It seemed like a fitting end to Steve Mason's career in Philadelphia -- once again proving he's better than the goalie the Flyers decided to keep, pitching a 33-save shutout Tuesday to snap a two-game skid to get the orange and black a much-needed two points.
The news began to bleed out on social media during Mason's blanking of the Avalanche that the Flyers were negotiating a contract extension with Michal Neuvirth less than 24 hours before the trade deadline. If they re-signed Neuvirth before the deadline, could Mason be traded? Speculation flowed until a little after 1 p.m. Wednesday -- two hours before the deadline -- when the Flyers made their choice.
On Wednesday, the Flyers signed Neuvirth to a two-year, $5 million extension in a move general manager Ron Hextall described as giving the team options for the expansion draft -- they now have the option of choosing between two goalies to expose rather than one -- and a deal that gives the Flyers flexibility. And re-signing Neuvirth "doesn't suggest we won't sign Mase," Hextall said, as the deadline passed with Mason staying put. But it did signal something to Mason and the rest of us.
The Flyers are ready to move on from Mason after this season.
"It just clarifies things and puts your guessing game away from the forefront of your mind," Mason said Thursday. "We just had no indication it was in their cards. I basically just never even planned on it. It would be different if there were conversations, but there were none. You kind of put it on the backburner and focus on trying to win hockey games."
So where do the Flyers go from here? It's true -- re-signing Neuvirth does not necessarily mean Mason's tenure in Philly will end come July 1. Mason could still sign with the Flyers. Re-signing Neuvirth could simply have been a move to have a goalie to expose to Las Vegas that isn't 22-year-old Anthony Stolarz. But a two-year contract suggests Neuvirth is the Flyers' stopgap goalie until one of their highly-touted goalie prospects are ready.
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In reality, neither Mason nor Neuvirth will be the goaltender here when the Flyers are ready to compete. Either one would have been a placeholder until a kid is equipped to take the reins of the No. 1 goaltending job. Neuvirth's contract also suggests Hextall believes one of them will be ready to be the guy in three years and that Stolarz will be able to handle an NHL backup role next season. The long view says re-signing Neuvirth for two years at a reasonable $2.5 million annual average value isn't a killer. From a cap perspective, it computes, too. (Mason will likely carry a higher cap hit in his next deal.) Why pay a goalie more money than you have to if you don't see them as the future?
But the immediate reaction is the Flyers bungled another goaltending situation, fell in love with Neuvirth and placed a goalie who's consistently been above average since coming here in the doghouse. Some things never change, even when the future remains bright.
There is no argument that Neuvirth has been solid since signing here in July 2015 … when healthy. That's the thing with Neuvirth. He's injury prone and has been his entire career. It's part of the reason why Neuvirth has yet to find himself a long-term contract. He's an athletic goalie with plenty of talent. The argument is, well, Neuvirth is not the better goalie of the two. And if playoffs are the goal this season, next and the year after, Mason would have been the right goalie to go with.
This season, neither goalie has played out of their mind. The overall product of both has been mediocre at best. Still, Mason has been the stronger of the two goalies.
The numbers back it up, too. Mason has a .905 save percentage; Neuvirth has an NHL-worst among qualified goalies at .887. Mason has a 2.78 goals-against average to Neuvirth's 2.90. Mason has two shutouts; Neuvirth has none. Neither stat line is respectable.
A fair argument could be made the Flyers should move on from both Mason and Neuvirth after this season. That still remains a possibility if the Golden Knights take Neuvirth in the expansion draft. There is a connection with Neuvirth and Vegas GM George McPhee from when McPhee was the general manager of the Capitals. McPhee did draft Neuvirth in 2006. It also remains possible Vegas takes Neuvirth in the expansion draft and the Flyers re-sign Mason. We don't know the end game yet, but it doesn't appear Mason will be back right now.
If this does signal the end of the Mason era in Philadelphia is coming, Mason deserved better. Mason, in his fifth year here, came at a time the team needed stability in net after the Bryz-aster and provided just that. He came from Columbus after losing his way mentally and found his confidence under the tutelage of Jeff Reese, who left the Flyers in the middle of the 2015-16 season reportedly over the Flyers' handling of Mason's injuries.
When Mason's time in Philly comes to an end -- the writing's on the wall -- he'll depart the Flyers as one of their most underappreciated players, at least by the fan base. Mason's 96 wins with the Flyers ranks third in franchise history. His .918 save percentage is second to Roman Cechmanek's .923. Not too long ago, Mason returned from a concussion in Game 4 to nearly lead the Flyers past a much better Rangers team in a seven-game series loss in 2014. He was a major reason why they made the playoffs last season.
The one knock on Mason is that he's fragile in the confidence department. The competition with Neuvirth hasn't brought out the best of Mason, and he plays better when he knows he's the starting goalie. When Dave Hakstol decided to start Neuvirth over Mason in the season opener despite Mason's strong preseason, it appeared to impact Mason.
When we digest the Neuvirth extension and what we know, there's one question that remains: Why would Mason want to re-sign here now?
There aren't many reasons he would want to come back. Neuvirth's contract signals the Flyers want a reasonable cap hit in net, which suggests they'd want Mason to take a pay cut from his $4.1 million he's making this season. Why take a pay cut to split time and be a band-aid?
Factor in the situation with Reese, Hakstol's handling of the tandem this season and what's coming, there isn't much incentive for Mason to return. He'll be an attractive item on the free-agent market. Dallas, where Reese is the goalie coach, could be an option.
Signing Neuvirth for two seasons aligns with the Flyers' overall course. But remember, they opted to go with the lesser, cheaper of the two while the kids grow up. And really, that's OK.
But what do you know? It's 2017 and we're still talking goaltenders.
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