Commentary

Philly's search for No. 1 goalie continues

Updated: February 19, 2009, 12:42 PM ET
By Pierre LeBrun | ESPN.com

Martin Biron Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesThis season, Martin Biron (pictured) has been splitting time in net with Antero Niittymaki.
We bring you the headline from a particular sports column in last Friday's edition of the Philadelphia Daily News:

"Time to wonder who is Flyers' No. 1 goaltender"

In other news, the sky is blue and Philly sports fans are passionate.

We are not in any way disparaging what was a well-written piece by Daily News sports columnist Sam Donnellon, one that examined just who between Martin Biron and Antero Niittymaki would claim the No. 1 job in net.

It's just that, well, there's a Groundhog Day feel to this story, right?

Since Ron Hextall's excellent first tour of duty in the Flyers' net from the 1986-87 season to 1991-92, the revolving door in the Flyers' goal has been mesmerizing. The search for a true No. 1 has been endless.

It started with Tommy Soderstrom in 1992-93, followed the next season by Dominic Roussel. Then came Hextall's second tour of (twilight) duty, followed by the likes of Garth Snow, Sean Burke, John Vanbiesbrouck, Brian Boucher, Roman Cechmanek, Robert Esche, Niittymaki and then Biron.

By our count, that's 11 masked men who have had legitimate handles on the Flyers' No. 1 job over 16 seasons. The New Jersey Devils have had the same guy in net for the past 15 seasons. The Flyers? They've averaged about 1.5 seasons per starting goalie. Talk about a short shelf life.

"That's a fact," said Boucher, now a solid backup in San Jose, to ESPN.com. "You just look at the track records and a lot of goalies have gone through there. Maybe they just haven't, in their opinion, found the guy that they believe is their guy. I don't know. They haven't won, they haven't had a championship team in a long time, so I guess they're right."

Other NHL teams have also gone through many starting goalies in that same span, but what makes Philadelphia's situation unique, perhaps, is that despite the goalie carousel, the Flyers have remained a largely competitive outfit throughout, missing the playoffs only three times during that 16-year span while reaching three conference finals and one Stanley Cup final. "The Flyers give their fans some pretty good teams, I tell you," Vanbiesbrouck said this week.

But the goalie thing … what's up with that? (As an aside, the Flyers have had the same goalie coach, former NHL netminder Reggie Lemelin, for the past 13 seasons. We're just saying …)

It's not as if the Flyers haven't had any good goalies on that list; the netminders just don't last long in Philly.

[+] EnlargeSean Burke
Mitchell Layton/Getty ImagesSean Burke was in net for the Flyers during the 1997-98 and 2003-04 seasons.

"It's a legitimate point," Flyers legend and former longtime GM Bob Clarke told ESPN.com. "Is there too much heat on the goalies in Philly? Or do they feel it too much? Probably. But I guess by the same token, if they are great, they're held in the highest regard their whole life. Look at Bernie Parent."

Parent has two Stanley Cup rings. That's the standard, perhaps?

"Some people have a hard time playing in Philly because the expectations are high," said Hextall, now an assistant GM in Los Angeles. "It's pretty much Stanley Cup or bust. Obviously, there are high expectations every year. But quite frankly, I like that. I think a lot of guys revel in that, too. To me, it's a positive."

Hextall fed off it. He was a fan favorite.

"It is a town that does fall in love with their goalies, and I think they have a passionate relationship with them because they look at them like a quarterback in football," said Vanbiesbrouck, who tended goal for the Flyers in 1998-99 and 1999-00. "And that's a nice place to be. I really loved the challenge. Unfortunately, the only answer to that [challenge] is doing what the Phillies did, winning it all."

Otherwise, you're yesterday's news.

"The most excited I ever was in my career was going to Philly," Burke said. "The second-most excited I ever was was to get the heck out of there."

Burke, now the director of prospect development in Phoenix, had two stints with the Flyers: a late-season pickup in 1997-98, when he took over the No. 1 job ahead of Hextall (Snow went the other way to Vancouver in the trade), and then again as a late-season acquisition in 2003-04 as insurance to Esche.

"I was never as excited to go to a place as I was to Philly, because I grew up a huge Flyers fan as a kid, despite being from Toronto," Burke recalled of his first tour with the Flyers. "I was a huge Bobby Clarke fan and loved the Broad Street Bullies."

