Thursday, August 01, 2013

Facing a tough choice, Flyers goalie prospect took the easy way out

by Bob Herpen
Phanatic Hockey Editor 

You're 18 years old, a top draft pick from an NHL team which plays close to where you grew up.

You have a choice in the eternal struggle on the path to a career: head to juniors or go the college route. You choose a mid-level university in a top-flight conference whose players exhibit the size and skill level closest to the goal. But there's a problem.

The incumbent is a senior. As a freshman, you get your share of playing time, but don't perform up to standards and the senior becomes the clear starter. No worries, there's an out -- a high-level Canadian junior squad shows interest and promises you a chance to start right away.

What would you do?

If you're Anthony Stolarz, you do what any sensible but antsy teenager does, take the leap out of Division I hockey and go straight to an Ontario Hockey League powerhouse, the London Knights.

NHL.com's Adam Kimelman might have you believe that the path Stolarz took this season was fraught with "adversity," in a piece submitted on Monday, but here's another perspective.

Anthony Stolarz is guilty of the same impatience that seems to be epidemic in the Philadelphia Flyers' front office. At least the Jackson, New Jersey native has the folly of youth on his side. Here's the kicker: that impatience might actually pay off despite a lack of commitment and loyalty to a program which accepted him.

First, let me point out that Kimelman is incorrect in his assertion, that the Nebraska-Omaha goaltending situation was not a three-man rotation. It was a two-man crease, with John Faulkner the veteran and Stolarz the newbie. One look at the UNO season stats and game-by-game summaries can prove that

Stolarz was given eight chances to prove that he could challenge Faulkner for a bigger piece of the pie, but the final analysis -- 2-5-0 with a 2.56 goals-against average, one shutout and a .898 save percentage -- wasn't enough for head coach Dean Blais to gain any more faith in the rookie.

As for Stolarz' own recollections of his frustrations regarding playing time coming to a head in the week between Christmas and New Year's, they're also faulty.

He subbed for Faulkner in the opener of a two-game set against Minnesota State on December 14, then got the start, and won, for his second and final collegiate victory the next night. Stolarz then lost the front end of two games at Quinnipiac on December 29, and sat in favor of Faulkner in a loss the following day. By the time the calendar switched to 2013 and the Mavericks played twice in Denver, Stolarz was gone, enticed North of the Border by the Hunter family.

In Kimelman's piece, a throwaway line, for me, is a key. He asserts that the "Flyers were frustrated," but I'm left to wonder if that's an isolated incident because Stolarz didn't play the time that Ian Laperriere went to see him, or that the organization was not in favor of the usual upperclass-underclass meritocracy that's found in American college hockey.

After some online badgering, Laperriere was kind enough to tell me that Stolarz left Omaha for London with the Flyers' blessing, that there was no pressure applied, but who knows? Laperriere declined to address my inquiry as to whether London or some other junior team came calling before the commitment to UNO.

It's key because I question Stolarz' commitment and maturity regarding his decision. Yes, it's an accusation that can be leveled at many 18-year-olds, those who have just graduated from high school and are in the words of Alice Cooper, both boy and man, trying to figure it all out. When you have the extra burden of choosing your own career path that might involve six or seven figures, however, the scrutiny is magnified.

If another junior team had come calling prior to his arrival at UNO, why not ditch any idea of college right then and take the leap to juniors? If another junior team had inquired about his services that was not a potential league champion and Memorial Cup hopeful, or one which didn't make promises of chunks of playing time, would Stolarz have chosen to jump? I don't think so. Why start out at the D-I level, decide you're not getting the time you're worth, and leave halfway through a season? And why do it to someone as reputable as Blais, who is a titan of the college game through his time at North Dakota and who has spent a decade building up the Mavericks' program?

Someone must have gotten into his ear early on, telling the young man that he could bide his time in college, and if a better opportunity came along, to quit one and go for the other. That part I don't begrudge so much, because I remember what happened with Rick DiPietro, a 19-year-old wonder who finished up his freshman year before darting straight to the NHL when the Islanders picked him #1 overall in 2000.

What distinguishes DiPietro from Stolarz, in that regard, was that the former managed to complete his first year, as the starter, for a nationally-renowned program at Boston University, where he picked up some accolades (Beanpot winner) and managed to start two NCAA tournament games along the way. Also, DP was offered a chance to pass go AND collect $200 on his rocket ride to the Show.

If Stolarz had stayed at Omaha, he'd have most likely gutted out one year at worst, before being given the chance, as a sophomore, to be the top dog since Faulkner moved on. He would have learned a bit about facing true adversity by dealing with his hard-luck loser status in the back half of last season if he continued to drop some one-goal games where he played well. He'd have learned how to deal with a coaches' reasons for his rotation win, lose or draw.

Instead, what has Stolarz learned about adversity by landing in a ready-made situation in London? He was 13-3-2 with a 2.29 GAA and one whitewash in a three-goalie rotation with Kevin Bailie and Jake Patterson. The Knights strafed the OHL to the tune of 50-13-5 thanks to talents like Max Domi, Bo Horvat and Olli Maatta.

Of course the Flyers would let Stolarz go, with their blessing, to a track they've always felt was a better indicator of talent, resolve, and not to mention a quicker way to get to the NHL. In Omaha, that would be four years, plus the possibility of another year of seasoning in the AHL before being ready for the pros. And the Flyers aren't waiting five or six years for anyone's payoff.

Remember the undercurrent of discord that James van Riemsdyk "wasn't developing" after two years at New Hampshire? Look how that turned out for a college boy.

Is this going to turn into a "damn kids get off my lawn" strafe job on the young man? Of course not.

When you're twice the age Stolarz is, and if you are presented a similar opportunity in your own life regarding a house, job or car, I praise the man or woman who remains resolute and chooses to stay where they are and tough it out. It's still not an easy choice to make though the answer seems clear, because you also see what you give up to get to the next level.

By making the jump to juniors, Stolarz may have set his career course into overdrive, but he's losing out on aspects of a professional's make-up that can be learned by staying committed to a program which is willing to teach and nuture. It's part of his choice I hope he sees later on wasn't beneficial to his development.

I firmly believe Stolarz would have benefitted from staying at UNO and becoming a superstar on a team in the middle of the pack talent-wise in their new conference. And if he would have put together a stellar 2013-14 before departing for juniors? At least he would have gotten a taste of both success and failure at one level before facing the baptism by fire in Canada. It's not guaranteed that London will be a powerhouse for the next several years that will protect him in net.

Because if you can't hack it in juniors, your NHL stock will plummet, and there's no way out. Stolarz has forfeited his college eligibility and it's sink or swim from now on with the wary eye of the Flyers watching.

What happens when he's bombed in his first appearance in Lehigh Valley, faced with a defense depleted because the talent evaluation isn't up to par? What happens if several starts go that way, or Stolarz is unhappy with his playing time? A trip to the ECHL in Greenville? A trip to the KHL?

Stolarz is clearly bidding on continued success, though. Or at least that winning trumps all faults. Ah, youth.


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