When was the last time that the Philadelphia Flyers had a goaltending controversy for the right reasons? Sure, the controversies of Robert Esche vs Antero Niittymaki, Ray Emery vs Brian Boucher, and Ilya Bryzgalov vs anybody were fun, but did the Flyers ever really have an obvious winner, or at least someone that they thought they could count on for the long haul? Enter the Flyers’ latest battle for the crease. The competition between Steve Mason and Michal Neuvirth is heating up as the season rolls along, which could make for some tough choices for the Flyers in the near future. While I love Steve Mason and think that he can be a high-quality netminder in the NHL, the Flyers may have found someone even better in Michal Neuvirth.
When you first look at Mason vs Neuvirth, the first thing that becomes apparent is their stylistic differences. Mason is a larger goaltender, a better puck-handler, and a more aggressive player. But Neuvirth is quicker, has better reflexes, and has stronger positioning. On a team like the Flyers with a bumbling defense, Neuvirth’s qualities are more attractive. But on a team like the Predators with one of the NHL’s best defense cores, Mason’s qualities stand out. Mason’s aggressiveness is sometimes too much for the Flyers’ poor defense to handle, whereas Neuvirth’s tranquility behooves the transitioning Flyers’ defense.
But the real defining quality of goalies in the NHL is consistency. And, to be honest, neither Mason nor Neuvirth has shown the ability to be a consistent goaltender for an extended period of time. While Mason’s numbers blow away Neuvrith’s in the last 3 collective seasons and his penchant for highlight-reel glove saves leaves you dazzled, he also has a tendency to allow some soft goals. It is maddening to have a goalie who makes such great saves one day only to allow a dribbler or a bad-angle goal on the next. Neuvirth has shown more consistency in that regard than Mason this year.
Consider this: Mason has averaged about 3.5 shutouts yearly in his seasons in Philadelphia. Neuvirth, playing behind the same patchwork defense, already has 3 in his first 15 Flyers games. Now shutouts are not the best way to measure goaltenders, but it is an advantage for Neuvirth.
In fact, since Neuvirth was traded from the Washington Capitals to the Buffalo Sabres in 2013, he has been reborn. Neuvirth was able to keep the lowly Buffalo Sabres in games during his time there. While his GAA and record look bad, consider his save percentage of .921% in Buffalo while the team was full-on tanking. I can recall a couple of games that he stole for Buffalo, with one of them coming against the Flyers. It seemed as if he was standing on his head behind a team that had no defense, only he was somehow succeeding.
This narrative describes Steve Mason’s early years with Philly as well. But as time has gone on, the injuries have set in, his goalie coach has left him, and his status is up in the air. And now that the Flyers have a backup as capable as Michal Neuvirth, they are playing him just as often as Mason.
I really do believe in Steve Mason. I think that he is simply in a bad rut right now. I believe that he is a top-15 starting goalie on a good team. But I also think that Michal Neuvirth could be a top-10 starting goalie on a good team. And with Anthony Stolarz an interesting wild card with the Phantoms right now, perhaps the Flyers explore trading one of their two netminders. At this moment, I’d elect to keep Neuvirth. He has suffered less injuries, has played his best hockey in the last 2 years (and may still be improving), and seems to a fit for the Flyers.
I can hear you now: Sure, it’s great that the Flyers have 2 dependable goalies, something that they may have never had before. So why go and trade one away? A less radical approach than trading one of the goaltenders could be to make like the St. Louis Blues and and go with a goalie timeshare. The Blues start Jake Allen and Brian Elliott fairly evenly, and the results are mostly positive. They get to minimize injuries, keep the goalies rested, and start whichever goalie matches up better against a certain team. But when the playoffs role around each year, the Blues repeatedly suffer in the goalie crease.
However, the Flyers are doing the right thing now by starting their two goalies interchangeably. This team is not likely to make the playoffs, so it is best for the Flyers to let Neuvirth and Mason compete so that the winner is apparent. That way, the Flyers will know who their undisputed starter should be next season and they can shop the other goalie if they wish. Neuvirth and Mason are both only 27 years old, but Mason has 2 years left on his contract vs Neuvirth’s 1. Both of these goalies have bright futures, but with Stolarz, Felix Sandstrom, and Matej Tomek all in the system as goalie prospects, it may be necessary to move someone when his value is at its highest. And right now, I think that the goalie to be moved might just be “Stone Cold” Steve Mason.