After Ray Emery limped his way to the finish line in 2014-15, it was clear that the Flyers were going to look for an alternative to back up or even team up with Steve Mason in net for this season. Enter Michal Neuvirth, who had played in parts of seven NHL seasons before this one but has been a tandem or backup goalie for most of his career.
And that was the expectation for him here -- that he'd back up Steve Mason. Heck, when the Flyers signed him on July 1, we even said to make "no doubt about it: Neuvirth will be Steve Mason's backup". Which, really, he was -- he played in 32 games and started 29, numbers befitting of a high-end backup, but a backup regardless.
Fast forward a season, and Neuvirth is being looked at as someone who could maybe, just maybe, take on a bigger role next year. And while we don't want to focus too much on that wonderful three-game stretch he had in the playoffs, his play throughout the season was as good as anyone could've expected.
|Age||28 (March 23, 1988)|
|Contract Status||Signed through 2016-17 for $1,625,000 per year|
With Mason missing some time early in the year with an undisclosed personal issue, Neuvirth stormed right out of the gate with shutouts in each of his first two starts with the Flyers. His strong season-opening stretch would set the table for what was probably Neuvirth's best season of his NHL career, and his work in October and November was a big part of why the Flyers didn't fall totally off the map before the season really even got going (of the five games the Flyers won in the pre-Shayne Gostisbehere portion of the season, three of them were Neuvirth shutouts).
Neuvirth continued to get a healthy number of starts for a "backup" over the course of the year, even as Hakstol maintained that Mason was his number one goalie amidst shouts of a hardly-existent "goalie controversy". And despite his play falling off a bit over the course of the season, the coaching staff never seemed to waver in its confidence in him -- already making him an upgrade in net over most backups the team has had in recent years.
But Neuvirth did indeed drop off from his other-worldly levels of play from the first two months as the year went on. In fact, his single-month save percentage either held or dropped across every month of the regular season. Perhaps that was just him -- a career "1b"/backup type of goalie -- playing more at the level most would expect from him long-term. Perhaps a number of nagging injuries were getting to him -- Neuvirth missed time in October, November, February, and March (through the final weeks of the regular season) with various injuries, and it's certainly possible those collectively took their toll on him as the season dragged on.
2015-16 Regular Season Numbers (click buttons to expand)
|Games Played||Save Percentage||W-L-O||GAA||Shutouts||Quality Start %||Goals Saved Above Average|
|All||5-on-5||5-on-5 Adjusted||Penalty Kill||Power Play|
But none of that -- the hot start, the relatively cold second-half, the injuries -- is what anyone's going to remember about Neuvirth's first season with the Flyers. No, it was Neuvirth's final act that everyone's been talking about in the weeks since the team was eliminated.
Named the starter in Game 4 of the Flyers' series with the Capitals following a pair of brutal starts from Steve Mason, Neuvirth was absolutely brilliant in helping the Flyers claw back into the series. He was more or less the sole reason they won Game 5, and it took a perfect shot on a rush from Nicklas Backstrom and a shutout from Braden Holtby to beat him in Game 6. He would conclude those three playoff games with a save percentage of .981 and all of two goals allowed.
While it's generally inadvisable to make sweeping, long-term judgments based on a single playoff series, it seems hard to deny that what happened in the playoffs will shape how many Flyers fans will remember Neuvirth's season (as well as Mason's, but that's a discussion for another time). After coming into the playoffs as a very solid but injury-prone goalie who was clearly the backup to Steve Mason (who was a huge reason the team made the playoffs in his own right), many who follow the team are now clamoring for Neuvirth to be the team's starter going into next year.
Neuvirth said about what you would expect when asked where he sees himself within the team's ranks next year on locker cleanout day, suggesting that he doesn't see himself as the team's unquestioned No. 1 goalie but hopes that he can earn that spot next year. And after the strong season and outstanding playoff run that he had, one would think that the Flyers will at least keep an open mind regarding who their "starter" is heading into camp next fall.
The big question at this point is how Neuvirth -- likely a guy seen by the Flyers as a two-year stop-gap when he was signed last summer -- may now fit into the team's long-term plans.
It's worth noting that Neuvirth just had the best season of his career at age 27-28, and that long-run he's generally been a solid goalie but had never consistently shown the high-level of play he had this year. Goalies are voodoo and all that, so it's very possible that he may not be able to do what he did this year again next year. Making any sort of long-term goaltending decisions under the assumption that Neuvirth has discovered a new level this season would be playing with fire -- and that's to say nothing of his injury problems and the fact that he hasn't played in a true starter's role since 2010-11 with the Capitals.
But with him and Mason both being the same age and both being under contract for one more year, and with no obvious alternative that we'd expect to come close to Neuvirth's performance this year (the team doesn't seem to believe that Anthony Stolarz is ready for a starter's role), it seems most likely that the team will let things play out in 2016-17 and wait until later on in the season or into next offseason before making any sort of long-term commitment to either one.
And then there's the armchair GM discussions: could Neuvirth be traded this summer? That's another question that some fans and media have asked in light of his strong playoff run, hoping that the team could get a quality return for him while his stock is high. It's a possibility, though it doesn't seem like a particularly likely one -- Hextall has suggested that he'd listen to offers for either of his goalies, but heavily implied that he won't actively be looking to do so. Given the fact that goalies rarely get traded for assets of significant value nowadays, it seems unlikely that Hextall will be offered something he can't refuse for Neuvirth.
Which would mean that, all in all, we should expect Neuvirth to be here and ready to fight for time in the net come September when camp opens up. And that's perfectly fine with us. Because if he can bring something even close to the Neuvirth we saw this season again next year, the Flyers will be winning hockey games -- and will certainly have some interesting decisions to make in the process.