Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Flyers' first move in free agency is right move with Emery redux

The  Philadelphia  Flyers took more than four hours after the commencement of Silly Season to announce their first move, but it was the right one, in keeping the veteran backup to  challenge incumbent Steve Mason, re-signing Ray Emery to a one-year contract on Tuesday.

No financial terms were disclosed by the club, but multiple reports state Emery will earn $1 million in 2014-15, a cut of $650,000 from his original one-year deal signed last July.

"You always want to earn as much as you can, but I was happy to stay in the same spot," Emery related in a conference call with local writers shortly after the deal was announced. "It was a real comfortable situation for me, so I'm glad to get to stay somewhere I'm comfortable."

The fiery 31-year-old backstop finished 9-12-2 with a 2.96 goals-against average, .903 save percentage and two shutouts over 28 appearances for Philadelphia.

Subbing for the injured Mason at the outset of the postseason, he went 1-2 with a 3.49 GAA in three starts against the New York Rangers.

Talking about the dynamic between he, a former starter, and Mason, whom the organization will give every chance to succeed as the starter, Emery said: "I thought it was a good relationship. I thought it was a good situation chemistry-wise. I think we're disappointed the way the playoffs went, losing a Game 7, but we want to continue to build on that good thing."

In a column released not four weeks ago, I speculated on the possible replacements for Emery if Ron Hextall decided to go in a different direction. None of those choices panned out, either too high a cap number, or a goaltender not really in a position to be a backup after solid careers as a starter, or bargain-basement cap-friendly fizzles who couldn't pick up the slack if Mason faltered or was hurt long term.

"I believe that a goalie relationship is very important and I also believe Ray was a great influence on Mason's success last year," said Flyers goaltending coach Jeff Reese.

Emery was co-recipient  of the Jennings  Trophy along with starter Corey Crawford on the Stanley Cup-winning Chicago Blackhawks in 2013, having  gone 17-1-0 with a 1.94 goals-against average and three shutouts in 21 appearances.

He was originally  brought to  Philly  in the  summer  of 2009  on a  $1.5 million,  one-year deal,  taking the  starting  job from  the departed  Martin Biron.  However, serious  hip injuries  derailed his  one and  only season  in orange and black.

Emery was shut  down in March of  2010 and forced to undergo season-ending bone-graft  surgery  to repair  avascular necrosis  in his  right hip the following month,  shortly after  a bothersome left-hip injury required the team to place him on long-term injured reserve.

Despite the Ontario native's successful return to the NHL to play at an elite level, there are still questions about his range of motion, particularly when moving laterally -- which stand in stark contrast to the younger, quicker and healthier Mason's relative ease when navigating his crease. 

Philly also made a depth signing for the minor leagues, inking goaltender Rob Zepp to a one-year, two-way contract. Zepp, 32, spent the last seven seasons playing in Germany.

"I've seen tape on Zepp, and he looks very polished,." Reese added. "Nice having a veteran guy with a young guy.  "There is no rush for Stolarz. He needs to polish his game. That takes time. Again, no rush. Let him develop." 

The plunge into a European league for a player who is best known on this side of the Atlantic for being Danny Briere and Claude Giroux's teammate on Eisbaren Berlin during the first portion of the 2012-13 season raises the following questions:

How could Anthony Stolarz be ready to tackle the pros with Phantoms next season, and compete for a starting job, without a proven North American commodity at his side? I'm not discounting a bit of culture shock, but shouldn't even an AHL backup be used to shepherd Stolarz in the same way Emery was with Mason in the NHL?

How could neither Yann Danis, nor former college netminders Cal Heeter, Carsen Chubak, Tony Capobianco and Matt Weninger fail to inspire some kind of confidence in the organization to remain here after their initial contracts? Why even take the risks for AHL deals in the short term (in the cases of Chubak, Capobianco and Weninger) just to dump them without a proper showcase?

How does a veteran of the German Deutsche Eishockey Liga fly under the radar, only to be picked up after known entities are shuttled in then discarded, and expected to give someone who isn't even an incumbent a reason to be motivated?

Permit me to indulge, but it's another example of short-sighted behavior regarding the minor league operation. This might not have been a problem if either Brian Boucher weren't 37 years old, or if Michael Leighton would ever permit the Flyers to lure him back with the promise of an easy paycheck. It's painful to see Plan A -- the scramble for an AHL reserve result in the dumping so many college prospects for an older player -- turn into a Plan B from left field, i.e. grabbing a goalie from just over 4,000 miles away.

While the only recourse we have right now is to trust Reese's acumen, Zepp seems like a stretch.

The native of Newmarket, Ontario last played in North America in 2004-05, when he finished 11-10-2 with a 2.67 GAA and two shutouts in 26 games for the Florida Everblades of the ECHL. He's played seven games with Lowell in the AHL, the last of those in 2003-04. Two years in Laappeenranta in Finland followed before he headed to the capital on the banks of the River Spree to continue his career.

With Berlin a season ago, Zepp claimed a 24-14-0 record, 2.39 GAA, .931 save percentage and one shutout in 38 contests.


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