Then he stepped off the plane in Philadelphia after that trade in March 1998, got into a taxi on the way to the arena and realized immediately what he was getting into.

"The cab driver didn't know who I was, and he had the sports channel on the radio," Burke said. "The first thing that comes up on the show is that the Flyers had just traded for Sean Burke. The two guys on the show just went off: 'This guy's a bum. Why did we trade for him?' I'm sitting in the taxicab, thinking to myself, 'Oh my God.' I was so excited to get there, and the first thing I hear was the two guys on the radio carving me.

"And in fairness, I didn't play extremely well. I played well in the regular season when I got there, but as I said, in the first round, we went out in five games to Buffalo."

Burke was gone that summer, replaced by Vanbiesbrouck.

"It was a high-pressure-packed situation," Beezer said. "I signed as a free agent, and whenever you sign as a free agent, I always think there's added pressure on guys. We had a wonderful team and they were making additions. Eric [Lindros] was at the tip of his frustrations with the Philly people. So a lot of that was being played out as well.

"We gave it our best shot. We lost to Toronto the first year I was there in the first round, and sometimes you have to call it like it is. CuJo was excellent, and Toronto was a decent team. They beat a great Flyers team that year. We went a stretch of 28 games without a blemish that season."

Ah yes, CuJo. The Flyers could have signed Curtis Joseph in the summer of 1998. He was a hot commodity on the free-agent market after his sensational playoff performances for the underdog Edmonton Oilers. But the Flyers opted for Vanbiesbrouck instead.

"You could say we should have signed Joseph for $6 million or $7 million a year instead of Vanbiesbrouck for $3 million. But if you use that theory, then you're probably eliminating two other players from your team because you're spending your money on your goaltending instead," said Clarke, now a vice president with the Flyers. "And it's not like Toronto won Cups either, and they spent $6 million or $7 million on Joseph and, at that time, he was as good as anyone in the game probably."

Clarke still doesn't buy the argument that you need to spend a ton on a netminder or have the best goalie in hockey to win.

"Disputing that theory is Detroit," he said. "They spend their money on their players. They have good goaltending, but they don't have the best goaltending in the league, and they still win the Cup."

Boucher, meanwhile, replaced Vanbiesbrouck as the No. 1 man near the end of the 1999-00 season, the hotshot rookie leading the Flyers to the Eastern Conference finals against New Jersey. Finally, the Flyers thought, a goalie to build around.

"Bouch came in and he was unbelievable at the end of the year and in the playoffs," Clarke said. "We thought we were set for 10 years. At the start of the next year, he held out and we fought over a contract. He got way too much money for where he was in his development. I told the agent, 'We'll pay him because we have to, but this will put so much pressure on this kid, he won't be able to stop the puck.' And that's exactly what happened."

Boucher had nothing bad to say about his time in Philly, where he played in 103 games, going 46-38-12-3 with a 2.45 goals-against average and a .902 save percentage.

"Goaltending is a tough position there," Boucher said. "It's like the quarterback. Donovan McNabb takes a lot of heat there. So does a pitcher in Philadelphia. These guys are under the spotlight. The fans just want a winner, and they want someone who is going to make the saves. And they want you to go down trying. It comes with the territory there.

The most excited I ever was in my career was going to Philly.The second-most excited I ever was was to get the heck out of there.

-- Former Flyers goalie Sean Burke

"But I can say that on the flip side, when things do go well, they respond in a good way as well. You take the good with the bad."

In their interviews with ESPN.com, Boucher, Burke and Vanbiesbrouck, unbeknownst to each other, all made the comparison to the pressures of being a quarterback in Philadelphia.

"It's the same for goalies, quarterbacks or pitchers in this town," agreed Biron, who is living it now. "It's a tough sports town, it's very demanding, but it's so much fun. It pushes you to give your best."

How tough is it to play goal in Philly? Ask Burke.

"I can remember winning a game 3-1 against Chicago, walking out after the game to my car and having people boo," Burke said. "One guy yelled at me, 'You suck!' Usually I would never say anything, except this one time I turned around and I said to the guy, 'Buddy, we just won 3-1.' He said, 'Yeah, but that was a horrible goal you gave up.'"

Boucher smiled when asked for his favorite anecdote.

