The Philadelphia Flyers entered the season with a question in net – who would last past this season? It was supposed to be a battle of who can win the most games, make the most saves and lead the team to the playoffs for the second straight season between pending free agents Steve Mason and Michal Neuvirth with the winner earning a new contract.
With just over two months left in the regular season, it’s been anything but for the two Flyers’ netminders.
Combined, Mason and Neuvirth have 26 wins. Ahead of both of them include Mike Condon, Cam Ward and Chad Johnson. Eight goalies have more wins than the two of them combined.
Mason ranks 40th and Neuvirth 46th in save percentage among goalies that have played at least 1000 minutes. Both have goals against averages higher than 2.77.
There have been decent stretches from both including Mason’s eight wins during the Flyers’ 10-game win streak and Neuvirth’s excellent play against the Montreal Canadiens and Los Angeles Kings in early February. But the cold streaks have become too prevalent to even be termed “streaks” this season.
However, with Neuvirth’s recent hot streak, coach Dave Hakstol and the Flyers have turned to him as the teams starter. In fact, the native of Czech Republic has started Philadelphia’s last four games despite a back-to-back and two losses. That could be setting Neuvirth up for a future with the Flyers.
Hak buried Mason after short side goal v NYI in last start. Might say something as to which UFA netminder Flyers are leaning towards keeping
— David Strehle (@DStrehleTFP) February 20, 2017
Steve Mason vs. Michal Neuvirth
Before the season, most would have pegged Mason as the contract winner after the 2016-17 season. He had been the Flyers’ starter for parts of four seasons, and although under-appreciated around the league had some strong underlying numbers.
Since 4/3/13, Mason has .930 even strength SV%, 9th in NHL, 12th in overall SV% .920, T13th 82 wins, 17th GAA 2.45 (Bobrovsky 21st at 2.49) https://t.co/jKRzLYLbf2
— Adam Kimelman (@NHLAdamK) November 18, 2016
Neuvirth, on the other hand, struggled as a starter with the Washington Capitals early in his career and couldn’t take over the Buffalo net during a short stint with the Sabres between 2014 and 2015. However, his 2016 postseason play against his former Capitals friends put him firmly in the discussion for starter.
The former Capital ended up getting the first start of the season, a 4-2 win over the Los Angeles Kings. Mason played the next against the Arizona Coyotes and despite a strong effort, the team lost 4-3 in overtime.
And that was about it for strong play in the Philadelphia net. The Flyers played about .500 hockey for the next couple of weeks without one goalie earning more playing time than the other. It was obvious that the goaltending was doing the team no favors.
In the middle of November, Neuvirth suffered a lower-body injury that kept him out until Jan. 7. During that period, Mason helped the team to it’s 10 wins in a row, but quickly afterwards fell back to earth.
Since then, no one has solidified themselves as the starter, but Hakstol does seem to have his man in Neuvirth over the last stretch. This is the goal that David Strehle, Flyers beat writer for The Fourth Period, referenced as the one that did Mason in a couple weeks ago:
— Eyes on Isles (@eyesonislesFS) February 10, 2017
The Future in Net
Mason’s biggest issue was always consistency and timeliness. That goal wraps up both. In a 2-1 game with playoff implications, the former Blue Jacket let up a soft goal in the third period. Since then, whether it was because of that goal or not, Hakstol has felt more comfortable with Neuvirth in net.
With 23 games left in the season, that could bode well for the 28-year-old’s future in Philadelphia. While Mason looked like the front-runner to start the year, there are some pros to Neuvirth staying instead.
The Flyers will soon be turning to a new crop of prospects in net, starting with Anthony Stolarz next year. The New Jersey native, though, will be a backup – helping to create the battle between Mason and Neuvirth.
Mason has always played his best hockey when there’s no in-house competition. Neuvirth, although not always soaring with competition, has never faltered because of it. Injuries have been more of his undoing.
The Flyers want Stolarz to develop to much more than a backup. That means competition will be there as soon as training camp starts next year. Mason will be nearing the end of his peak just as Stolarz and other young Philadelphia goalies enter theirs, which doesn’t set up a strong combo in net.
Most teams would want a veteran netminder to help push and guide a youngster into the new role. Cory Schneider spent years under Roberto Luongo and then Martin Brodeur before he became a starter. Mason may not be cut out for that role.
The biggest problem, though, is that Neuvirth may not be the best either. He suffers too many injuries that would require a rookie to start too many games and has never been a starter in the NHL. Neuvirth may have his grip on the Flyers’ net now, but in the summer other goalies could become available that can fit the mentor/starter role better.
Before the summer though, is the trade deadline on March 1. Mason and Neuvirth could both be hot commidities on the market and trading one that isn’t going to stay would be smart.
The Flyers were hoping for an answer in net within the organization for the next few years. Neuvirth seems to be the one for the rest of the season. Now, the question is if he can prove he deserves to be the answer into next year.