As the Flyers prepare to hit the ice for the start of training camp on September 18th, there are many question marks concerning their roster. Who will play on the top line with Claude Giroux and Jake Voracek? What will first-year coach Dave Hakstol do with Vincent Lecavalier? Will the defense, who has been the Achilles heel of team, be improved? There is one thing, however, that is not in question.
This is Steve Mason’s team.
The 27-year-old Oakville native is coming off of a strong season despite missing time due to various injuries. In 51 games, the Flyers starting goaltender recorded a 2.25 goals against average and 0.928 save percentage while only winning 18 games behind a largely inconsistent team. That being said, Mason will be relied on this upcoming year to stand tall in net and help lead the Flyers back to the postseason, which they have missed in two of the last three campaigns. With this in mind, one of the keys to Mason’s success will actually be the man that was signed to back him up – Michal Neuvirth.
Neuvirth was signed this offseason to improve the team’s situation in net. The tandem of Mason and Ray Emery was manageable, however, Emery had become a shell of his former self. His movement and vision in net was limited and he was hit with the injury bug more than he had been in years past. As a result, the pressure was on Mason to essentially be the team’s best player on the ice while he himself was not fully healed from his lingering ailments. The additional of Neuvirth should hopefully eliminate the need for Mason to be overworked, a main sticking point with GM Ron Hextall who clearly targeted Neuvirth when free agency opened up. As NJ.com’s Randy Miller points out, Neuvirth will not be a typical No. 2 guy. After his signing, Hextall alluded to such.
“We think we brought in a real good goalie that’s going to give us a real solid backup, and I’m sure he’s probably going to play more than the typical backup. He’s a proven goalie. He’s a good goalie, and one of the attractive things for us with a backup goalie is God forbid something happens to Mase, he can carry the load. He’s done that in the past”
Just how Neuvirth will be used will be up to the head coach. For Hakstol, it will be reassuring to know that the team is in capable hands when he calls his number.
Don’t Let Numbers Fool You
A few detractors like to point out that Neuvirth has a mediocre career record of 66-63-17. While numbers and stat-lines are a focal point in sports today, a player’s value is often mired behind such and this could easily pertain to the 27-year-old Czech native who is entering his 10th season in the NHL. Critics are quick too point out that he recorded a 6-19-3 record with a 2.96 goals against average in two-plus seasons with the Buffalo Sabres. While that output certainly doesn’t give one a warm and fuzzy feeling, it’s more of a reflection of his environment as compared to his ability and/or skill. To put it nicely, Buffalo was not a very good team during his tenure there.
To help prove the point, look at his time in Washington from 2008 until 2013. The Capitals were a much better team and it was reflected statistically as Neuvirth posted a 59-41-13 record, including a largely successful 2010-11 campaign in which he went 27-12-4 with a 2.45 goals against average while leading the Caps into the postseason. If not for the emergence of Braden Holtby, who is making a strong case as being one of the best in the game, Neuvirth may still be in Washington as their go-to guy.
While numbers are important, they aren’t everything.
Neuvirth’s Style Fits The Flyers Needs
As THW’s David Quackenbos pens, the upgrade to Neuvirth over Emery will put the Flyers in much better shape in 2015-16. Unlike his predecessor in Philadelphia, Neuvirth is quick in net, both with his reflexes and lateral movement. He also has proven that he can remain healthy which will be a huge plus for the organization if he needs to be handed the reigns for any length of time.
He’s a butterfly-style goaltender who has been on the cusp of defining himself as a true, No. 1 in the NHL. With the guidance and nurturing of new Flyers goaltender coach Kim Dillabaugh, Neuvirth stands to improve his game and give the Flyers a 1A and 1B tandem between the pipes.
As mentioned above, Neuvirth has strong reflexes and is quick to track the puck in the defensive zone.
With Neuvirth being fundamentally sound and agile, the team won’t necessarily have to work as hard in front of him, a luxury they have been afforded with Mason – and likely took advantage of from time to time.
Mason Could Have a Career Year Because of Neuvirth
Former Flyers netminder and fan favorite Brian Boucher knows a thing or two about goaltending. He also knows a thing or two about a good situation in the crease when he sees one.
— David Malandra Jr (@djmjr788) July 1, 2015
While it’s been established that Neuvirth has the potential to carry the load in the event Mason is unable to play, it should also be pointed out that he could have a major impact on Mason when he IS playing. By all accounts, the player that Mason had become towards the end of his tenure in Columbus is not the player that Steve Mason is today. With the Blue Jackets, Mason became a former Calder Trophy winner who lost his confidence playing behind some less than desirable talent. In Philadelphia, Mason could be on the verge of winning another award, namely the Vezina Trophy. Granted the club needs to perform in front of him, but in three seasons of play in Philadelphia, he has been the best player on the ice more nights than not.
A goaltender with Neuvirth’s skill and potential will no doubt create a healthy fire within Mason to compete at the highest level, a level that has earned him the moniker of ‘Stone Cold’. Whether it be the reassurance that the load is not all on him or it be the drive to consistently be the best goaltender on the roster, Mason stands to be stronger and hungrier in net, something that will wreak havoc on opposing teams who have to face him.
There is no denying that the measure of a championship-caliber hockey team is usually defined by strong play in net. A hot goaltender has the ability to steal games and take a team on a long run. While Mason has always had the ability to be that type of goaltender, having Neuvirth in the wings may push him over that threshold. If that happens, and Mason hits the next level, the Flyers will be poised to contend in the playoffs and could prove to be a major player moving forward. At that point, the Vezina Trophy might not be the only hardware being discussed in the City of Brotherly Love.
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Zach Hopkins is a life-long hockey fan from the suburbs of Philadelphia. Aside from studying, watching and playing the game, he can be found teaching it to his four-year-old son who can now name all 30 teams and their best players and can differentiate between all 30 goal horns. At The Hockey Writers, Zach is a Philadelphia Flyers contributor.