Steve Mason has had a terrible season. Really. It’s been awful. Through 44 games this season, he has a 2.78 goals-against average, .905 save percentage and is barely floating above the .500 mark. That’s a far cry from the numbers he’s posted in recent years, most notably the 2014-15 campaign when he turned in a 2.25 GAA and .928 SP over 51 games. None of this is to mention his 5-on-5 save percentage numbers, which were among the best over the past two seasons only to slip to nearly dead last in the league among starting netminders this season.
The only reason Mason is starting is because Michal Neuvirth hasn’t been much better. Neuvirth is sporting an ugly 2.90 GAA, .887 SP and has allowed four or more goals against in nearly half of the games he’s started. That’s why it seemed so odd that Neuvirth was handed a two-year, $5-million extension on deadline day. He hasn’t been all that good, so why bother? And, as we’ve argued here before, if any of the two Flyers goaltenders deserves a shot at redemption, isn’t it Mason? You know, the one who had posted numbers comparable to those of the league’s best before struggling this season?
But while the move is admittedly odd from a statistical standpoint, Flyers GM Ron Hextall isn’t a fool for inking Neuvirth. Rather, he’s thinking ahead. All the way ahead to the expansion draft, in fact.
Before the Flyers signed Neuvirth to the extension, they were in a position to have to expose goaltending prospect Anthony Stolarz at the expansion draft. He was the only netminder in the system that met the requirement for the draft and the 23-year-old isn’t exactly someone Philadelphia wanted to leave unprotected heading into next season. It’s hard to make projections at the moment about what the Flyers’ roster could look like next season, but a safe bet would say if there were no expansion draft coming, Stolarz would be close to a lock as the team’s backup. So, by signing Neuvirth, the Flyers now have a second goaltender under contract who meets the expansion draft requirements and one they can expose when the Golden Knights go to select their team.
What does that mean for Mason? Well, as of right now, the Flyers will likely leave Mason exposed. The tricky thing is, though, that Vegas is only allowed to select 10 players without contracts for the 2017-18 season. There’s nothing stopping them from making Mason one of those, yes, but if Vegas can’t come to terms with Mason during a short negotiation window ahead of the expansion draft, there’s really no reason to select him from the Flyers.
In that sense, Mason has been given a certain form of protection by the Flyers, while Philadelphia has also paved a way to protect Stolarz. That’s not to mention that since Mason’s the Flyers’ asset, there’s nothing stopping Hextall from talking deal with Mason’s camp leading up to Vegas’ negotiation window. The Flyers and Mason can get close to an extension without actually signing a deal, and, following the expansion draft, they can sign on the dotted line without fear of exposing the netminder.
Hextall’s play with Mason is above board, too, and the Flyers GM isn’t the only one using this method to protect his free agents.
On Thursday, Sportsnet’s Eric Engels reported that Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin danced around it, but the feeling is Alexander Radulov won’t be signed before the expansion draft. That makes sense, too. Bergevin isn’t about to let Radulov, who has been outstanding for Montreal in his first season back from the KHL, walk in free agency if it can be helped, but Bergevin surely understands that having the extra spot to retain a roster player can be useful. Without Radulov officially protected and saved only because he has no contract, the Canadiens can protect an additional forward come June’s expansion draft. It may not be much, but it’s something, and if it allows the Canadiens to hang on to someone like Paul Byron, who is having a dream season, it’s a smart choice.
There are a number of other intriguing free agents still without extensions for the coming season or seasons, and one can only assume the expansion draft is at least partially responsible. Sticking in Montreal, Andrei Markov remains a key part of the Canadiens defense even into his late-30s. He’s set to become a UFA, and it wouldn’t be shocking if he doesn’t land a deal to remain a Canadien until after the expansion draft. Joe Thornton is unlikely to go anywhere other than San Jose after spending the past 12 years of his career as a Shark, but he’s without a contract for 2017-18. The same goes for Patrick Marleau, a career Shark. And what of T.J. Oshie? It seems the Capitals will at least take a run at signing the 30-year-old before he hits the open market. But doing so before the expansion draft doesn’t seem realistic.
And one of the more interesting cases is Mike Fisher. Named captain of the Predators before the season began, he’s without a deal for 2017-18. It’s unlikely Nashville is going to let Fisher head elsewhere, especially after a season in which he’s on pace to score 21 goals and 48 points. It’s likely Fisher sticks around for another seasons or two in Music City at the very least, but keeping him without a deal ensures the Predators won’t have to protect the veteran pivot or use up a precious protection spot on their captain. For a team that’s likely going to prefer the eight-skaters approach over the seven forwards, three defensemen route, not having to protect Fisher allows the Predators to save one more skater.
In that way, the likes of Fisher, Radulov and Mason aren’t all that dissimilar; players their respective teams have an eye on keeping, but ones who will likely be left exposed in order to save a spot to protect another skater. It’s not the traditional protection route, to be sure, but it’s a clever one that stands to save some teams from having to say goodbye to another non-free agent player who may have otherwise been lost.
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