Monday night in Philadelphia, the Flyers pieced together a performance that should have easily earned them at least one point. In the first frame, they outshot the St. Louis Blues 11-1 and finished the game with a 26-16 edge in shots on goal. In terms of possession, both at 5-on-5 and all strengths, the Flyers mustered 60 percent of the game’s shot attempts. Yet, when the third period closed, the Flyers skated away having suffered a 2-0 defeat.
You could call it a one-off or write it off as just one of those games, but it’s been a running theme for Philadelphia this season: games in which they’ve outshot or out-possessed an opponent and still taken the loss. The Flyers are the league’s ninth-ranked possession at 51.1 percent, they’ve continuously driven play and Philadelphia has had more than a few weapons up front who’ve done their part. The Flyers’ greatest flaw this season, however, has been between the pipes.
The start of the shakiness in goal came at the tail end of the 2015-16 season. Steve Mason, the Flyers’ starter over the past few seasons, was strong for much of the year and his .937 save percentage was the best among any netminder to play at least 2,000 minutes at 5-on-5. He was the backbone of the Flyers as the playoffs approached, but the wheels fell off once Philadelphia started playing into mid-April.
Mason’s opening game of the post-season saw him turn in a stellar 29-save performance in a 2-0 loss to the Washington Capitals, but his next two games saw him surrender a combined 10 goals on 50 shots. By the time Game 4 of the series rolled around, Mason was given the hook in favor of Michal Neuvirth, but the change hadn’t come soon enough. Neuvirth posted 103 stops on 105 shots over the next three games, but he was out-duelled by Braden Holtby in Game 6, dropping the contest 1-0.
But with Neuvirth’s outstanding finish to the year, the hope was both goaltenders would be in great shape to push each other and challenge for the starting gig in 2016-17. That hasn’t been the case.
Through 54 games this season, the Flyers’ goaltending has been downright awful. Mason has been the, uh, “stronger” of the two netminders with a .900 SP and 2.90 goals-against average, but that’s only marginally better than Neuvirth’s .894 SP and 2.79 goals-against average. One can’t even paint a positive picture of either netminder at 5-on-5. There are 50 goaltenders who have played 650 minutes at 5-on-5 this season, and Mason and Neuvirth rank 46th (.908) and 49th (.903) respectively in SP. All Flyers netminders combined this season have managed a .910 SP at 5-on-5, and only the Blues, Boston Bruins, Carolina Hurricanes and Colorado Avalanche have been worse.
And the terrible season that’s been had in goal by Mason and Neuvirth leaves the Flyers with a big choice to make in the off-season. Come season’s end, Philadelphia will have the option to bring both, one or neither back come 2017-18.
While much of the goaltending talk throughout the year has been about veteran goaltenders who could go elsewhere or struggling netminders whose play resulted in an out-of-work coach, the Flyers’ goaltending struggles have flown under the radar. Marc-Andre Fleury has grabbed headlines for where he could go next, Ben Bishop continues to be a hot topic heading into the trade deadline and, as there has been for a few seasons, there’s questions about what’s next in goal for the Stars. But the more interesting scenario might actually be what happens next in Philadelphia, because unlike Dallas, which has both Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi under contract for next season, the Flyers’ situation is wide open.
When the campaign concludes, both Mason and Neuvirth will be eligible to hit the open market, technically leaving the Flyers without a netminder for the coming campaign. And while one might assume Philadelphia will make some sort of move to sign one of the two before that comes to pass, the fact is that neither goaltender has proven themselves all that worthy of a new deal this season. That said, Mason might have an argument as to why GM Ron Hextall should give him another shot.
Not even Mason would be able to deny this has been a brutal year, but the past four campaigns combined have shown a different side of the netminder. Since the start of the 2013-14 season, 38 goaltenders have played at least 5,000 minutes at 5-on-5. The leaders in SP include the usual suspects, with Carey Price on top, Henrik Lundqvist not too far behind and Corey Crawford and Devan Dubnyk in the mix, as well. But seventh at 5-on-5, sandwiched between Tuukka Rask and Roberto Luongo with a sound .930 SP, is Mason.
That’s no mistake, either. Heading into the 2016-17 season, Mason was carrying one of the best SP marks of any goaltender over the past two seasons. In 2015-16, he finished in the top 10 for SP at 5-on-5, and in 2014-15, there was no goaltender who was better at five a side. One will recall that 2014-15 was the year that Price captured the Vezina and Hart Trophies to go along with the Lindsay Award. In terms of pure SP numbers, though, Mason was arguably better.
With that in mind, measuring prolonged success in the past against one down year might be enough to earn Mason a shot at returning to the Flyers. And, really, Philadelphia might not have any other choice but to take a shot on him going forward because there’s no certainty they can improve on Mason come 2017-18. While Mason and Neuvirth have struggled, both offer NHL experience and loads of it which is more than can be said for the rest of the netminders on the Flyers’ depth chart. Anthony Stolarz is the only other goaltender with NHL experience. He’s played four games. And even the best goaltending prospect in the system, Carter Hart, won’t be NHL ready for a few years, at best.
As always, the Flyers are worth watching in the off-season, and no one is about to count out the possibility that Hextall could go out and work on snatching up Fleury or Bishop by trade or securing one of the free agent netminders in the summer, be it Brian Elliott, Chad Johnson, Mike Condon or even a career backup like Scott Darling.
No matter how they solve their problem in the crease, though, Philadelphia will need to secure a netminder for next season, and they’ll need to make the right choice. They’ve outscored their issues in goal thus far, but there’s no guarantee that will continue for the remainder of this campaign or into 2017-18.
(All advanced stats via Puckalytics)