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When Philadelphia Flyers general manager Daniel Briere decided last week to hold his midseason press conference on Wednesday, he almost certainly did not know that he would be answering questions regarding the biggest hockey story bubbling below the surface over the past year and a half.
But after Carter Hart requested and was granted an indefinite leave of absence from the team yesterday — and then The Globe and Mail reported on Wednesday morning that sexual assault charges would soon be brought against five members of the 2018 Canadian world juniors club that Hart backstopped — Briere knew he would be facing such questions.
Briere couldn’t say much. But there were two recurring themes he articulated throughout the press conference. First, the Flyers have been told by the NHL to decline direct comment on the situation. And second, that Sam Ersson is now the team’s goaltender of the present — and perhaps, the future.
“We are aware of this morning’s press reports on a very serious matter,” Briere said in a prepared statement at the start of his availability. “We will respond appropriately when the outcomes of the investigation are made public. The NHL has been very clear that teams should refer all investigation-related questions to them. In the meantime, members of the organization – including Flyers players – will not be commenting any further.”
As of now, charges have not yet been announced by the London, Ontario police department in relation to the incident, which occurred on June 19, 2018 after a Hockey Canada Foundation Gala & Golf event during which the gold medal-winning team was honored. But there are five players who have been granted indefinite leaves of absence from their respective clubs over the past 72 hours who were members of the 2018 Canadian team.
Hart’s leave was announced by the Flyers on Tuesday night. The Calgary Flames released a statement on Sunday revealing that Dillon Dube was stepping away from the team for mental health reasons. Alex Formenton, a former Ottawa Senator who signed in Switzerland to play for HC Ambrì-Piotta because Ottawa chose not to offer the pending 22-year old RFA a contract after the 2021-22 season despite Formenton delivering a promising 32-point season for the club, was also granted a leave of absence by his team to return to Canada. And on Wednesday, the New Jersey Devils announced that Michael McLeod and Cal Foote both requested and were granted indefinite leaves of absence as well.
Briere, under directive from the league, was able to say very little. He confirmed that he was not in contact with Hart or his representation. When asked if he was operating under the assumption that Hart would be unavailable for an extended period of time, Briere acknowledged he did not know. He noted that Hart made no indication to the Flyers that his recent dip in play was related to any updates the player may have received regarding the investigation. And when asked if the Flyers would look to cut ties with Hart if Hart’s involvement in the alleged sexual assault is revealed, Briere responded that the league would play a part in that process — presumably in the sense of potential NHL discipline.
“I cannot comment on that at this time. We will be waiting from the league on that,” he said.
But what Briere didn’t say was notable. He didn’t specifically state that Hart’s leave of absence has no connection with the London police’s investigation. He didn’t express sympathy for Hart, as one would reasonably expect Briere to do if the cause of Hart’s absence was something like a family emergency or a personal mental health issue.
He also didn’t throw cold water on the idea of Ersson taking over No. 1 duties in net for the club.
Briere couldn’t say much about Hart, per the NHL’s directive. But he could talk about Ersson, who now suddenly isn’t just the shiny new toy backup on a hot streak, but the team’s present, clear-cut top goalie on their depth chart.
“We have to be careful,” he pointed out. “You don’t want to put too much pressure early, you want to still make sure – because he’s still developing, he’s still young, he’s acquiring experience. This is a great opportunity for him to shoulder a lot of the heavy load.”
Ersson, it’s worth remembering, is far from an established NHL netminder. The 24-year old has appeared in just 35 NHL games, only 31 of them starts. His current full-season 0.905 save percentage is nothing eye-popping, nor is his career 0.903 mark.
But since November 3, after a rough three-game start to his rookie season, Ersson’s play has taken a major leap. In 20 games over that span, Ersson has a 12-5-2 record, a 0.921 save percentage (fourth in the NHL), and has stopped 15.8 shots above expectation given the quality of chances he has faced, per Evolving-Hockey’s GSAx metric.
“What I can tell you is Sam Ersson has played extremely well,” Briere noted. “Has earned the right to more ice time. We’re excited by our goaltending, especially the way Sam played and came up and won some big games for us.”
But that strong work was in a hybrid backup/timeshare role. It’s only been since the post-Christmas road trip that Ersson has even split time at the NHL level. Now, he’ll be getting the lion’s share of the starts — for a Flyers club that at least by points, sits second in a hyper-competitive Metropolitan Division.
“We’ll have to protect him as much as we can,” Briere said. “He’s still developing, he’s still a good young goalie getting better and better. So we’ll have to be careful. But we’re excited with his play, and that he can carry us moving forward until we know a little bit more on Carter’s situation.”
The organization has long believed that they unearthed a gem in the fifth round of the 2018 draft, dating back to Ersson’s Draft+1 season when he excelled in the second-tier Swedish professional league at age 19. But Hart was always viewed as the team’s long-term No. 1, a drafted-and-developed quality NHL starter with the upside to plausibly take an even larger leap into stardom at some point in the future.
Now, Hart’s career with the Flyers — and in the NHL entirely, if he was involved in the alleged incident — is in limbo. And while it is under the worst circumstances possible, the door is now open for Ersson to establish himself as the team’s future in net.
So can he be that kind of player?
“A No. 1? Definitely. I believe that,” Briere affirmed.
It remains possible that Hart’s indefinite leave of absence is unrelated to the Hockey Canada incident. It’s possible that he will not be charged, or that he will be convincingly cleared of wrongdoing if charged. But the uncertainty surrounding his future status — due to, it must be remembered, truly awful allegations of illegal and heinous conduct with a clear victim at the center — is very real.
On Wednesday morning, Briere did not nothing to quell the widespread speculation surrounding Hart — and that this temporary passing of the torch to Sam Ersson could prove to not be temporary at all.