Monday, September 29, 2014

Philadelphia Flyers 2014-15 Season Preview: Goaltending

The Phanatic continues its look at the 2014-15 Philadelphia Flyers for Part 3 of four weekly installments.

Once again, Rob Riches takes up the quill and dissects the issues of the Orange and Black crease featuring a pair of familiar faces. 

The Flyers entered the 2013-14 campaign with a fresh start between the pipes, after inking Steve Mason and Ray Emery to a pair of one-year contracts. 

Mason played seven games in the Orange and Black in the previous season after being acquired from Columbus in a trade-deadline deal, while Emery returned to the team as a free agent after backing up Corey Crawford on the Stanley Cup-champion Chicago Blackhawks.

Naturally, the two netminders entered training camp with some friendly competition for the starting job. The team committed just $3.15 million between both goaltenders ($1.65M to Emery, $1.5 to Mason). It wasn't a bad turn of events for a team that had just bought out Ilya Bryzgalov and the $34.5 million owed on his massive deal just several weeks beforehand.

Mason assumed the starting role in the second week of the season, and went on to play 61 games. Courtesy of a lackluster offense, he earned losses in seven of his first 10 appearances, despite allowing three-or-fewer goals each time out. However, he finished the season with a 33-18-7 record, 2.50 goals-against average, .917 save percentage and four shutouts. Those numbers were the best he's produced since his Calder Memorial Trophy-winning season in 2008-09, and at season's end, he placed seventh in Vezina Trophy voting.

The Ontario native's steady presence between the pipes bailed the Flyers’ shaky defense out in numerous games as they rose from the pits of despair into a playoff berth, and helped steal some wins for the team in a battle with the Blue Jackets for positioning. In January, he was rewarded with a three-year, $12.3 million contract extension -- indicative of the organization's confidence in him for the foreseeable future.

Here's an inside look at how the Flyers' starter prepares for a night in goal:

Of course, Mason’s 2014-15 campaign will come with some skepticism. A glance at his following seasons in Columbus after his rookie campaign, when he established himself as a below-average goalie throughout the league, displays the following: save percentages .901 or below, and his lowest GAA was 3.03. In addition, his Goals Saved Above Average ratings -- goals prevented given his save percentage and amount of shots faced, compared to the league’s average save percentage at the same number of shots allowed -- fluctuated between negative-16.33 and negative-25.84.

It’s likely Mason won't repeat his brilliant overall performance from last season, but with full confidence from the organization and its fans, there’s plenty of room for optimism. At 26 years old, there’s still room to improve and establish himself, and if he can win 29 games this season, he would usurp Martin Biron as the franchise's 10th-winningest goaltender.

Emery, on the other hand, started the season slow and allowed four goals in each of his first three appearances. His biggest highlight early in the season was going after counterpart Braden Holtby during a 7-0 whitewashing at the hands of the Washington Capitals on Nov. 1, which prompted league-wide speculation and discussion about a possible 10-game suspension for leaving the crease to fight and new hand-wringing about the nature of fighting within the game.

The very next night, Emery blanked New Jersey, making 14 saves in the process. A 30-save effort (on 31 shots) against Pittsburgh on Nov. 13, followed by a 29-save game against Buffalo eight days later appeared as though his season was getting back on track, but he then proceeded to lose four of his next five appearances between Nov. 27 and Dec. 21.

Emery finished his second stint in Philadelphia with a 9-12-2 record in 28 appearances, a 2.96 GAA and a .903 save pct. Because of a Mason concussion, Emery was pressed into duty for the first three games of the club's first-round playoff series against the New York Rangers, going 1-2 with a 3.49 GAA and .888 save percentage. It's debatable that the outcome of the Flyers/Rangers series may have been different if Mason was healthy for the first three games, but as fans have learned countless times through the years, hockey is not a game of  "ifs" and "buts."

When free agency began in July, Emery, who turned 28 on Sunday, was brought back on a one-year, $1 million contract -- a $650,000 pay cut for veteran assurance once it was clear no one else was a bargain for either performance or money. As it was last season, the once-undisciplined Emery will provide a wealth of veteran assistance to his younger partner in the crease as he matures.

Both men are led by goaltending coach Jeff Reese, who enters his sixth season with the organization. Emery worked with Reese in his first tenure in the Orange and Black, before avascular necrosis in his hip put his career on hold just before the Vancouver Games. In Reese and Mason’s time together, Reese made some technical adjustments to Mason’s game, and helped give him confidence that he was sorely lacking with the Blue Jackets.

The Flyers' struggles at the goalie position since the days of Ron Hextall's second tenure in the crease are well-documented. After the Bryzgalov experiment backfired spectacularly, it seemed as if the Flyers would have to keep searching in vain for that one guy who could put it all together. 

There's a lot of well-deserved optimism surrounding Mason after his career re-defining 2013-14 campaign, and there's also faith Emery could still thrive in a backup role if he remains healthy. Let's hope their performances can enhance the moves made up front and that their brilliance won't be necessary on a nightly basis for the club to remain competitive. 

Be sure to take a look at Riches' analysis over the past two weeks of the Flyers offense and defense

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