Goalie should be priority for Flyers

After the playoff disaster, it is impossible for Flyers GM Paul Holmgren to ignore the need for a topflight goaltender .
After the playoff disaster, it is impossible for Flyers GM Paul Holmgren to ignore the need for a topflight goaltender . (YONG KIM / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 09, 2011

It is all Antti Niemi's fault.

You remember Niemi. He was the goaltender when the Chicago Blackhawks beat the Flyers in the Stanley Cup Finals. His name is etched in silver now even though he allowed three or more goals in five of six games against the Flyers. The Blackhawks were so impressed they let him walk to clear salary-cap space.

So Niemi became the fallback argument for those who don't believe a great goalie is necessary to win in today's NHL. What that argument fails to note is that the Blackhawks won the Cup with Niemi because they happened to be facing a team with Michael Leighton in goal.

If Patrick Kane's freaky overtime winner doesn't slip through Leighton in Game 6, who knows how that series would have turned out?

Of course, then Paul Holmgren and the rest of the Flyers' decision makers would be using the we-won-a-Cup-with-Leighton rationale to justify ignoring the goalie position for the next 20 years.

If you're looking for a bright spot in the Flyers' pratfall in the 2011 playoffs, it is that the goalie mess was so ridiculously over the top it would take outright malpractice for Holmgren to let it slide another year. Even if the Flyers believe young Sergei Bobrovsky will be a great goalie in the future, these playoffs proved once and for all that there has to be a first-rate veteran on the team as well.

This situation is similar to what the Eagles faced after the 2003 season. Andy Reid had insisted that he didn't need an elite wide receiver to run his offense effectively. A group of solid interchangeable parts was good enough, since the system would create favorable matchups and spring someone on every play.

Then came the disastrous NFC championship game loss to Carolina, when a cornerback named Ricky Manning Jr. abused wide receiver Todd Pinkston, intercepted three passes, and proved once and for all that an elite receiver was a good idea.

Terrell Owens was Reid's admission that his theory was flawed. The Eagles finally reached the Super Bowl the next year, and Reid has made a home-run threat at receiver a priority ever since.

These 11 games against Buffalo and Boston should serve the same purpose as that Carolina game. Coach Peter Laviolette started with Bobrovsky, went to Brian Boucher too soon, then got desperate enough to start Leighton - who had started one NHL game all season - in a first-round elimination game.

The Flyers won that series in seven games. If they're honest, they'll acknowledge that had much to do with the rash of injuries that befell the Sabres.

Meanwhile, the Sabres started Ryan Miller in all seven games. They got two shutouts out of him. The Bruins started Tim Thomas in all four games. Their coaches weren't forced to play childish games with the media or go with hunches at the game's most singular position.

The Flyers will tell you that it was a team failure against Boston, and it was. Based on the assumption that goalies aren't that important, Holmgren added depth everywhere else in order to make the Flyers a stronger overall team. Nik Zherdev didn't even dress for Game 4 Friday. Kris Versteeg scored the Flyers' only goal, but he was not exactly an asset through the postseason.

As for the defensemen who represented Holmgren's main offseason focus, they were simply dreadful. Andrej Meszaros, who played so well during the regular season, looked completely lost against Boston. Sean O'Donnell wasn't much better. Matt Walker was waived back in January.

After this series, there's simply no way Holmgren or anyone in the Flyers hierarchy can argue that a quality goaltender wouldn't have been a better investment than all five of those guys.

The Bruins reportedly dangled Thomas as trade bait. Niemi was available to any team that wanted him. He signed a one-year deal with San Jose, then earned a four-year extension with his play this season. Certainly there were backup goalies with solid pedigrees who might have been had in a trade, if that's where the Flyers' focus was.

It is true that teams, not merely goaltenders, win Stanley Cups. But goaltenders are part of the team, too. It is folly to treat the position as unimportant out of some organizational stubbornness.

That is impossible to argue after this team was overrun by the Bruins. The best part, for Holmgren, is that he is liberated to do whatever he wants with this roster. The illusion that last year's run would carry over to this year is gone. The Flyers' collapse was complete enough to warrant real change.

That has to include a change in philosophy at the goalie position.

Niemi? Last night, he was one win from advancing to the conference finals with the Sharks. The Blackhawks will be watching him on TV. So will the Flyers.


Follow columnist Phil Sheridan on Twitter at twitter.com/SheridanScribe

Read his blog at go.philly.com/philabuster or his recent columns at go.philly.com/philsheridan

 

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