As Flyers' season winds down, big questions loom about Steve Mason

As Flyers' season winds down, big questions loom about Steve Mason

Perhaps the biggest issue Flyers general manager Ron Hextall must address this offseason is what to do about his goaltending.

The fact that he re-signed Michal Neuvirth over Steve Mason doesn't mean diddly.

The oft-injured Neuvirth came at a bargain price. He can be dangled in the expansion draft so the club doesn't have to expose young prospect Anthony Stolarz.

The more intriguing question is what to do with Mason, who earned $4.1 million this season, but like Neuvirth didn't live up to expectations.

Remember, there is a growing stockpile of goalies in the Flyers' system.

In this final week of the season, Mason's overall numbers -- 2.67 goals-against average and .908 save percentage -- don't get you into the playoffs, even with 25 wins. His GAA and save percentage are his poorest since 2011-12 with Columbus (3.39, .894).

Yet, if you look into his last 16 games, Mason is 9-5-2 with a 2.15 GAA and .933 save percentage on a terribly inconsistent club that has underachieved. Those numbers are very good, especially viewed in that light.

Now here's the rub: You can make a case that Mason has been able to do that because the Flyers were pretty much out of the wild-card race -- realistically, not mathematically -- once March began, and the pressure wasn't as great.

A number of players have said that over the last three weeks, as it became clearer the uphill battle was out of their own hands. It also became easier to relax and just go out and play and leave things to fate.

Players universally play better in any sport when pressure is removed.

There are some other things to consider. During his five seasons with the Flyers, Mason has given pause more than once as to whether he has the mental fortitude to overcome the bad. He's been healthy this year and yet his numbers have been subpar.

In trying to ascertain whether to re-sign him -- at a discounted price -- Hextall has to ask himself which goalie is he getting?

Is it Mason from 2013-14, who won 33 games with a 2.50 GAA and .917 save percentage and had excellent numbers in the postseason (1.97, .939) despite losing?

Or is it the Mason of the last two years, who has been inconsistent, having a terrible playoff series (4.09, .852) against Washington last spring?

One more thing: During his tenure here, Mason has been very vocal, very critical, often very honest in his postgame appraisal of the Flyers. That doesn't sit well with a number of players in the dressing room.

Here's a blunt, yet accurate assessment of the Flyers from Mason on Tuesday morning in New Jersey:

"This is a tough week to be a part of right now," he said of playing out the schedule. "I think we realize we did ourselves in with our own play. There's nothing more to it than we weren't consistent enough throughout the year to be a playoff hockey team this year.

"Looking back, it's also frustrating because we've seen some glimpses of a real solid hockey team. But in order to be a solid hockey team, you need to have the consistency and that's something that we clearly lacked and it put us in a position where we're playing out the last three games knowing we're not gonna be part of the postseason.

"Moving forward here, I think everybody, at the end of the year, just has to take a look in the mirror and hold themselves accountable and understand that as a whole and as individuals we've got to be better."

Other players have said that in the past two weeks. Yet, that's the kind of honesty you get from Mason every game.

His criticism of the Flyers for their lack of effort in a losing performance at Winnipeg last month had players grumbling. They didn't appreciate what he said, nor the timing of when he said it.

Hextall realizes some of the players don't care for Mason's candidness. Generations of hockey players believe that's the job of the captain and select skaters -- not the goaltender.

Hextall has to ask himself two questions as it pertains to Mason:

1. Does he deserve to return?

2. If so, is he a goaltender the Flyers will play for? Or is this just a goaltender the Flyers will play in front of?

Loose pucks
The Flyers sent defenseman Sam Morin and forward Colin McDonald back to the Phantoms now that their back-to-back games are done and they don't play again until this weekend. Hextall has said all along he wants the Phantoms' roster complete for the AHL playoffs. Both these players could be recalled, but if the Flyers' injury situation turns around by the weekend, that won't be necessary.

Get in the holiday spirit with the Flyers

Philadelphia Flyers

Get in the holiday spirit with the Flyers

Before the Flyers get in the spirit for a sixth straight win on Saturday night, they’ll get you in the holiday spirit, too.

Prior to puck drop against the Stars on NBC Sports Philadelphia, the Flyers will put on a unique holiday-themed light show, which will illuminate the Wells Fargo Center and its ice.

