PHILADELPHIA, PA -- A nine-game winning streak has continued the dramatic turnaround from what were early-season woes for the Philadelphia Flyers, and goaltender Steve Mason's play has been an integral part in the club's resurrection.
As the schedule reached mid-November, the netminder had some very unappealing numbers; a 3.51 goals-against average and .880 save percentage which resulted in a 3-5-0 record.
That's not to say Mason's game was the culprit. Head Coach Dave Hakstol's squad floundered in their own zone, and committed as many unforced giveaways during the first two weeks as the top defensive clubs commit over the course of an entire campaign.
Fellow Flyer backstop Michal Neuvirth also fell victim to the almost non-existent defensive play in front of him, as he sported a 4-2-0 mark, with a 3.54 GAA and .859 save percentage.
Mason, who had been banished to the backup role for four games by Hakstol after failing to hold an early 2-0 first period lead in a late-October start against the Pittsburgh Penguins, was thrust back into the number one spot when Neuvirth was lost for at least a month with a knee injury suffered during the November 12 contest with the Minnesota Wild.
The 28-year-old Oakville, Ontario-native has grabbed the reigns and -- combined with a much more defensively-conscious game being played by his teammates -- has been lights out excellent in helping forge the nine-game win streak, which is the Flyers longest such run since the Eric Lindros-era back in April, 1995.
In going a perfect 7-0-0 since November 29 -- in which he had yielded more than two goals on just one occasion -- Mason has stopped 211 of the 227 shots he has faced for a .930 save percentage, with a 2.23 GAA to get his overall numbers at least back to somewhat respectable -- 12-8-3, 2.78, .905.
Included in those totals was a stretch between November 28 and December 4 that helped him take the League's top honors as the week's First Star when he posted a perfect 4-0-0 record, with a 1.71 goals-against average and .945 save percentage.
With his team taking giant strides in the right direction and unrestricted free agency pending for both Mason and Neuvirth at season's end, it'll be interesting to see what direction GM Ron Hextall decides to go with regard to his options between the pipes.
Based upon communications with a source close to the situation, the Flyers and Mason's camp have had some general and preliminary discussions, but no substantial negotiations have taken place as of this time in potentially getting the goalkeeper locked up to a new pact. Further, nothing is anticipated in that vein until after the upcoming holidays.
That's not to say that negotiations in earnest won't commence once the calendar flips over to January, but it would seem that Hextall and company may be holding off on making any type of commitment to the area in the blue paint at this point.
It's a good time to play devil's advocate and pose the question: "So, if not Mason to tend the Philadelphia cage on a regular basis, who would be an upgrade?"
- Neuvirth played well and dialed up his level of play to another stratosphere in Game 5 of the Flyers' first round loss to the Washington Capitals last spring, but he has proven to have the same unfortunate inability to remain healthy that has haunted him throughout his NHL career. It would seem a huge leap of faith to re-sign the Czech and put the starting duties in his hands and let Mason walk, especially if management decides to go with either a bargain-priced backup or unproven youngster coming up through the ranks as Neuvirth's understudy. You would have to figure they will have to carry a good portion of the workload at the very least at some point during the season if Neuvirth's health history repeats.
- The Flyers have long had a strong interest in Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Ben Bishop -- rumors abounded Philadelphia was attempting to acquire him in 2013 just before he was dealt from Ottawa to the Lightning -- who also stands to become an UFA next summer. With his current AAV at $5.95 million and budding star Andrei Vasilevskiy having signed a three-year contract extension in July, Bolts GM Steve Yzerman may explore what he can fetch in the trade market in exchange for Bishop to see if the right deal can be made to improve his club to prepare for another run at Lord Stanley. If the Flyers are skittish at inking Mason to a long-term pact because of his age (28), acquiring Bishop should come with an even bigger hesitancy since he is nearly two years older than Mason, and will no doubt cost a great deal more to get under contract than will the Philly incumbent.
- The name of Ryan Miller has been associated with Philly in numerous rumors through the years, but his $6 million salary will likely increase as an UFA to go along with his age of 36. Definitely not a goalie of the future or the kind of situation the Flyers should be looking to add to compliment the continued growth of a young squad.
