Mason has the ability to go lights out and has boasted one of the best even-strength save percentages in the league over the last several years. He revived his career in Philadelphia, the proclaimed goalie hell, and came out the other side in much better shape than when he entered it.
The former Blue Jacket wasn’t in a good spot mentally and even contemplated quitting hockey.
“My mind was so beat up that I truly did not enjoy playing hockey anymore,” Mason told NHL.com. “It definitely crossed my mind to hang the pads up and focus on other aspects of life because hockey was something that was making life not enjoyable.”
After four full seasons in which he helped the Philadelphia Flyers remain competitive – including two in which they made the Stanley Cup Playoffs – Mason walked away into free agency before eventually signing with the Winnipeg Jets. The Flyers “replaced” him with Elliott, the veteran that will be playing for his fifth NHL team.
Both goaltenders had a down year in 2016-17, Mason in his final year with the Flyers and Elliott in his only with the Calgary Flames. Their statistics don’t seem too far off at first glance, either; Mason finished 26-21-8 with a .908 save percentage and 2.66 goals against average in 54 starts while Elliott compiled a 26-18-3 record, .910 save % and 2.55 GAA in 45 starts.
Why change goaltenders if their statistics tell a similar story? Is the grass just greener on the other side?
Of course, life can’t be evaluated in a vacuum and neither can the genetic makeup, skillset and mindset of a goaltender.
Mason was disgruntled when his close working relationship with goaltending coach Jeff Reese was shattered one day with Reese’s sudden departure from the franchise. He was also always fighting and longing for starter status, thriving when Michal Neuvirth was injured and he was “the guy” but also never being able to hold the opportunity for too long.
Those stretches where Mason only had a night or two off over a two week, 10-plus start span were magical. He put the team on his back several times during them.
However, one thing would lead to another and Mason would lose at least a little share of his role as king in net, and that likely got to him. He wanted to be the starter and didn’t seem to be in the right place mentally if he wasn’t. A timeshare or tandem wasn’t on Mason’s wish list and, while an outright refusal to be part of one didn’t necessarily happen, it was in the Flyers’ best interests to not force him into one this season and have those tough locker room conversations looming on the horizon.
Enter Brian Elliott.
Elliott was the product of a strong tandem in St. Louis before trying his luck in Calgary, spending five seasons with the Blues and seeing a lot of success between the pipes. He was 104-46-16 in 181 games with the Blues, mostly as part of a tandem with Jake Allen. He topped 40 starts just once with the Blues (45 in 2014-15) and it was his second worst season statistically there.
He was all but handed the reigns last season with Johnny Gaudreau and Co. and fell flat. Here, though, he will be counted on as a stop-gap veteran with a history or thriving in tandems instead of sinking in them.
He’ll share the net with Neuvirth this year, who had arguably his worst season as a professional goaltender last season and is expected to bounce back in a big way. His health has always been a big question mark, but his low AAV and tandem status should be enough to consider Neuvirth a lower risk body on the roster.
In fact, the two goaltenders’ salaries combined are now just a little over $1 million more per year than Mason’s alone.
Elliott’s two-year, $5.5 million deal ($2.75 mil AAV) is a lot easier to manage than the two-year, $8.2 million deal ($4.1 mil AAV) that Mason signed with the Jets this summer. $1.35 million is a hell of a sale if you’re talking about a difference between comparable goaltenders.
Don’t get me wrong, I supported Mason through the good and bad times here in Philly. He was a damn good goaltender a lot of the time and his faults were blown out of proportion more often than not. He kept this team competitive and was a welcomed heir to the net after the failed Ilya Bryzgalov experiment. He was definitely better than the other goalies around the organization at the time, including Ray Emery, Michael Leighton, Brian Boucher, Rob Zepp and Cal Heeter.
However, it was time for both parties to move on.
While better than average and a worthy starter, Mase was also not the franchise goaltender that the Flyers have been longing to find for years. The franchise needed a steady presence in net that was willing to share the workload with newly re-signed Neuvirth until one of the plethora of prospects is ready to take over.
I’m not sure. The Flyers likely aren’t sure. But one thing’s for sure; they’ve solidified the position in the short term and set themselves up with little money invested and an easy out when their homegrown talent, whoever it may be, is ready.
And that’s why it’s frustrating when anyone talks about the change in net this offseason and doesn’t look at some of the biggest factors.
I’ve heard them say the Flyers downgraded. I’ve heard them say it was a lateral move (again, there’s nothing wrong with saving $1.35 million of cap space per year with the cheaper guy in that case). I’ve heard them say it doesn’t really help them short-term.
It’s all short-sighted or in a vacuum, to me. Ron Hextall hopes that the future of the goaltending position will pan out similar to the one they find themselves in this offseason in other areas; there are several NHL-ready prospects and several NHL spots available to them. Mason, while a good teammate, wasn’t really in a position to mentor an incoming prospect and eventually give up his spot to the kid.
That role is much better suited for Elliott, whose contributions off the ice could very well match his in-game numbers over the next couple of years should one of the prospects be ready sooner rather than later.
“Whether you’re mentoring someone or not, you’re there because you want to win and play hockey and what’s best for your career,” Elliott said back in July. “If you end up having an influence on somebody, that’s probably good, too.’’
Even if it does take two years, the Flyers should have saved themselves some cash and some controversy with their potentially boring but seemingly solid pair of goaltenders that will carry a shared load in net.. for now.
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