Philadelphia Flyers: Ranking the Goalies from Hextall to Today
Since Ron Hextall joined the Philadelphia Flyers in 1986, the Orange and Black has had fifteen different players wearing the pads. The team has developed a league-wide reputation for being unable to find a permanent resident in net since Hextall’s second stint with the Flyers ended in 1999.
By comparison, the Turnpike rival New Jersey Devils haven’t given a second thought to their goaltending situation since the early ‘90s.
This offseason, General Manager Paul Holmgren made a move to end the frustration, signing Ilya Bryzgalov to a nine-year deal that should finally allow fans to have confidence in the man in the crease.
At the risk of prematurely shutting down the post-Hextall goalie carousel, let’s look at the power rankings of the Philly netminders from the glory days of Hextall and the Messianic arrival of Bryz.
No list of Flyers goalies would be complete without mentioning the guys that make you go, “Who?”
While it would certainly take too long to list them all, how could the city forget Perennial Phantom Neil Little, 2009-10’s Seventh-Man-Of-The-Year Sebastian Caron, Mr. One Game, Five Goals Jean-Marc Pelletier and Complete Bust Maxime Ouellet?
Also, in the dismal 2006-07 season, Martin Houle literally played two minutes for the team. And he managed to give up a goal. There is proof right here.
15. Tommy Soderstrom (1992-1994)
Tommy Soderstrom split starts with Dominic Roussel for two seasons while Hextall played in Quebec and New York. A passing glance at his stats tells you all you need to know about why the Flyers quickly maneuvered to bring Hextall back.
Flyers fans watching at the time had no idea that Tommy Soderstrom was destined to be the first of a long line of goalies that would make Flyers fans wonder, “What is this guy doing? Where’s Hextall?”
Congratulations, Tommy. Some guys on this list don’t even have THAT claim to fame.
14. Jeff Hackett (2003-2004)
Jeff Hackett’s statistics aren’t so bad; some teams would kill for a goalie with a 2.39 GAA and a .905 SV%.
Unfortunately, Hackett was hardly a blip on the Flyers radar. He spent the year as a backup to Robert Esche and by February of that season, he was forced to retire due to vertigo.
He had a great career elsewhere in the NHL, but his time with the Flyers puts him low on the list. But given his reasons for calling it quits, it’s probably better that he isn’t too high on the list.
13. Sean Burke (1997-1998, 2003-2004)
Sean Burke played two season with the Flyers, starting in the 1997-98 season to fill in for Garth Snow and culminating as the second part of the Two-Headed Nothing that was the Flyers’ backups in 2003-04 (Hackett and Burke).
What makes Burke unworthy of a higher spot on the list is the fact that he was barely a Flyer. He played eleven regular season games in 1997-98 and fifteen in 2003-04.
There was some expectation in 2003-04 that he would be a suitable replacement for the departed Roman Cechmanek after putting up impressive numbers in Phoenix.
It didn’t work out and it’s safe to assume that Burke finds his time in Philly as forgettable as we do.
12. Ray Emery (2009-2010)
The Ray Emery experiment was Paul Holmgren’s attempt to replace his departed goaltending tandem of Martin Biron and Antero Niittymaki with a rehabilitated former star. Emery had made the Finals with the Ottawa Senators before personal issues and a bad temper forced him to the Kontinental Hockey League.
Holmgren believed he was getting a goalie with a big upside for a cheap price and a short-term commitment.
Emery was solid in net, but his body was not solid enough to handle a strenuous season, as Emery suffered from a degenerative bone disease. By the end of 2009 he had broken down and seemingly left the Flyers without a netminder.
Emery’s statistics merit a higher ranking on this list, but the end result—another goalie failing to come close to living up to expectations—makes him a dud. By the time the Flyers reached the Finals under Brian Boucher and Michael Leighton, many fans had forgotten their opening day starter.
11. Dominic Roussel (1991-1996)
Dominic Roussel was two things: a capable backup to Hextall in during three seasons (1991-92, 1994-95 and 1995-96) and a disappointment when he was given a bigger role.
