Goodbye, Steve Mason: An uplifting Philly comeback story becomes a sudden divorce

How did Mason’s uplifting comeback story end up going so wrong?

This story was originally published on March 3, 2017. It’s been updated now that Mason has signed a two-year, $8.2 million deal with the Winnipeg Jets on free agency day.

When the Flyers signed Michal Neuvirth to a contract extension on 2017 NHL trade deadline day -- a two-year contract extension, with a big raise, during a year he has a sub-.890 save percentage — there were a lot of questions.

Now that we’re through the NHL Draft, the NHL Expansion Draft and the start of NHL free agency, we have a lot of those answers.

Will Neuvirth be in tandem with Anthony Stolarz next year? (Answer: No, Stolarz is likely AHL-bound again.) Will he be exposed in June’s expansion draft? (Answer: Yes, and he wasn’t taken!) Will the Flyers sign another goaltender this summer? (Yes, it’s Brian Elliott.)

And the other big answer we have is that Steve Mason will no longer be a member of the Philadelphia Flyers.

The writing was probably on the wall for a while here. Mason played well for a stretch in 2016-17 while Neuvirth was on the shelf with an injury, and his overall numbers indeed were better than Neuvirth in 2016-17. But both goalies were bad, and Mason’s .908 save percentage was nothing to write home about.

The result? For whatever reason, the Flyers feel as though Neuvirth won whatever battle existed between them in 2016-17.

It was evident that Dave Hakstol and the front office had cooled on Mason as a long-term option in goal, clearly shown over a pre-deadline February stretch as Neuvirth started six games in a row — to terrible effect during a playoff race -- and Mason sat on the bench watching.

Now, Mason’s gone for good. It’s a quick, frustrating end to what before this season had been a compelling comeback story.

Mason rebuilt his career in Philadelphia

Mason came to the Flyers at the 2013 trade deadline, and we had a lot of questions when the deal was made. To that point, Mason had been one of the worst statistical goaltenders in the NHL following his Calder Trophy-winning rookie year, and there were big questions about whether or not the change of scenery would work for him.

I mean, a goalie going to Philadelphia for a change of scenery? With our history of goalies? Come on. It seemed unlikely to work.

But .... well, it worked. Pretty masterfully for a while. Mason played just seven games following his deadline day trade during that 2012-13 season, and he allowed just 12 goals in those games. It made us all excited for what he might be able to do in his first full season with the team.

As the 2013-14 season began, stories emerged of Mason’s chemistry with Flyers goalie coach Jeff Reese — how Reese helped him get his head straight and his game back to form after some terrible seasons in Columbus. The results showed.

Mason had been a sub-.900 goalie his final year with the Jackets, and in 61 games during his first full season in Philly, a league average .918 was enough to help the Flyers get to the postseason. He was injured just before the playoffs that year, and in a close series with the New York Rangers, there’s still a belief that had he been healthy the Flyers could have advanced beyond that series.

The first cracks?

The 2014-15 season wasn’t just a good one for Mason. It was the third-best season in franchise history for a starting goaltender. The results were not there for the team as a whole, and the year led to the firing of Craig Berube as head coach. But that could hardly be pinned on Mason.

The season was not all roses for the goaltender, however. It’s possible that the first cracks in the relationship between Mason and the Flyers came during the ‘14-15 season, too. Mase dealt with a few injury issues throughout the year, and frustrations about how he was handled by Berube came to a head in March.

Reese, the goalie coach who was so pivotal in getting Mason’s game back in order, reportedly left the team over the situation. Here’s how we wrote it up:

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. [...]

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 ...  has ultimately led to the departure of their well-respected goalie coach.

Mason was pretty tight-lipped about the whole thing, but noticeably unhappy:

“It’s been a tough couple days here,” Mason said. “[Thursday's] game was a real hard game to focus on just because of the circumstances. What was going on. Like I said, he is somebody I owe my career to. I wish him the best.”

With Berube fired weeks later, the hope was that those issues were in the rear view mirror. It’s hard to know if they’ve lingered in the back of Mason’s mind since or not.

Enter Neuvirth, in a clear backup role

On July 1 that summer, the Flyers signed Michal Neuvirth to a two-year deal, and despite all the drama surrounding the Flyers, Reese and Mason, it was evident from the get-go that Neuvirth was coming in as a backup.

Mason was dealing with some personal issues early in the season — which impacted his play to a certain extent -- and Neuvy came in relief to perform admirably, but at no point during the regular season was there any real thought that Mason had lost his starting gig.

The slow start was concerning, but that concern quickly evaporated. Despite a sub-.900 start to the year, Mason’s season numbers were back up near .910 by the New Year, and things felt back to normal. In fact, we all just felt generally good about the goalie situation: for the first time in a long time, the Flyers had two capable netminders. What a world.

Under new coach Dave Hakstol in 2015-16, the Flyers went on that unbelievable second half run to the playoffs. Flashy guys like Shayne Gostisbehere get a lot of the credit for it, but it can be easy to forget just how solid Mason was in net on a night-in, night-out basis during the stretch.

In fact, during the 2016 half of the season -- from January 7 against Minnesota until his regular season finale against Pittsburgh on April 9 — Mason went 16-9-5 with a .923 save percentage. He was as much a reason the Flyers qualified for the postseason in Hakstol’s rookie coaching year as anything else.

Neuvirth had been a key piece on the Flyers in 2015-16 too, playing slightly more than the average backup and picking up Mason’s slack early in the year.

