Goalie depth has been a priority for Ron Hextall since he ascended to the position of Flyers general manager four seasons ago. Criticized by fans at times for the two-goalie approach he has taken over the years with the low-cost tandems he has employed instead of seeking a high-risk, high-reward No. 1, Hextall is banking on one of the stable of goalies on which he has spent high picks eventually maturing into that franchise goaltender fans have clamored for since he stopped putting on the pads.
In the meantime, we were reminded this week by Brian Elliott's core muscle injury and subsequent surgery that depth does not guarantee quality, stability or success. Elliott is projected to miss five to six weeks, meaning the oft-injured, oft-ill and oft-erratic Michal Neuvirth will receive the bulk of the remaining 25 regular-season starts.
On Tuesday, Flyers coach Dave Hakstol repeatedly proclaimed faith in Neuvirth, whose season has only served to remind all that with every head-shaking performance, such as his shootout rescue in Phoenix and subsequent 38-save effort against Vegas the following night, there is seemingly an equal and opposite type of head shake.
All this is an introduction to the quandary Hextall faces as the Feb. 26 trade deadline approaches. There are teams with goalie depth out there, which is one reason pro scout Dave Brown hasn't been seen around much lately. Buffalo's backup, Chad Johnson, might be available at the right price, or his likely AHL replacement, Linus Ullmark, who has played sparingly for the Sabres over the last three seasons. Toronto's 34-year-old Curtis McElhinney might be an option, too, since the Leafs have an outstanding AHL goalie tandem in Garret Sparks and Calvin Pickard. Sparks leads the AHL in goals-against average and save percentage, and Pickard, who had a 2.98 GAA and .904 save percentage for Colorado last year, is right behind him.
But at what price? A high pick? A prospect? And what is the upgrade? In Alex Lyon, the Flyers have their own well-performing AHL goalie, and the idea behind acquiring 28-year-old Dustin Tokarski back in October was that he had some NHL experience, including a brief postseason run in 2014 with Montreal, and had backstopped a successful Calder Cup run with the AHL's Norfolk Admirals in 2012.
On Tuesday, Tokarski made 40 saves for the Lehigh Valley Phantoms in a 5-0 victory over Bridgeport, his second shutout this season.
"I guess things can change between now and then,'' Hextall said before Neuvirth's uneven game in Tuesday's 5-4 shootout loss to the Devils. "But we like our team; we like what we've done. In saying that, we've got to keep going here. We've got to keep pushing. Neuvy is very capable. He's played some real good games for us this year, some other ones that haven't been that great. But if he can get on a roll here and get some consistency and do a good job for us, we will be fine.''
The problem, of course, is that Neuvirth's rolls tend to just slightly exceed the expiration date of a dairy product. Over the last six seasons, the greatest of number of regular-season games he has played has been 32.
"Is it a part [of the equation]? I guess if you think about it,'' Hextall said. "Whenever you get down two goalies and you're down to one, I think you're a little bit nervous no matter what. Obviously, Alex has proved capable at the American League level; here, hasn't proved it. Should get a chance.''
For hope, for inspiration, Hextall turned to the plight of the Vegas Golden Knights, who lost starter Marc-Andre Fleury for two months and backup Malcolm Subban for a stretch, and played a total of five goaltenders while each healed.
"They get two guys down, three guys down, and everyone is like, `Oh, Vegas is done,' " Hextall said. "You know what? They're not done. What are they, second in the league?