can find amazing goalies just about anywhere. Sometimes it’s good to totally skip on drafting a goalie, because you can go hunting overseas and find quality prospects without having to waste a draft pick at all (see Bobrovsky).

PadsTracker

Goldman introduced a free service to The Goalie Guild in January of 2009 called, PadsTracker which tracks the current equipment of all NHL goalies. The templates for the page, including the ones shown below for Michael Leighton and Brian Boucher, are created by graphic artist Mathew Abraham. It is a unique feature that he says has become the #1 resource for goalie fans. He says, “Like most goalies, I am obsessed with pads and goalie equipment. It is what led me to fall in love with the position when I was 11 years old.”