His GAA with Hextall around was sub-3.00; his GAA without Hextall was 3.76 one year and 3.34 the next.
Unfortunately his best years were the ones the mattered least, but Roussel does get bonus points for not being as useless as his partner, Tommy Soderstrom, during the bad years.
10. Garth Snow (1995-1998)
Garth Snow is another netminder who benefited in some way from being Ron Hextall’s backup.
His numbers look good, but for two seasons Hextall was the starter, and in the third they split time. Snow saw action in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final in 1997—a game the Flyers lost—leading fans and management to question Terry Murray’s decision to play his backup, ultimately leading to Murray’s firing.
In the end, Snow was traded to the Vancouver Canucks, but his greatest contribution to the Flyers was yet to come. As GM of the New York Islanders, Snow put together a team that the Flyers could beat up on each and every season to earn some extra points in the standings.
We love you, Garth.
9. Antero Niittymaki (2003-2009)
With the exception of Hextall, no player on this list spent more time as a Flyer than Antero Niittymaki. He played five seasons over six years (starting with a few games in 2003-04 and extending through the lockout before splitting time with Robert Esche in 2005-06) and always seemed like he was on the verge of breaking out.
However, Niittymaki would always play second fiddle—to Esche in 2005-06 and Martin Biron after he was acquired late in the 2006-07 season. Niittymaki’s only full season as a starter was during that dismal year when the Flyers were the worst team in the league. Unable to elevate his game surrounded by a bad team, Niitty won only nine of his 52 games all season.
Had the Flyers been a better team during Niitty’s big chance in 06-07, he very well may have been the new Hextall for years to come. As it were, he would end his time with the Flyers as reliable, capable and well-liked, but only in the backup role.
8. Sergei Bobrovsky (2010-Present)
So much of Sergei Bobrovsky’s legacy in Philadelphia is more hypothetical than anything else. The dramatic fashion in which he burst onto the scene had Flyers fans convinced that he was the second coming of Hextall.
Bob finished 2010-11 with numbers that landed somewhere between solid and brilliant; early in the season, Calder Trophy discussions always involved his name. But as the season wore on, he looked less unbeatable and more like a rookie playing in North America for the first time.
Bob’s successes were apparently not enough to convince Paul Holmgren that he was the answer to the Hextall Question, as the GM signed Ilya Bryzgalov to a nine-year deal with just one season under Bob’s belt.
Bobrovsky is still a Flyer and barring a trade, will be the team’s backup in 2011-12, so his story in Philadelphia remains unfinished. But the collective assumption that his days in the City of Brotherly Love are winding down makes it impossible to put him higher on this list.
7. Michael Leighton (2009-Present)
Michael Leighton’s tenure as a Flyer includes four forgettable games in the 2006-07 season and one unimpressive start last year. The majority of Philadelphia’s focus on Leighton came in the second part of 2009-10, when Leighton essentially saved the Flyers season.
His numbers, including a mere 35 games played, should make him forgettable and give him a lower ranking on this list. But it was what those limited starts meant that make him an important part of the Flyers goaltending mosaic.
At one point during 2009-10, the Flyers sat in fourteenth place in the East, seemingly preparing to miss the playoffs for the second time in four years. Leighton was acquired from Carolina and became the starter when Brian Boucher went down with an injury.
Leighton went 8-0-1 in his first nine starts and got the team back into the hunt for a playoff spot. The Flyers would make the playoffs under Boucher with Leighton out with an injury, but he returned when Boucher was injured in the second round of the playoffs.
Leighton would help the Flyers come back against the Bruins, backstop the team through the Eastern Conference Finals and get to overtime of Game 6 of the Stanley Cup, where the magic ran out and the Flyers lost thanks to one of the weakest goals in Cup history.
If Kane’s shot hadn’t gone in, who knows where Leighton would rank on this list today?
6. Robert Esche (2002-2007)
Robert Esche played in parts of four seasons for the Flyers, including two years where he shared the starting goalie role.
