As Felix Sandstrom showed to a world-wide audience at the World Juniors over the Christmas period, when he is on, he is ON. The Philadelphia Flyers prospect and young Swede has the ability to make all the saves and when he’s feeling it, he can keep every puck that is savable from getting behind him.
He can however – like most goalies young and old – be streaky at times, but this season he had more stretches of excellent play than poor. It was therefore fitting he finished the SHL regular season in style.
With starter Rautio suffering a minor ailment in late February, Sandström was relied upon heavily down the stretch as Brynäs pushed for an automatic playoff spot, and the young Flyers prospect performed to such a high level that even upon the more experienced goalies return he kept the net. The result was that he started five of the last seven games of the season. Across the five games he allowed only 9 goals against and put up a .926 sv%. While across those games he was excellent, he saved his best until last.
In the final game of the season against local rivals Leksands, the young goalie put on a show. This is not hyperbole, no exaggeration – it was one of the better starts by a goaltender in the SHL this season – he stopped everything that it was possible to stop, and one or two pucks that seemed impossible to stop too!
The only puck that got past him over the course of the game took an uncalled goalie interference as Sandström had his skate taken out from under him and ended up prone on his back inside the net as the puck went in. He was unable to push across the crease initially due to the man pressed against his right leg even before he was knocked down. Inexplicably the goal stood even after review and deprived him of what would have been a more than well earned shutout.
But back to the good. During the final game of the season, Sandstrom made what might end up as the save of the season.
He turned away several very high percentage chances in the game, one-timers from the slot, a two-on-one, and a breakaway, but the pièce de résistance came on a bizarre, broken play. An opposition defenseman took a quick shot from the point, which took a double deflection and bounced off a Brynäs defenseman around eight feet from the net. The puck looked in. The crowd thought it was in. But Sandström had other ideas.
Showing his immense flexibility he somehow pushed off with virtually no time to react, and with an outstretched left leg just managed to divert the puck off the goal-line and wide of the post. Add it to the multiple wonder saves he made at the World Juniors on his path to being named goalie of the tournament.
Speaking of the World Juniors, Sandstrom had put together an equally impressive run of play in the SHL leading up to the premier junior tournament on earth. In his five starts in the month before jetting off to North America, he procured five wins for his team and put up a .955 sv% over that stretch.
Now, I know what question is coming next; so that was ten games where he was more than dominant, yet over the season he ‘only’ put up a .908 sv%, what gives?
Well, firstly it should be pointed out that save percentage in the SHL cannot be judged the same as a save percentage in North America. In 2015-16 the mean SHL save percentage was – almost unbelievably – .898%; this season it was .908%. Of course, these figures account for several goalies who played in a minimal number of games; in terms of regular goalies with 10+ games, but even so, amongst goalies with 20+ starts the numbers jump only to .909 sv% and .901 sv%, respectively.
Secondly, well, Sandstrom is a goalie who played most of the season as a teenager in the world’s third-best league. He has shown that his tools and talent can already allow him to excel at this level, but what will allow him to make the next step is improved consistency. Sandstrom has immense fundamentals, and his excellent agility and edge-work can allow him to make difficult saves look routine.
Two-on-ones? He is already in position when the puck comes across. One-timer from the slot? He has already got square to the shooter and narrowed the angle. Breakaway? He won’t be biting until the skater makes a move.
However, at times he can be prone to giving up the odd ‘softy’. This was all that really separated him from the elite SHL goalies this season, Sandström allowed a few too many shots from the blue-line nestle in behind him. There is an argument though that he did not have the best luck. Fellow Brynäs netminder Rautio saw 14 pucks hit the post or bar behind him over the season… with the Flyers young charge in net the opponents only hit iron six times. Amongst the 23 SHL goalies who saw over 500 shots on the season, Sandström got the least help from his little red friends.
Nevertheless, he has played well enough over the course of the season to play over 20 games for the second consecutive year as a ‘junior’ player. That is a rare feat.
In the SHL’s 40+ year history, the only other goalie to do so was fellow Gävle native Jacob Markström. He has given his coach Thomas ‘Bulan’ Berglund a tough decision down the stretch; who will be the Brynäs starter going into the playoffs? Until a month ago Rautio seemed the more likely, but Sandström has certainly thrown his hat into the ring in the last few weeks.
If he were to be given the starters role in the SHL playoffs, he would have a chance at a record. Brynäs have a good chance of going deep into the playoffs, and the most games ever played in a single SHL playoffs by a junior-aged goalie was the eleven by Marcus Högberg in 2013-14.
And after the playoffs? Well, as of this moment the young Swede does not have a contract next season. It would be no great shock to see him make his way across the Atlantic alongside teammate Oskar Lindblom for next season, and show his wares in the AHL in 2017-18.
One thing is for sure, though; in Sandström, the Flyers have a blue-chip goalie prospect. Now, goalies are voodoo by nature, but the agile goalie from East Sweden comes about as close to a ‘safe’ goalie prospect as you can get. Is he a sure fire future NHL starter? Hard to tell, but betting on him to be at least a useful NHL backup down the line would be smart money.
While Sandström is pretty fantastic on the ice, he may well be even a better person off it. While many would build a trophy room around the equipment they used to win the WJC best netminder award, the young Brynäs product instead auctioned his off in the name of Alzheimer’s disease research. A grade-A goalie prospect and seemingly a grade-A human being to boot.
SHL: 22gp, 14w, 5l, 2sol, .908 sv%, 2.25 GAA
WJC: 6gp, 4w, 1l, 1otl, .915sv%, 2.17 GAA