Let's address this Philadelphia Flyers goaltending "controversy"
The Flyers have two goaltenders playing very well and sharing time. Does this constitute a controversy?
It's strangely fitting that the Philadelphia Flyers would finally stumble into reliable goaltending during a rare stretch in their history when the rest of the roster is lacking. For most of the 1990s and 2000s, the general consensus surrounding the Flyers was that their talent at forward and defense was staggering, but the big question mark was in net.
Sure, there were brief periods of respite. Roman Cechmanek posted great regular season statistics, even if two of his three playoff runs were underwhelming. Brian Boucher played out of his mind in 2000. Even current general manager Ron Hextall held down the fort nicely in the mid-nineties. But over the past twenty-plus seasons, goaltending has rarely been a strength for the Philadelphia Flyers, and at best not-a-weakness.
This season is a different story. Their goalie tandem of Steve Mason and Michal Neuvirth has delivered a 0.917 save percentage -- tenth best in the NHL. Their performance at even strength is even better, with the team's 0.934 rate good for third in the league, behind only the Rangers and the Blackhawks. But the team in front of the goaltenders had not lived up to their end of the bargain, until recently. As Travis pointed out yesterday, the Flyers are playing their best hockey of the season and have become a viable threat to make the playoffs.
Of course, that makes it time to talk about a potential goalie controversy. It may not be the main topic of discussion, but the idea certainly is starting to get play in the mainstream media. The argument boils down to the necessity for the Flyers to pick one of their two goaltenders and ride him in their push towards the postseason.
There also seems to be a lingering opinion that exists among sections of the fanbase that Michal Neuvirth has dramatically outplayed Steve Mason this season, and is only being kept from the top spot on the depth chart due to preexisting loyalty from the franchise to Mason, and Mason's more lucrative contract.
So which goalie would be best suited for the No. 1 job? And how much do the Flyers even need to pick one netminder for the stretch run?
Steve Mason is not having a bad season
It's surprising that this argument even needs to be addressed, but judging by a vocal contingent on social media, you'd think Steve Mason was the second coming of Michael Leighton.
Mason's overall performance has definitely seen a dropoff from his Vezina-worthy play last season. His 0.916 save percentage is a far cry from the 0.928 that he posted in 2014-15. But it's also far from terrible. According to Hockey Reference, the league-average save percentage this year has been ... 0.916. On the whole, Steve Mason has essentially performed at the level of a league-average goaltender.
But that doesn't tell the whole story. Mason has actually been one of the league's best goaltenders this season during 5-on-5 play, which takes up the vast majority of NHL games. His 0.937 rate at 5-on-5 ranks 8th in the NHL among goalies with at least 30 games played, right on the heels of Vezina hopefuls Petr Mrazek and Corey Crawford.
Mason's real struggles have come against opposition power plays, as we discussed earlier in the season. But his shorthanded save percentage has steadily risen as the season has progressed.
Finally, there has been little difference between Mason's statistical performance this season (0.916 save percentage) versus his play in 2013-14 (0.917). If memory serves, the narrative surrounding Mason was far different at the tail end of that season.
Neuvirth is having a better season, but Mason has been better recently
Just because Steve Mason is not having a bad year, it doesn't mean that Michal Neuvirth isn't having a better one. And to be sure, Neuvirth's full-season save percentage does top that of Mason's.
Neuvirth's edge entirely comes from superior play while the Flyers have been shorthanded. Still, that's not something to toss aside -- games can be won and lost via special teams, even though it takes up a much lower percentage of a hockey game from a minutes standpoint. If Michal Neuvirth truly is able to stop pucks better on the penalty kill, maybe he should be the team's No. 1 goaltender for the stretch run.
There is a problem with that line of thinking, however. As we noted previously, Mason's shorthanded performance has trended upwards during the season, and he's seemingly put his early struggles behind him. On the other hand, Neuvirth's overall statistics have regressed since the calendar has turned to 2016.