Esche came to the Flyers before the 2002-03 season along with Michal Handzus in exchange for Brian Boucher, who appeared to have lost the starting goalie role to Roman Cechmanek. Esche’s expectations at the time of the trade were not particularly high, and even when Cechmanek was traded after the 2002-03 season fans and management had trouble viewing Esche as a starter.
Despite the absence of unconditional support, Esche posted a 2.04 GAA and .915 SV% in 2003-04 en route to a playoff run. He would take part in one of the most dramatic sequences in recent playoff memory, depicted in the video, and took the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed Tampa Bay Lightning to seven games before the Flyers finally bowed out of the playoffs, capping the team’s most successful season since 1996-97.
Esche would go on to play another full season for the Flyers and eighteen games in 2006-07, before his tenure in Orange and Black finally came to an end.
For a goalie who was always thought of as a backup, Robert Esche showed Philadelphia a good time.
5. John Vanbiesbrouck (1998-2000)
John Vanbiesbrouck was the first goalie in the true post-Hextall era (after Hextall’s permanent retirement). The Beezer started the majority of games, with Hextall as a backup, in the 1998-99 season, posting a 27-18-15 record for the Flyers.
His regular season statistics made him seem like a natural choice to succeed Hextall, and for all intents and purposes the Flyers should have solved the goalie crisis before it ever truly began.
However, despite a .938 SV% in the first round of the playoffs against Toronto, the goals that Vanbiesbrouck did allow appeared to be soft—a disconcerting problem for Flyers management. After another impressive regular season in 1999-2000, the Flyers went with their backup, Brian Boucher, in the playoffs.
The apparent emergence of Boucher made Vanbiesbrouck expendable for the Flyers, and the team chose to trade him to the New York Islanders instead of picking up the third year of his contract.
Fans can argue back and forth about whether the decision to get rid of Vanbiesbrouck was the right move, but one thing is for certain: Beezer’s exit sent the Flyers into a whirlwind of goaltending uncertainties that lasts until this day.
4. Martin Biron (2007-2009)
Martin Biron was acquired from the Buffalo Sabres before the trade deadline in February of 2007, during the Flyers’ most disastrous season in recent memory. Biron was a key part of Paul Holmgren’s streamlined rebuilding process, and Biron would be the Flyers’ starting goalie for the next two full seasons.
In 2007-08, Biron solidified himself as a step in the right direction be posting a GAA of 2.59 and an impressive SV% of .918. The entire team bounced back from the dismal year prior, and the team made the playoffs as a sixth seed.
In the first two rounds of the playoffs, Biron played like a madman, beating the explosive Washington Capitals in a dramatic seven-game series and knocking off the top-seeded Canadiens in five. The dream ultimately came to an end at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins, but Biron had made a statement that he was a reliable presence in net.
Biron would have another solid season in 2008-09, splitting time again with Antero Niittymaki and helping the team make the playoffs as a five seed. Again, the Penguins had his number, and much like in the case of Vanbiesbrouck, questions began to arise about Biron’s ability to stop the shots that he needed to stop.
When Holmgren decided to take a chance on the less-expensive Ray Emery during that offseason, Biron’s tenure in Philadelphia came to an end, perhaps prematurely. Like so many goaltenders before him, questions about Biron’s postseason abilities, warranted or unwarranted, would ultimately run him out of town.
His role in the 2007-08 season, re-establishing the Flyers as a force in the NHL, is enough to put him at No. 4 on this list.
3. Roman Cechmanek (2000-2003)
Roman Cechmanek was a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside goalie pads. As one of the most intense, interesting and capable goaltenders in the NHL since he burst onto the scene, Cechmanek gave the fans plenty to cheer about.
His regular season numbers speak for themselves: in three seasons with the team, his GAA is under 2.00 and his SV% is an amazing .923%, a number that Flyers fans haven’t dreamed of in many years.
Cechmanek was best known for using his head to make the save, and that doesn’t mean outsmarting the opponent with technique. Cechmanek looked like Dominik Hasek in net, seemingly always out of place but always making the save, and more than once he intentionally put the puck off his own helmet to steer it away.