The “Holiday Light Spectacular,” which is presented by the Rothman Institute at Jefferson, will be a 10-minute show starting at 7 p.m., as all fans will be given light-up bracelets to complement a fun Flyers holiday video featured on the ice.

“This show is a new, can’t-miss holiday attraction in Philadelphia and one that we hope becomes an annual tradition for us,” Shawn Tilger, the Flyers’ executive vice president, chief operating officer, alternate governor, said in a release by the team. “This show is in line with the holiday staples of the region, and we’re excited to bring entertainment of this caliber to Flyers fans here on Saturday night.”

For fans with youngsters, Santa Claus will also be in attendance, taking free photos on the main concourse.

Flyers grind for ugly win over Sabres to push streak to 5

Flyers grind for ugly win over Sabres to push streak to 5


It was a Flyers’ win with a capital “U.” 

That’s “U” as in ugly.

However, it was still good enough to beat the worst team in the Eastern Conference, the Buffalo Sabres, as the Flyers skated away with a 2-1 victory at the Wells Fargo Center Thursday night (see observations).

It’s the type of game the Flyers lost earlier in the season during their previous homestead when they came out sloppy against the lowly Arizona Coyotes in an eventual 4-3 loss in overtime.  

“I thought this was a boring game,” Jakub Voracek said. “Honestly, I don’t think we played good today, but we got the win, which is really important. You’re not going to play great every night. We played well when we needed to, but we can play a lot better, which is positive.”

Nothing was uglier than the game’s first goal when Brian Elliott attempted to play the puck behind his net. Buffalo’s Zemgus Girgensons intercepted Elliott’s pass and fed the puck to Ryan O’Reilly, who had a wide-open, unattended net in front of him.

“They came hard and a little miscommunication,” Elliott said. “Bad play on my part and we did a heck of a job of coming back and tying that up. That can go sideways in a hurry. We sorted it out, but our first period was kind of sloppy.”

After Elliott nearly made the same mistake again in the opening period, the Flyers rebounded to the tie game at 1-1 as Travis Sanheim scored his first NHL goal off a feed from Dale Weise (see highlights). However, even Sanheim admitted, the goal was a silver lining from a dark cloud that was looming over him defensively with failed clears and breakdowns in coverage.  

“I don’t think we were very happy with our first period, especially me,” Sanheim said. “Minus the goal, I thought that might have been my worst period of the season, but I think we bounced back and battled hard in the final 40 and came through with the win.”

“He’s been pressing for a little while, so I was so happy to see him get a smile on his face,” Weise said of Sanheim’s goal. “That’s going to do wonders for his game. You see a shift after he gets another chance there. I’m so happy for him.”

Sanheim’s season in some ways has mirrored that of the Flyers’ schedule — a yo-yo performance with bouts of inconsistency. Coming off a 10-game winless stretch, the Flyers have now won five straight. Throughout both streaks, head coach Dave Hakstol has stuck with Sanheim when some coaches may have wavered. 

“There’s always lessons along the way, especially for a young defenseman,” Hakstol said. “He’s had some bumps in the road that every defenseman is going to go through. Tonight’s maybe a little indicative of that. Travis is always honest with himself and the evaluation of his own play, and for me, that always helps keep his feet on the ground and move on to the next challenge.”

“I want to make hard plays and I’ve got to make sure the puck gets over our blue line,” Sanheim said. “It’s easier to sit back and say I could have done this, I could have done that. Going forward, I’ve just got to try and limit those mistakes and try and play a harder game.” 

The Flyers eventually produced the breakthrough goal late in the second period on a tic-tac-toe play started by Michael Raffl, who fed a pass to Voracek and then onto Valtteri Filppula for the one-time goal.

“Those are the best wins,” said Raffl, who played in his 300th career game. “You’re pretty happy when you win 4-1 and you play your best game. It’s easy to laugh, but that was a war out there and the last period, especially, but we came together as a group.”

Of the 14 one-goal games the Flyers have played this season, this was just the third time they earned a victory. Many of those games when they failed to earn a winning decision came after regulation.

“It’s all about confidence,” Voracek said. “Two or three weeks ago when we went into the third period, we would lose that game. Now it’s about making sure those loose pucks get out of the zone and don’t make any dumb decisions.”

“I think it’s huge. When we were in that streak, we blew a lot of leads late in games,” Weise said. “Minus the last two minutes where I think we sat back a little, I thought we did a good job of moving the puck forward, forechecking and not sitting back too much. It’s more of a mental thing to win those type of games.”