Steve Mason's 5-on-5 save percentage has been steady all year long. His full season rate of 0.9365 is nearly identical to his performance when isolating January, February and March (0.9342). Michal Neuvirth, on the other hand, appears in decline across the board. Both his even strength and shorthanded statistics have been significantly worse in the season's second half, resulting in a below-league average 0.9091 save percentage since January.
Now the decision between Mason and Neuvirth no longer looks so simple. The Czech goaltender has the better full season statistics, but Steve Mason has objectively outperformed his counterpart in recent months. The team's presumptive number one goaltender entering the season is making a strong case to be the primary starter entering the stretch.
But who to choose? And how much does it matter?
If the Flyers wanted to pick one goaltender to ride for the final month of the season, they have two solid options. Michal Neuvirth's year-long statistics are superior, but Steve Mason has played better recently. Both have very strong cases for the larger load. So how to break the tie?
It's become obvious to all reasonable observers of the Flyers that Steve Mason has clearly become a different goaltender since leaving Columbus and relocating to Philadelphia, so using career averages to choose between the two goalies seems unfair. Instead, let's compare Mason and Neuvirth's performance over the past three seasons and take a stab at which is more likely to excel in March and April.
Mason has been a measurably superior even strength goaltender, while Neuvirth has stopped more pucks on the penalty kill. The end result is near identical overall save percentages -- 0.9209 for Mason, 0.9193 for Neuvirth.
If you had to choose one, you'd probably go with Mason, and not just due to the slight statistical edge. There's simply a larger sample for 5-on-5 play, making it less likely to be attributable to noise. Mason is probably the better goaltender.
But by how much? The Flyers have allowed 2025 shots this season, or an average of 31.15 per game. Assuming that Mason and Neuvirth's three-year save percentages were to hold the rest of the season, Mason would allow 41.89 goals in the final 17 games, while Neuvirth would allow 42.74 goals.
So we're essentially arguing about less than one goal of overall performance. Sure, in a playoff race, the impact of every goal against is amplified. But the idea that choosing Mason over Neuvirth or vice versa is going to make-or-break the Flyers' season is almost certainly hogwash.
Philadelphia has two very good goaltenders, and choosing one over the other is unlikely to have a gigantic impact on the team's playoff chances. There isn't anything wrong with head coach Dave Hakstol simply trying to ride the hot hand and hope that one of his two above-average options happens to catch fire at the right time.
The Flyers are chasing a playoff spot with a month left in the season, and do not have a clearly-defined No. 1 goaltender. Usually in Philadelphia, that is reason for mass panic among the fans and media alike. After all, the Flyers do not exactly have a history of reliable goaltending once you get past Bernie Parent and (briefly) Pelle Lindbergh.
Yet the 2015-16 season brings a problem of the completely opposite variety. Instead of having two mediocre-to-poor goalies, they have two above-average netminders chomping at the bit for more starts. Both Steve Mason and Michal Neuvirth have performed admirably in net, with Neuvirth putting up fantastic first-half numbers and Mason picking up the slack in recent months.
Head coach Dave Hakstol could certainly choose to ride one goaltender for the rest of the year. If that is the path that he wants to take, Mason is probably the best pick, due to his superior 5-on-5 statistics and improved play in 2016.
But considering the minimal difference between Mason and Neuvirth's performances over the past three seasons, Hakstol would not be wrong if he continued to flip-flop the goaltenders, either. We're likely talking about a difference of one or two goals at most over the season's final 17 games, regardless of the decision.
That's not to say that the Flyers' goaltending does not matter. In fact, it's been a driving force behind the team's surprising season. But at this point, which goalie plays the majority of the games matters far less than the fact that Ron Hextall was able to put together a fantastic tandem in the offseason, one that can be expected to deliver above-average results in March and April.
Controversy? That's not what you call a question with two good answers.
All statistics gathered from War-On-Ice.com.