Cechmanek nearly won the Vezina Trophy as a rookie after stealing the starting job from another young sensation, Brian Boucher.
For as impenetrable as his head looked when deflecting pucks of his helmet, the pressure of the playoffs appeared to be the one thing that could get in there. Cechmanek would play a stellar series against Ottawa in his second year, but the Flyers only managed two goals in the series and lost in five games.
The next season, he was unable to find the magic and allowed soft goals that cost the Flyers a playoff run in the second round. Despite three impressive seasons in Philly, his time came to an end after those playoffs and he was shipped to Los Angeles.
One good playoff run—a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals or the Stanley Cup—and Cechmanek may have been a franchise goaltender. But in Philadelphia, when you don’t win in the playoffs, you don’t play here for long.
2. Brian Boucher (1999-2002, 2009-2011)
Since the Hextall days, no Flyers goalie has had a more interesting journey than Brian Boucher.
Boucher burst onto the scene in the 1999-2000 season, stealing the starting job from veteran John Vanbiesbrouck and taking the Flyers to the Eastern Conference Finals, where he would make the most famous save of his career against Patrik Elias of the New Jersey Devils.
Despite losing the series, Boucher undoubtedly seemed to be the future of the Flyers, until Roman Cechmanek burst onto the scene and put up such ridiculous numbers that Boucher took a backseat, and his time in Philadelphia seemed to come to an end when he was a key piece of a trade that brought Robert Esche to the city.
He would play for five different Western Conference teams before returning to Philadelphia as a free agent in 2009 as a contingency plan if Ray Emery failed. Within months Boucher was starting in Emery’s place, but a hand injury sidelined Boosh and Michael Leighton took the starting job until the season was winding down, when he too suffered an injury.
Back in the starting role, Boucher faced the Rangers in the last game of the season, with the winner advancing to the Stanley Cup playoffs and the loser going home. Boucher managed to beat the Rangers, one of the top shootout teams in the league, in a shootout capped with a save on Olli Jokinen.
Boosh would win the first series against the Devils and began the 3-0 comeback against the Bruins until Ryan Parent injured his own netminder, allowing Leighton to regain the starting role.
In 2010-11, Boucher served as a mentor and backup to Sergei Bobrovsky and would be a part of the team’s goaltending tandem in the playoffs, though the Flyers were eliminated in the second round.
In one way or another, Brian Boucher was directly connected to six of the goaltenders on this list and played a key role in several of the Flyers' finest moments and greatest disappointments over the last twelve years.
1. Ron Hextall (1986-1992, 1994-1999)
There’s a reason that every time a Flyers fan gripes about goaltending, he or she gets nostalgic for this guy.
For parts of eleven different seasons (more than double any other player on this list), Hextall was the guy in Philadelphia.
Hextall appeared in two Stanley Cup Finals, first in 1987 and second in 1997. He also scored two goals, including one in the playoffs against the Washington Capitals. He is considered the first goaltender to intentionally shoot the puck into the net, and is the first goalie to do it in the playoffs.
Hextall was traded to the Quebec Nordiques before the 1992-1993 season as a part of the Eric Lindros trade, but the Flyers experienced their first taste of life after Hextall and apparently did not enjoy it, as they brought the fiery netminder back in 1994.
He won both the Vezina Trophy and the Conn Smythe Trophy in 1987 and was inducted into the Flyers Hall of Fame in 2008.
Awards, Finals appearances and goals will get you liked in Philadelphia, but Hextall knew what it took to be loved: he played with attitude.
One of his most famous (or infamous) moments is depicted in the video, when Hextall attacked Montreal’s Chris Chelios after the whistle and proceeded to challenge the entire Canadiens bench to a brawl.
To most fans, what Hextall did was dirty and senseless; to Flyers fans, it was admirable and made perfect sense.
Alas, the Hextall days are over, never to return, and Flyers fans have been waiting for his second (or third) coming for more than a decade now. With Ilya Bryzgalov under contract, the Flyers know they might not have a player with Hextall’s temperament, but it would be enough simply to have a goalie with his abilities.
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