Flyers Insider Tim Panaccio kicks off his 2015-16 team evaluations by looking at the goaltenders. He'll then break down the defensemen and forwards.
If there's one thing the Flyers proved during the 2015-16 season, it's that you can never understate the importance of having two capable goaltenders.
Steve Mason and Michal Neuvirth both shared the top spot at various points, as goaltending was one of the club's strengths.
Without strong performances from both, Dave Hakstol's team never would have made the playoffs.
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Among the more intriguing questions that will arise in training camp next fall is who wins the starter's job. If the playoffs proved anything, it's not a lock Mason is ordained the starter.
Competition in goal made the Flyers better.
“To have inner competition is a good thing,” general manager Ron Hextall said after the season. “We've got two good goalies and I think, as we saw this year, it's nice to have.
“If we have one of them this year, then we're probably nowhere near the playoffs. They were a strength of ours and I give them both credit for giving us a chance to win those nights.”
Neuvirth has made it clear that he sees himself as a No. 1.
“Michal Neuvirth's become a better player this year and I think that Michal Neuvirth has a belief that he can be a No. 1, maybe for the first time, maybe when he was younger he did,” Hextall said.
“He proved it to himself, he proved it to us, and on the other hand, Mase did the same thing. Mase has played the last month and a half and was terrific. He played a great game and quite honestly, there is no rounds to go, we didn't have another guy to go to.”
Hextall feels Anthony Stolarz likely needs one more year of AHL grooming.
“Stolie is a good, young prospect, but he's young and he's not ready to take the ball at this level, so Mase took the ball and ran with it,” Hextall said. “We get two guys that I think our team feels very comfortable with and so do I.”
The Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning have both demonstrated during this year's Stanley Cup Playoffs that you can win with a young goalie coming off the bench and stealing the top spot with a strong run.
Here’s a recap of the goaltenders - not including Stolarz, who was on the roster for 16 games but did not play:
Stats: 54 GP; 23-19-10; 2.51 GAA; .918 SV%
Cap hit: $4.1 million
Mason played his 400th career game in March. Despite a terrible start that had more to do with a serious personal matter off the ice, Mason was the Flyers' late-season MVP, starting 12 consecutive games down the stretch and enabling the Flyers to erase a three-point gap and claim the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference.
After a stellar showing in the season-opener in Tampa, Mason's off-ice issue hit full brunt. His focus was gone the remainder of October and it showed with a 3.39 goals-against average heading into November. More bad luck came as he got the flu and missed a series of games before returning as the Flyers struggled through a series of overtimes and shootouts during which Mason came up small.
While Mason has shown he can make a critical save on a breakaway during games, he seems to make himself small in net during shootouts, during which he was 2-6 this season.
True, you can argue the Flyers have lacked for goal-scoring in the shootout for years now. Yet, the point is, Mason's confidence in shootouts is poor.
A knee injury bothered him in the start of the second half, as he lost his job to Neuvirth, who kept the Flyers afloat. Mason's return to full health began in March.
Mason finally hit .500 — 15-15-7 — with a 4-2 win over Tampa Bay on March 7. His sprint to the finish began March 19 and he went 6-4-2 to help push the Flyers into the playoffs.
In Game 1 against Washington, Mason played well, but he was terrible the next two games in which he allowed 10 goals, three of which were horrific, and then lost the net to Neuvirth as the Flyers faced a 3-0 deficit.
His playoff goals-against average of 4.09 and .852 save percentage were proof of his poor play. Puzzling stat: His save percentage when the Flyers were on the power play this season was just .878 after being .958 the year before when he faced more shots against.
Mason continues to mystify as to whether he has the mental toughness to overcome adversity. While he's proven his value in the regular season, until he shows he can carry this team deep into the playoffs on his own, there will forever be a question as to whether he's capable of winning a Stanley Cup.
Stats: 32 GP; 18-8-4; 2.27 GAA; .924 SV%
Cap hit: $1.625 million
Where would the Flyers have been this season without Neuvirth, especially at the start?
You could make a compelling argument Neuvirth was the club's first-half MVP while Mason struggled. Neuvirth was 11-6-2 at the All-Star break compared to Mason's 10-12-6.
Bang vs. buck. He's a steal at $1.625 million. The only knock on Neuvirth, which has dogged him throughout his nine-year career, is his health. He has an uncanny way of getting hit with freak injuries and admits it's held him back.
In all, he had six different injuries that caused him to miss 18 games — almost a quarter of the season. Yet despite late-season knee surgery, which forced him to miss eight games, Neuvirth came on strong in replacing Mason for Games 4 through 6 in the postseason.
Neuvirth clearly showed he was far more on top of his game than Mason, winning two of three, one of which he faced 44 shots and earned a brilliant 2-0 shutout. Neuvirth has played half as many games as Mason in his career yet he has a chance in camp to get that coveted starter's job back, which he once briefly held in Washington.
Neuvirth's 2.27 goals-against average and .924 save percentage during the regular season were career bests. Interestingly, this is a contract year for both Neuvirth and Mason to show their value for that next deal.
In Neuvirth's case, it's about getting starter's money — not back-up. That said, even if this shy Czech becomes the Flyers' starter, his penchant for injury dictates wariness over the long haul.