Its no surprise that Carter Hart wasn’t activated from IR ahead of either game that the Philadelphia Flyers said he’d return for and start in. After suffering an “upper-body” injury against the Carolina Hurricanes that was later diagnosed as a concussion a few days later, the Flyers retroactively placed their goaltender on IR but reiterated that he was fine, he was practicing, and that he would be able to tend the twine against the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks to complete the California road trip.
Samuel Ersson actually got the nod against the Hurricanes in what was his NHL debut and unfortunately he was left out too dry by his defence and was pulled after allowing 5 goals on 22 shots. Hart entered the game and allowed the eventual game-winning goal after colliding with Seth Jarvis as he was shoved into the goaltender by Rasmus Ristolainen. Hart had to leave the game, which brought Ersson back as he stopped the final 8 shots he faced with the Flyers trying to complete a 4-goal comeback.
Since then, Ersson started the following 3 games against the San Jose Sharks, Kings, and Ducks and has gone a perfect 3-0-0, helping the Flyers sweep the California teams on the road for the first time in franchise history. It’s obviously too early to tell and it’s definitely a small sample size, but his play has only gotten better with each game as he has stopped 88 of his last 94 shots after being pulled.
On the season Ersson holds a .905 SV% and a 2.90 GAA, but taking the Carolina game out of the picture and focusing on the California road trip, he went a perfect 3-0-0 with a .930 SV% and a 2.00 GAA. Yes, the Sharks and the Ducks don’t present threats when you look at their placement in the standings but the Flyers only had 4 wins in their previous 30 games against the Sharks dating back to 2002, which included 2 ties.
During the contest against the Sharks, he was peppered with 23 shots in the first two periods, only allowing 2 before Kevin Labanc opened the third period with an early backbreaker.
Then after allowing 2 first period goals to the Kings, Ersson stopped the next 21 shots over the the final 46:48 of the game. 11 shots found their way towards the net in the third period, he had to deal with several Kings power plays, and the defence came in clutch at the end with huge blocks while shorthanded with very little time remaining on the clock.
That culminated into an almost-shutout as the Ducks found a way to get the puck into the back of the net with about only 40 seconds remaining. He made 28 saves, including 14 in the second period when the Ducks were their most threatening.
John Tortorella said before the game on Monday that Hart had passed his evaluations but it was his decision to keep him on the shelf for the time being as the Flyers had a few days in between their next game against the Arizona Coyotes. Felix Sandström has been the backup in all 3 games – he was dealing with an illness before – which is why Ersson got the call-up initially but as the games have gone by, it’s looking like Ersson could be surpassing Sandström on the depth chart.
It’s hard to truly dissect with goalies who only have a handful of games under their belt, but Ersson was rather impressive during the preseason as well and only missed the cut because Sandström had a bit more experience and Ersson needed some more time to marinate in the minors. Sandström’s 2022-23 season hasn’t gone as planned with a 1-6-1 record, a .888 SV%, and a 3.37 GAA. He has only received 12 goals of support in his 7 losses this season against the likes of Florida, Toronto, Dallas, and Colorado amongst others. This was the issue last year as well in his limited appearances when he went 0-4-1, faced 177 shots against while posting a pretty good .910 SV% but only getting 6 goals of support (shutout twice).
The Flyers have a good problem right now with 3 able-bodied goaltenders who can perform on any given night or if injury strikes. Carter Hart is the de-facto leader and while his numbers don’t look as enthralling, he is currently 7th in goals saved above expected with 12.8, behind Linus Ullmark (21.5), Ilya Sorokin (18.8), Connor Hellebuyck (18.5), Karel Vejmelka (16.8), Juuse Saros (14.1), and Andrei Vasilevskiy (13.6). His wins above replacement are also 7th behind the same cast and crew at 2.13. At the time of his injury he had played the most games around the NHL with 27.
The issue with Hart has been his health over the last few seasons as he has dealt with a lengthy absence of some sort that has mitigated his games played and makes many wonder if he can shoulder the lion’s share of games – 60+ games. The new and modern NHL has gotten rid of most goalies who played 60-65-70+ games in a season. You need a good, reliable backup, and a lot of teams employ tandems with a 1A/1B structure. The Flyers had some subpar backups over the years with the oft-injured Michal Neuvirth, Brian Elliott who had to play more games than the Flyers would’ve liked to have him suited up for, and then Martin Jones last year.
The hope was that Ivan Fedotov was going to be able to make the leap this year but due to political and international issues, he was deployed into the Russian military and his status is to be determined for the foreseeable future. Troy Grosenick was a goaltender the Flyers signed on the first day of free agency and a goaltender that Chuck Fletcher was more than excited about. He had a rough preseason and Ersson outplayed him from top-to-bottom with a gaudy .950 SV% on 60 shots. The idea heading into the preseason games was that the battle was going to be between Grosenick and Sandström for the backup spot with Ersson getting important reps before being sent down to the AHL. In doing so, he outshined his compatriots and left the Flyers with a tougher decision than expected.
Now with the opportunity there for the taking the younger Swede has risen to the challenge and has impressed everyone worthy of his selection and placement on the team. Tortorella hasn’t wavered once in terms of his starting goaltender over the past week, his reward system goes beyond the forwards and defensemen as he rides the hot hand more often than not. When Hart does return from IR – which is apparently going to be ahead of Thursday’s game – it’ll be interesting to see what the Flyers do. The caveat for Ersson is that Sandström would be required to clear waivers if he were to be sent down, and I don’t think the Flyers would be foolish enough to do that in a season that has no merit or meaning other than prioritizing for next season. Losing a young goaltender to play a more inexperienced one, wouldn’t make much sense. Ersson getting more reps in the AHL is what’s best for the 2022-23 season and things should clarify heading into the preseason ahead of the 2023-24 season – in terms of Hart’s backup.
Ersson only recently turned 23 years of age, Sandström will be 26 in a week and a half, and Hart is still only 24 years old. Add in the 26-year-old Fedotov and the Flyers have a good cast of young goaltenders to choose from. They are in the unfortunate position of having to play in front of a team that needs to rebuild but isn’t announcing a rebuild, but are acting like they are rebuilding but are making moves that a rebuilding team wouldn’t make – which only makes things that much harder for the goaltenders.