Nic Riopel at the 2009 NHL Draft. Photo by Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images
The Flyers have three rookie goalies looking for playing time, but John Grahame prevented Nic Riopel from making that number only two.
It's been a running theme for the past 20-plus years: the Flyers can never find a goalie. Since Ron Hextall won the Conn Smythe in 1987, the team's best goalie has been Roman Cechmanek.
Whether it be draft busts (Brian Boucher, Maxime Ouellet, and Jean-Marc Pelletier), free agent choices (John Vanbiesbrouck and Jeff Hackett), or trades (Garth Snow, Robert Esche, and Sean Burke), the Flyers just haven't been able to find a franchise goalie.
Luckily, that may no longer be the case. While we've certainly heard this before - with Boucher, Pelletier, Ouellet, and Niittymaki - there is reason to believe in the Flyers goaltending prospects. Currently, the team has Johan Backlund, Sergei Bobrovsky, Joacim Eriksson, Nicola Riopel, and Adam Morrison in the organization, among others. The two most exciting prospects are Bobrovsky and Eriksson, but the two most ready to play in the NHL now are Backlund and Riopel.
You may be asking why this is a problem. It's simple: the Flyers have too many guys who need playing time to develop and not enough places for them to play. Eriksson is staying in Europe for at least another year - likely two more - and Morrison will stay in Juniors. Jakub Kovar is in Russia and Brad Phillips is still at Notre Dame.
But with Michael Leighton and Brian Boucher in the NHL, the Flyers now have Backlund, Bobrovsky, Riopel, and Brian Stewart under contract, needing a place to play. Certainly, it would be nice to have two in the AHL and two in the ECHL, but since the Flyers share their ECHL affiliate - the Greenville Road Warriors - with the Rangers, that could get complicated.
Even assuming the Flyers are able to have both goalies receive playing time in Greenville, the team will likely not have enough minutes to go around. This naturally leads to camp battles, but it appears safe to presume that there is only one battle at camp: to backup Johan Backlund. While it's completely possible something else happens, the Flyers will have one of Leighton, Boucher, or Backlund starting in Glens Falls.
From there, that leaves Bobrovsky, Riopel, and Stewart battling to make the AHL. Whether fair or not, Stewart is probably destined to start the year in the ECHL. As an undrafted, 24-year old rookie, the road is daunting enough without having two more-highly touted players in front of you. It's not out of the question, but the safe money is on Stewart starting in Greenville.
That leaves Bobrovsky and Riopel to battle for the coveted AHL job. I'd love to make a bold prediction here, but it's just far too soon to tell. Bobrovsky is the superior athlete, but Riopel knows the North American game and played 10 games for the Phantoms. The two had similar save percentages last year (0.919 for Bobrovsky, 0.918 for Riopel), but Bobrovsky's came in the KHL behind a supposedly poor team, while Riopel's came in the QMJHL behind the league champions.
Having both goalies in the system is truly great. Having a veteran in Backlund ahead of them and a younger - maybe even better - prospect in Eriksson stay in Europe is even better. But now the Flyers have to find minutes for all their goalies, which won't be easy.
This might all be the fault of John Grahame. Or Michael Leighton, depending on your point of view. Last year, when Ray Emery went down, the Flyers recalled Johan Backlund to sit behind Brian Boucher. On December 12th, the Flyers signed John Grahame to an AHL contract, presumably to split time with Nic Riopel in Glens Falls. But on December 15th, the Flyers claimed Leighton off of waivers.
This then created a logjam of goalies, with Boucher and Leighton in the NHL and Backlund and Grahame in the AHL, while Ray Emery was still hoping to return. As a result, Riopel was sent back to Juniors. Now, had Grahame never been signed (and really, would anybody have noticed?), the Phantoms would have likely kept Riopel on their roster, at least until Emery returned. Rather than sending Riopel back to Moncton - where he had nothing left to prove, after winning the league's player of the year award the year before - the Flyers would have let him start a few games until Leighton arrived in Philly and Backlund returned to Glens Falls.
If Riopel was behind Backlund all year, he would have conceivably gotten up to 25 additional starts in the AHL - accounting for Grahame, Jeremy Duchesne, Michael Lee-Teslak, and Carter Hutton's starts. Assuming Riopel the pro stayed healthy like Riopel the amateur, the Flyers would have kept Duchesne and Teslak in the ECHL and not signed Carter Hutton - who also sat on the bench for the Flyers.
Instead, the Flyers pushed back his AHL tryout at least a year. As if anyone needed another reason to dislike John Grahame, this is it. And really, in early December, I don't think anybody would have been comfortable with a Boucher/Backlund combination in the NHL. And nobody is faulting the team for claiming Michael Leighton, but the Flyers chose John Grahame as temporary AHL starter/temporary third-string NHLer over Nic Riopel.
Maybe it was the right call, since the team was only looking for a stop gap until Emery returned. If the team is counting on Emery returning - as they were - they now face having Boucher, Leighton, Backlund, Emery, Grahame, and Riopel looking for a place to play. Really, that doesn't seem to be any different than what actually happened. When Emery returned, the Flyers carried him, Boucher, and Leighton while the Phantoms had Backlund and Grahame. But had the team not signed Grahame, they have Backlund and Riopel splitting time in Adirondack for the rest of the year.
Now, the Flyers have three unknowns battling for playing time in the AHL instead of two. While encouraging competition and possessing multiple high-end prospects is good, limiting development is not. This year, the Flyers will have to juggle their three rookie goaltenders trying to see what they have while simultaneously allowing them to progress in their development. It's just a shame they chose not to let Riopel go through this last year instead.