WINNIPEG, Manitoba — Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth sat side by side in their cramped stalls Wednesday afternoon at Bell MTS Place in Winnipeg and shared a laugh after coming off the ice from their midday practice.
The two NHL goaltenders have learned about sharing space, especially in net. If the NHL ever had a timeshare presentation, Elliott and Neuvirth could probably sell you on its benefits.
Financially, they’re both making nearly identical salaries, with Elliott at $2.75 million and Neuvirth $2.5 million.
Neither guy came into October expecting to be the No. 1 in net, and if they did, they certainly downplayed it within the media. It’s a ho-hum tandem that just goes about its business, which is quite the contrast from the past four seasons.
With Steve Mason, you knew what was on his mind, almost to a fault.
He despised the shootout. He talked about facing the pressure, a lot. There was an admission a few years back that he vented to his parents, sometimes swearing, after a bad start or a string of rough outings. He was naturally upset he wasn’t named the starter for the season opener in Los Angeles. There was the disappointment of not having a contract after last season, and then the “clarity” of moving forward after the Flyers re-signed Neuvirth and not him.
Whereas Ilya Bryzgalov was the organizational migraine, Mason was simply a wave of nausea. Perhaps he came at just the right time following the most disastrous contract ever.
For a franchise that gets nearly as much grief for its goalies as the Cleveland Browns do with quarterbacks, finding one that is relatively low-key, along with a propensity for stopping the puck, should be high on the Flyers’ list.
Privately, a few former and current Flyers told me Mason had a way about him that could rub players the wrong way. There was his body language and staredown after giving up a goal. Then on a few occasions he called out his teammates following a lackluster performance. Ironically, last season’s game right here in Winnipeg, a 3-2 loss, was a prime example:
“It was up to us to make them feel uncomfortable,” Mason said after the March 22 game. “We're also facing a goaltender (Michael Hutchinson) who hadn't had a start in two months, and I don't think we made it hard enough for him. We need a better effort.
“We keep playing like this and we'll be mathematically eliminated before you know it. We've got to stop this win-one-lose-one [habit]. We have to have some growth on the team here.”
While there may have been some truth to Mason’s words, one could argue it wasn’t his place to point fingers. That’s especially the case on a team with a coach who keeps most of his criticisms in a clenched fist.
Not once can you recall Mason’s teammates calling out their netminder following a horrendous game or, say, giving up a goal in a first-round playoff game that slides right through the five-hole from 125 feet away.
However, Mason left Philadelphia ranked third on the franchise’s all-time games played list and wins list. Only NHL Hall of Famer Bernie Parent and Flyers Hall of Famer Ron Hextall had more.
When Mason returns to Philadelphia, I’m sure the organization will have a video tribute for his four-plus years of service in orange and black. However, let’s face it, Hextall wanted no part of Mason moving forward.
“I had wanted to go back there (to Philadelphia), but seeing that they wanted to go in a different direction, you take it as what it is,” Mason recently told The Winnipeg Sun. “Come the summer, there were no discussions, so you move on. I’m happy to be in Winnipeg.”
No discussions. No chance to stay at a reduced rate. No more Mason.
With the signing of Elliott, Hextall was able to save money, and so far, the Flyers’ pair of Elliott and Neuvirth has saved its share of pucks. The Flyers are currently tied for sixth in the NHL with a 2.61 goals against per game.
On the flip side, Mason has had to recover from a disastrous start, one that included surrendering five goals in each of his first three starts with the Jets. He has also been outplayed by Connor Hellebuyck. Mason finally earned his first win of the season this past Saturday against the Coyotes.
Goaltending may not be the Flyers’ greatest strength this season, but it’s clearly not a weakness. Perhaps more importantly, it’s a quiet corner in the locker room.