At the beginning of the season, Steve Mason was the MVP of the Philadelphia Flyers. Through the first part of the season, Mason’s save percentage hovered around .935 and he was the only reason that the Flyers still had a fighting chance. Ray Emery, though not spectacular, found his game after a few rough starts and played well in November and some of December. However, the Flyers goaltending has regressed in the last few weeks. Mason has let in four or more goals five times since December 7th and Emery is 2-5 in his last seven starts.
Despite this recent downturn, which really started at the beginning of December, there is still reason to be confident in the Flyers goaltending, both now and in the future. (Note: I will primarily focus on Mson because he is the starter and is more likely to have a future in Philadelphia.)
First, Ray Emery. Well, now we know just how good the Blackhawks were last season. I do not dislike Emery and I think he can be an average backup. But his 17-1 record with a .922 SV% and a 1.94 GAA last season is proof that the Blackhawks had a great team in front of him. When put behind the sub par Flyers blue line, his play has corespondingly fallen off. This season, Emery is 5-8 with a SV% of .896 and a GAA of 2.95. He seems to have games in which he looks really solid and games in which he looks incredibly shaky. Luckily, he is on a one year contract and will likely move on after this season. Hopefully, for the rest of the year, the Flyers can cover for his mistakes (although they did not last night) and shield him from their tougher opponents.
Despite his recent struggles, I still believe that Mason is a quality goaltender. He has won eight of his last 11 starts (dating back to December 12th) and still has a formidable save percentage, .918. His age is also something to consider. At 25, Mason is at the point in his career when many goalies are just starting in the NHL. I would even venture to say that, despite having been in the league for over five years, he has not yet hit his prime. In general, Mason seems to have a great relationship with the rest of the team and loves working with the Flyers goalie coach, Jeff Reese.
Yes, Mason’s stats have regressed, but I am not ready to throw in the towel on him just yet. He is on a one year contract and will be a restricted free agent at the end of the season. There is no reason not to let the season play out and sign him to a reasonable bridge conract in the offseason. In the salary cap era, it may be smarter for the Flyers to sign the 25 year old Mason to a 2-3 year bridge contract worth $3-4.5M AAV, than to sign a 33 year old impending UFA Ryan Miller (for example) to a long term, $6-8M AAV. Yes, Miller has a few more good years in him, but Mason could still have a long, prosperous career ahead of him. Even if Mason does not pan out, it is a relatively low risk propostition and will not be another Bryzaster. Sorry, I had to.
Taking their individual play out of the equation, there are two other reasons why I have confidence in the Flyers goalie tandem.
First, the Flyers have finally found their scoring touch. At the beginning of the season, the Flyers could not score to save their lives. They have a skilled roster, but it seemed as if everyone was snakebitten at the same time. A large reason for Mason’s good record lately, despite regressing statistically, is the fact that he has finally received goal support. When the Flyers are scoring three, four, and five goals a game, they do not need a Vezina finalist behind them, they need a solid goalie who can keep them in the game and make momentum stops. Both Mason and Emery can do that.
Second, Craig Berube’s system is defensive in nature. Since Berube has taken the helm, the Flyers have been a much more defensively responsible team. When a team employs a defensive system, there is less pressure on the goalie. For example, the Los Angeles Kings, who employ a system similar to that of Philly, lost their star goaltender Jonathan Quick for a long stretch of games this season. Both back up goaltender Ben Scrivens and third stringer Martin Jones stepped in and looked fantastic. Are they both quality goaltenders? Maybe. But if you put them in front of last season’s Philadelphia Flyers under Peter Laviolette’s system, I would be willing to bet my bottom dollar that they would look a whole lot worse. The bottom line is this, Berube’s system will have a postitive influence on the Flyers goaltenders over the course of time. The last few games is only a small bump in the road.
There is one final note to make when talking about the Flyers goaltending situation. The Flyers have two quality prospects waiting in the wings, along with a few lower level prospects down the pipeline. Both Cal Heeter and Anthony Stolarz could have a bright NHL future. At this point, it is just as possible that they will be NHL busts. The point is, Heeter has a .930 SV% and a 2.08 GAA in the AHL and at 25 years old, his development has been slow and steady. Anthony Stolarz, who is still only 20 years old, is having a great year for the London Knights of the OHL. He is 20-4-1 with a SV% of .923 and a GAA of 2.61. The Flyers also have prospects Carson Chubak and Merrick Madsen buried deep down in their prospect ranks. Even if the Flyers get rid of Emery and Mason turns out to be a total bust, the Flyers have hope.
For now, I am confident that Mason can lead this team. Let me leave you with one question. Did anyone truly believe his save percentage would stay at .930? If you did, well then of course you’re disappointed. He is doing fine and will be fine for the rest of the season.