Earlier today, the Flyers announced that goalie coach Jeff Reese was no longer with the team, a coaching change which they so delicately described as a "mutual agreement between both parties". While this is what it was referred to, it sure seemed like something had to be going on behind-the-scenes that we didn't know about, given that Reese was in the middle of helping Steve Mason to a career year and has generally done a pretty solid job as the Flyers' goalie coach.
As expected, there's more to it than met the eye. And it appears that Reese's departure had to do with how the team has handled Steve Mason's injuries this season -- and, in particular, on February 26 in a game in Toronto against the Maple Leafs.
Frank Seravalli of the Daily News has your Friday evening scoop. We'd highly recommend reading the entire piece, but a few key excerpts:
The truth is, Reese's simmering relationship with the Flyers' front office bubbled over beginning with Feb. 26's game in Toronto when Mason was summoned off the bench.
According to multiple sources, Reese was peeved that Mason relieved starter Rob Zepp after two goals, since Mason was told that day he would not play unless Zepp sustained serious injury.
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When Mason was then asked during the game that night to go in cold for Zepp, it put Mason in the unfair and awkward position with seemingly no other choice but to say yes.
In his post-game press conference that night following the 3-2 loss to the Maple Leafs, coach Craig Berube admitted Mason "would have preferred Zepp to finish the game ... but that's my gut and I went with it." Mason limped out of Air Canada Centre that night to the team's bus.
Mason underwent surgery to remove 60 percent of the meniscus in his right knee on Feb. 10, just 16 days prior to playing. The Flyers' original timeframe for Mason's return was two-to-four weeks.
Reese voiced his support in defense of his goaltender - and how his injuries have been handled this season - causing friction with the brass that led to his sudden departure on Friday.
Let's rewind quickly, in case anyone needs a refresher. Prior to that game in Toronto, Mason -- who left the Flyers' game in Washington on February 8 with an unclear injury and had not played since -- did not expect to play that night and said that he "felt like [he hadn't] skated in a couple of weeks". However, as Seravalli mentions in his piece, the Flyers -- due to being right up against the cap and without anyone to put on long-term injured reserve to create some extra space -- couldn't afford to have another backup goalie on the roster.
So a barely-capable-of-playing Mason was put on the bench to back up Rob Zepp, having no intention of playing. After Zepp let in his second goal of the night on eight shots early in the second period, Craig Berube panicked (and it appears this was the ultimate catalyst for Reese's departure) and pulled Zepp out of the game and put Mason -- cold, barely-up-to-it and all -- back out on the ice. He would end up giving up one goal, which would be the game-winner in the Flyers' 3-2 loss.
While last week in Toronto appears to have been the tipping point, the Flyers' handing of Mason this year despite multiple lower-body injuries has been a subject of debate and criticism all year long. A brief timeline:
- Mason left practice with spasms on December 19 and missed four games. He would return on December 29 against Phoenix, in the team's second game after the holiday break.
- He showed signs of injury in three straight games in early January -- January 6 against Ottawa, January 8 against Washington, and January 10 against Boston -- before leaving the Boston game in the first period. He did not play again until January 27 against Phoenix in the team's first game after the All-Star Break. As Seravalli notes in the above article, Mason had not even participated in a full practice prior to that first game back.
- He left the game on February 8 in Washington at a commercial break with some sort of unclear injury and did not return. His first game back was the aforementioned Leafs debacle that allegedly led to Reese's departure.
Essentially, there have been multiple times where it's looked like the Flyers have rushed to get Mason back on the ice and in games before he was 100 percent recovered from his injuries. And that doesn't even include last year's playoffs, where the Flyers admitted that he was feeling concussion symptoms "up until [the] night before Game 4" ... which is very bad, considering Mason made a relief appearance in the final seven minutes of Game 3 of that series (which, by the way, was a 4-1 game that the Flyers had very little chance of winning when Mason came in).
The Flyers, desperate to win hockey games and (per Berube's own words) going with their "gut", have been trying to get their best goalie on the ice as soon as they deem it possible for months now. But it's clear that they've been doing it at a detriment to Mason's health, and it's all snowballed over time and -- if we're to believe Seravalli's report, and we've got no reason not to -- has ultimately led to the departure of their well-respected goalie coach.
There's blame to be handed out up and down the organization here, but more than anyone else, this does not look good for head coach Craig Berube, who is ultimately the guy responsible for putting Mason on the ice and taking him off when he should be off. And it's hard to fault Reese -- whose main job is to look out for his goalie -- for saying enough is enough after all that's transpired with Mason. It's hard to imagine this will go over well within the team.