The Next Ten Days and Flyers GoaltendingBREAKING NEWS, News, NHL Tuesday, June 25th, 2013
I thought I had laid the cards on the table last month when I elaborated on the current standing of the Flyers’ goaltending situation and what planning they had to make for the future.
The trade of Jonathan Bernier to the Toronto Maple Leafs, the re-signing of Niklas Backstrom by the Minnesota Wild, and the official buyout of Ilya Bryzgalov this afternoon have sped up the process and upped the ante.
So what the heck are their options now?
The first question that has to be asked is “Can Steve Mason handle the starter position alone?”
A lot of fans I talk to believe that Mason deserves a shot based on his play in seven games with the Flyers at the end of the 2013 NHL season. Mason finished with a 4-2-0 record and a 0.944 save percentage.
The argument is that, like Luke Schenn the year before, he’s still just 24 years old and a change of scenery may be all that he needs to revitalize his career.
It’s a ho-hum, “aw shucks fellers, let’s see what he’s got” approach, and the optimist in me is willing to go along with fans in that regard.
Sadly, I prefer to stay grounded in reality more often than not and can’t throw away the 232 games that he played with the Columbus Blue Jackets like they were an accident.
In four and a half seasons, Mason earned a 0.903 career save percentage. My rule of thumb is that back-ups should have close to a 0.910 save percentage and starters should be closer to 0.915, give or take a point. Mason isn’t even close to this.
Mason spoke candidly to Fox Sports Ohio last year about some of the causes of his struggles during the disaster that was the Columbus Blue Jackets’ season:
“You know, at the time any kid wants to make the jump to the NHL and I was fortunate to be able to do that. It’s very rare a goalie does that. So at the time I was more than thrilled. We had success right off the bat so it was easy for people to say that we made the right choice; now it’s easy to look back and say, ‘Maybe you should have spent a year or two in the American League.
“From my standpoint, it might have been better for me to grow mentally just to get adjusted to the professional game, but I’m not going to complain; I’ve had some really good experiences here in the four years I’ve been here and some really crappy ones at the same time. This year has definitely been a building stone. There’s been a lot of different things I never thought I’d have to go through, but at the end of the day, I’m 23 years old and if it’s going to make me better for the next 10 or 15 years then it’s well worth it.”
The approach that I suspect will work best in Philadelphia’s favor is to acquire a goaltender that is going to challenge Mason in net. Handing him the starter position has the potential to breed complacency, and any hope for Mason of maintaining a successful NHL career hinges on proving he belongs here.
If that is the approach, than signing a veteran back-up expected to play a minimal number of games is not the right solution. That eliminates free agent goaltenders like Dan Ellis, Evgeni Nabokov, Jose Theodore and (we hope) Michael Leighton from consideration.
The Obvious Candidates
Ideally, the Flyers can fill the position with a goaltender that provides the best of both worlds- a player with ample NHL experience who is young enough that, if they’re more successful than Mason, can fill the starter position for more than just one season.
The two players available that best fit that description are Ray Emery and Mike Smith.
Smith, 31, struggled for most of his NHL career before landing in Phoenix as a free agent in 2011. If you toss out the past two seasons, Smith held a career 0.906 save percentage. Behind Coyotes head coach Dave Tippett’s system, his numbers jump to 0.913 (much as they did with Ilya Bryzgalov).
Is Smith truly a starting goaltender in the NHL now? He seems to think so, and is currently negotiating for an increase on his previous $2 million per year deal.
“I’m not gonna be selfish with this whole situation and demand this stupid contract that we’re not going to be able to build a team around. I believe you don’t put all your eggs in one basket. There’s good players that make a lot of money, and I think I deserve a fair contract. By any means I’m not expecting to hit a home run.”
Between his contract demands (likely north of $3 million) and the question of his play outside of Phoenix, Mike Smith raises more questions than answers.
On paper, Emery just makes too much sense.
While the Stanley Cup ring Emery now owns is a rewarding memento for his NHL career, there’s something to be said for earning one as the guy. Corey Crawford is the undisputed starter in Chicago for the foreseeable future, and the chances of Emery backstopping a team to a Stanley Cup victory with his past injury history will only get worse if he takes on another clear back-up role.
In 2009, the Flyers were the only team willing to give him a chance in the NHL after his attitude issues basically exiled him to Russia. His recent successes are owed to that leap of faith from Ed Snider and Paul Holmgren. “Razer” was off to a great start that year too, before he developed avascular necrosis of the hips.
I would imagine that Emery would appreciate the opportunity to address his “unfinished business” in Philadelphia and fight for a starting role on a fair, one-year contract (think $2-$2.5 million).
Sure, bringing back re-treads is a habit that the Flyers need to kick one of these days, but Emery is still a viable goaltender at this point of his career.
The Wild Card
It wouldn’t be a Flyers offseason without bold signings, so let’s address the one goaltender who will be in consideration if only for the “HOLY CRAP” effect.
Tim Thomas is rumored to be looking to return to the NHL after taking a year-long sabbatical from hockey. The 39-year-old ultimately wants to compete in the Olympics one last time and will use an NHL team as a vehicle to prepare for it.
Thomas won the Stanley Cup, Conn Smythe Trophy and Vezina Trophy in 2011 after putting up phenomenal numbers for the Boston Bruins. In his career, Thomas has a staggering 0.922 save percentage.
Thomas is a guy who wouldn’t be satisfied with being a “back-up” and could certainly challenge Mason for the starting position. The question on everybody’s mind, though, is what does a year away from sports do to an athlete? Did he continue training during his sabbatical? How prepared is he to resume his career?
There are also questions surrounding his character after his political preferences started becoming the media’s go-to story instead of his play. I don’t think it would make any difference to the players, though, as long as they’re winning. Besides, after dealing with Bryzgalov for two seasons, Thomas will look like Lumbergh from “Office Space.”
The Youth Gamble
The last approach is to gamble on another young “on the bubble” goaltender competing with Mason to prove himself.
In free agency, there are two 27-year-old goaltenders with intriguing records but limited NHL experience – Anton Khudobin (Boston) and Thomas Greiss (San Jose).
Khudobin, a native of Kazahkstan, has bounced around the minor leagues for years. With a career 0.912 save percentage in 156 AHL games, the Bruins felt comfortable with him backing up Tuukka Rask after Thomas ditched the team. In just 21 NHL games, Khudobin has a 0.933 save percentage.
It’s too small of a sample size to trust him with the starting job, but his resume is impressive enough to let him fight for it if he has the fire for it.
Greiss, a product of the German Deutsche Eishockey Liga, has been in the San Jose Sharks’ farm system since 2006 and served as back-up for three seasons. In 44 NHL games played to date, the 6’-1” netminder earned a 0.912 save percentage. The Sharks leaned heavily on starter Antti Niemi during the lockout shortened season, suggesting they may not have had as much faith in Greiss to help share the load (not unlike the situation in Philadelphia).
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With the Philadelphia Flyers, anything can happen. It’s a quality that makes them both infuriating and intoxicating to follow on a regular basis.
The buyout of the remainder of Ilya Bryzgalov’s contract wasn’t a “surprise,” but it did hasten their need to fill holes in the roster for the 2013-14 NHL season.
There is also still a question of how the organization plans to address their lack of goaltending depth at the minor league levels. Cal Heeter may be sufficient as a back-up NHL goaltender in limited capacity if one of their starting goaltenders goes down with an injury, but there is no one else signed within the system except for 19 year-old “reeeeeally needs time to develop” Anthony Stolarz.
Between the NHL draft and the start of free agency, the next ten days should be a very interesting period to see what the Flyers eventually do to course correct their future.
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