But it was completely clear throughout the year that it had been Mason’s net with Neuvirth as his clear obvious subordinate. The usage showed that and the stats did, too -- particularly in the back half the year as Mason led the Flyers to the playoffs and Neuvirth provided a solid .909 performance in relief.

Mason started 17 of 18 games during one point in this stretch, including a stretch of 13 straight until the Flyers finally clinched a playoff spot.

Mason’s playoff-clinching stretch, 2016

DateOpponentResultGASASavesSave %TOI

Six games changed the narrative against Mason

It was the 2016 playoffs that seemed to change the narrative around the Flyers goaltending situation; never mind that he was the reason they got there.

Mason looked perfectly fine in a tight 2-0 win for Washington in Game 1, but the wheels fell off his bus in Game 2.

With the full effect of hindsight now available to us, it’s possible that this goal was what ultimately led to the end of his Flyers career, or at least the start of the downfall:

The Flyers lost that Game 2 and the talking points immediately flipped. Mason buckled under the pressure of that goal, the fanbase and the 2-0 series deficit. While there was talk that he may have hurt himself in Game 2, he didn’t show anything in Game 3 to restore confidence, and ... as it turned out, that was the end of his season.

Philadelphia lost. Hakstol opted to start Neuvirth in Game 4 with the team’s backs against the wall. Here’s what we wrote at the time:

Steve Mason has not played particularly well in these last two games for the Flyers, and while he's certainly not the chief problem on the team in this series, he hasn't been a difference maker either. There's been some speculation that he's been injured, perhaps suffering a setback in Game 2 down in D.C. There's no confirmation of that, although it'd be a fair explanation for some of the weak goals he's given up in the series.

This shouldn't define Mason's season. Maybe he's hurt, maybe he's not. There is no doubt that he hasn't looked himself in the last few games, and given that it's hard to argue with the call to change goalies for this big Game 4. But at the same time, let's hope that the narrative will keep in focus the fact that his strong season-long play is one of the key reasons the Flyers are even playing here in the postseason.

Had the Flyers lost Game 4, it probably wouldn’t have done much to change the reality that Mason had been the better goalie over the long term, that he was a key reason the team made the 2016 playoffs, and that he would enter the 2016-17 season as the clear starter. It would have been a few bad games, and a reset entering the new year.

the reason

Had Neuvirth played fine but not brilliantly in Games 4, 5 and 6, things would have been status quo entering the offseason. But Neuvirth didn’t just play brilliantly. He was the reason the Flyers even had a chance to play Games 5 and 6.

In Game 4 on home ice, Neuvirth made his first meaningful start in over a month and absolutely killed it, allowing just one goal while making 31 saves in a 2-1 win to keep the season alive. It was a team effort, but Neuvy certainly did more than his part.

Game 5 back in Washington was what really got the fanbase behind Neuvirth. A game the Flyers had no right winning was stolen from the jaws of defeat thanks to a Ryan White goal and a 44-save shutout by Neuvirth. I mean, look at the headline from our game recap that night.

The Flyers returned home with the thoughts of a 2010-like comeback on the minds in of a raucous Wells Fargo Center crowd, but Neuvirth and the squad were not able to pull out the win, losing just 1-0 despite 28 saves.

That playoff series and the goaltending change within it was enough for the momentum to shift into Neuvirth’s corner, however. Here’s what we wrote in our review of his 2015-16 season under the headline “Has Michal Neuvirth pushed himself into the long-term goalie discussion?”

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.

That is ... precisely what happened.

Entering camp in 2016-17, the conversation was not that Neuvirth would remain the backup -- or at best, the ‘1B’ — to Mason the starter. It was about which goalie we thought would win the season-long goaltending battle, as both were free agents after the year and only one would likely be sticking around.

Neither goalie rose to the occasion. Mason’s numbers were ugly, and Neuvirth’s were uglier. The Flyers missed the playoffs and the goaltending is at least partially to blame for that. As recently as March, we were talking about the chances of the Flyers letting both guys walk in free agency.

But now Neuvirth is here for two more years, and Las Vegas didn’t take him in the expansuon draft. Ron Hextall talked in his post-2017 trade deadline press conference that he would not rule out signing Mason again, but that was obviously never going to happen.

Does this sound like a goalie who is happy with his situation?

"We just had no indication it was in their cards," [Mason] said. "I basically just never even planned on it. It would be different if there were conversations but there were none, so you kind of put it on the backburner and focus on trying to win hockey games.

"My signing here I don't think was going to happen during the regular season anyway. We've had no talks. So at the end of the day, it changes nothing for me. My one goal is to get this team into the playoffs, have a playoff run and come summertime we'll see what happens.

"It doesn't change anything for me, it doesn't make me bitter or anything like that. If anything, it just clarifies things and puts your guessing game away from the forefront of your mind. So, clear mind the rest of the way here and hopefully we can have a strong run."

“It just clarifies things and puts your guessing game away.”

Yep, it sure does.

The Flyers went out of their way on trade deadline day to side with the goalie who not only has been worse this season, but has been worse throughout his career. You don’t even have to be a big fan of Steve Mason or a hater of Michal Neuvirth to admit that of the two, Mase is objectively the better goaltender. These are just facts.

And if you’re Steve Mason, would you want to come back to this? Would you want to come back and, at best, work in tandem with the guy who the team signed over you, despite the fact that you have consistently proven that you are the better player?

Didn’t think so.

So just like that, it’s the end of Mason’s career in Philadelphia. You can’t really blame him if he’s ready to put it in his rear view mirror, too.