"I can remember going to the bench for a TV timeout and getting absolutely berated by a fan," he said. "He was hanging over the glass. It was something you expected to hear on the road. You act like you can't hear him, but you do hear. Hey, the Philly fans threw a snowball at Santa Claus one year at an Eagles game. You enjoy that passion. I've played in places where there is no passion and there is no fan support."

As we return to our timeline, Boucher lost his starting job to Cechmanek, an interesting character from the Czech Republic who was runner-up to countryman Dominik Hasek for the Vezina Trophy in 2000-01, and also shared a Jennings Trophy with Martin Brodeur in 2002-03.

"It was a very nice time that I spent there," said Cechmanek, reached in the Czech Republic on Wednesday, to ESPN.com. "I was there three years and had some good seasons."

And yes, he felt that Philly pressure, too.

"It's true. They love hockey there, and they want to see the team at the top, and that puts pressure on the goalies," said Cechmanek, who at 37 is still playing goal in the Czech League. "The goalie is the most important part of the team. If you're in net, you need to play well, and if you make mistakes, there's no excuses for you in Philadelphia. That's why there's pressure on the goalies there."

Sounds like it wasn't the fans but the GM who had enough of Cechmanek, however.

"Cechmanek would be great all year long, and then the playoffs would come around and I think Cechmanek was already going home," Clarke said. "I'm serious. You hate to say that about anybody, but I don't think winning the Stanley Cup was that big a deal for him. He played terrific, but could never go to that next level in the playoffs."

Esche was acquired in a deal that sent Boucher to Phoenix in June 2002. After backing up Cechmanek in 2002-03, he took over the No. 1 job in 2003-04 and helped the Flyers to within one victory of the Cup finals.

[+] EnlargeRon Hextall
Denis Brodeur/NHLI/Getty ImagesRon Hextall won the Conn Smythe Trophy (in a losing effort) with the Flyers in 1987.

Again, finally, the Flyers thought they had their man. But following a six-game playoff loss in the first round to Buffalo in 2005-06, Esche was no longer the favorite, eventually losing his job to Torino Olympic star Niittymaki.

Esche declined to speak with ESPN.com when reached in Russia through his coach there, Barry Smith. The former Flyers goalie is in his second season in Russia, where Smith said he has really excelled this year with St. Petersburg.

"Esche battled hard and worked hard and he got himself into a position where he could be a decent No. 1 goalie," Clarke said. "But he reacted poorly to any type of competition from another goalie. He thought it was his job and he should have it. The competition made him worse."

The affable Biron was acquired near the trade deadline in 2006-07 by new GM Paul Holmgren, and he's been the No. 1 goalie for the most part ever since. He was terrific last season in leading the Flyers to the Eastern Conference finals, particularly in a second-round series win over Montreal.

Now, this season, Niittymaki is pushing him. There's always the backup pushing in Philly, right? Just like Snow and Hextall, Boucher and Vanbiesbrouck, Cechmanek and Boucher, Esche and Cechmanek, Niittymaki and Esche …

"The best goalies for the Philadelphia Flyers will always be the backup," Burke said. "Until he becomes the No. 1. And then, at that point, the next backup is the best."

The Flyers have the right guy handling all of this right now. You'll meet few goalies that are as easygoing as Biron.

"I don't know that anything bothers Marty too much," Clarke said. "If he has a bad night, it's not going to eat at him much. If Niittymaki has some good games, he's encouraging him."

Biron welcomes the fans' demanding standards.

"They're passionate," he said. "If you go out there and give them everything you've got, they'll be behind you 100 percent. But they want to see their team win. It's fun; it keeps you on your toes. You always want to do more."

We were 20 minutes or so into our conversation with Clarke and covered nearly two decades and a string of goalies. He sighed.

"The hardest thing that I found as a GM was making goaltenders just part of the team," Clarke said. "Your job is to stop the puck when the coach asks you to go in there. You're not competing with the other goalie. We isolate goalies, we treat them special, we give them special treatment. Even when I was playing, Bernie had his own room and all this kind of stuff.

"If you can convince them that, the two of them together, your jobs are just to stop the puck. The coach will tell you who's playing, and in the meantime, pull for your team. Don't hope when the other guy goes in that he lets in six goals so you can play. That's B.S."

At this point, we weren't going to interrupt him.

"But both Niittymaki and Biron, we're lucky in that respect, they're both really good team guys," Clarke said. "They're not hoping the other guy doesn't do well. They pull for their team. It's really hard to get both guys to do that."

But who's No. 1?

Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.