- Anaheim's Jonathan Bernier (28, $4.15 million AAV), Winnipeg's Ondrej Pavelec (29, $3.9 million), and Calgary's Chad Johnson (30, $1.7 million) also become UFAs and Buffalo's Robin Lehner (25, $2.225 million) a RFA in July, and each could provide some amount of Philadelphia interest, though it would be a difficult argument for even Mike Milbury to make that any are an upgrade when compared to Mason.
The prospect pipeline for Flyers netminders was once barren, but Hextall, Director of Player Development Dave Brown and the club's scouting staff have done a fantastic in stocking the cupboards. Anthony Stolarz -- who was actually drafted under the Paul Holmgren regime -- heads a list that includes Alex Lyon, Carter Hart (yes, the club could possibly one day have a "Lyon-Hart" tandem), Felix Sandstrom, Ivan Fedotov, and Merrick Madsen.
As for potential 2017-18 candidates:
- Stolarz: The first Jackson, NJ-born goalie to play in the NHL, who was 6-2-0 in eight games with the Phantoms, with a 2.39 GAA and .927 save percentage at the time of his recall from Lehigh Valley to take over the backup role in Neuvirth’s absence -- would be one of those who may be considered ready to make the full-time jump to the big leagues. He won both of his first two NHL starts -- bookending the current nine-game win streak with the first as well as the most-recent -- understandably looking a bit shaky, possibly due to nerves, in the first, a 5-3 home victory over the Flames, and looking extremely solid in a 1-0 overtime triumph over the Detroit Red Wings at what was the team's last-ever trip to Joe Louis Arena. The 6-foot-6, 210-pound, 22-year-old sits with some pretty impressive numbers -- 2-0-0, 1.46 GAA, .950 save percentage -- but there is still much of the 2016-17 campaign left to be played, and it's unclear as to what Hextall's intentions will be once Neuvirth is deemed healthy enough to return. If the Flyers decide they want to go with Mason or another proven veteran as the number one guy, Stolarz and his future deal -- which shouldn’t be that much more than his entry-level pact that carries a $753,333 cap hit, which expires at season’s end and leaves him a restricted free agent -- could prove attractive in fitting into the salary cap.
- Also making the jump into the discussion is Lyon, who was inked to an entry-level deal back in April after playing three stellar years at Yale. He has not been overmatched thus far in his first professional season, posting a 10-5-1 record with a 2.57 GAA and .914 save percentage as he was thrust into the Phantoms’ starting role when Stolarz was promoted. As is the case with Stolarz, the club has to be ecstatic with what they’ve seen so far from Lyon, but a larger sample size will be necessary moving forward. Having recently celebrated his 24th birthday, the native of Baudette, Minnesota -- whose ELC with a cap hit of $925,000 expires come season's end -- is also set to become a RFA.
It's fairly obvious that this deep group will one day yield the club's future No.1 goaltender, and likely upgrade the position to an area of strength within the organization. Hextall has made patience the central ideology when it comes to the progression of his prospects, and that might even pertain on a much stricter level to his blue chip youngsters in net.
Philadelphia made Hextall earn his stripes coming up through the ranks in the mid-80s, and he's shown an inclination to have a very similar approach.
With Mason and Neuvirth set to hit the open market in July, the Flyers will have to decide if they will extend either for a certain period. Based upon the development of Stolarz over the past couple of seasons and with others on the way, it would seem unlikely that either will be offered an extremely long-term deal.
In any scenario they choose to deal for an established netminder the caliber of Bishop, there's little doubt that multiple draft picks and prospects would be demanded as a return by Yzerman.
Hextall has done a fantastic job of adding difference-making youngsters to the organization's cupboard at each position -- defenseman Ivan Provorov and forward Travis Konecny, both 2015 first-round picks, are making huge impacts this season -- and trading away valuable assets just isn't his style.
It would seem extending Mason may just be the best option. He's proven the ability to carry the team on his back at various points, and there is a high level of confidence his teammates have expressed when he is in net.
We should find out more as to the organization's intentions in the rapidly-approaching New Year, and we'll see in the months to follow if Mason is included in their plans or if the ongoing youth movement could possibly stretch into area in the blue paint.
David Strehle is the Philadelphia Correspondent for The Fourth Period. Follow him on Twitter.