There are some inescapable truths in life. Death comes to us all. Governments will levy taxes. And the Philadelphia Flyers will make hilariously incompetent decisions regarding their goaltending.
The latest mistake made by the Flyers is a contract extension to Steve Mason, which was reported on Saturday morning. TSN’s Pierre LeBrun broke the news that Mason has a new deal, while CBC’s Elliotte Friedman first passed on the terms:
Superficially, this is a good deal for both sides. Mason has respectable numbers this season (19-11-5, .917 save percentage), and so the Flyers should get strong goaltending without risking a long-term deal or massive dollars. Mason, who had struggles before arriving in Philadelphia, gets the security of a three-year deal and a pretty respectable paycheck.
But the superficial take in this case isn’t the right one. Let’s look at why.
Looking strictly at Mason’s time with Philadelphia, he’s been an excellent goalie. We are not, however, limited to Mason’s time with the Flyers; he has a long NHL track record before Philadelphia, and with goalies, it’s always smart to bet on the long-term track record. In this case, the pre-Philadelphia track record is summed up rather easily:
"OK, sure," the reader is doubtless thinking. "Mason wasn’t good in Columbus—everybody knows that. But he’s also only 25 years old. Why can’t his play in Philadelphia be a breakthrough for a still-young goalie?"
There are two objections to that, one general and one specific. The general is the observed aging curve of NHL goalies, something that Steve Burtch of the blog Pension Plan Puppets put together earlier this season. He found that goalies typically peak at the age of 23 and that by 25, their save percentage as a group is on a downward slope from which it will never recover.
The Mason-specific objection has to do with a piece written on this site back in December. The aim of that column was to see whether Mason might be an exception to the general rule, and so it went looking for other goalies with massive performance spikes at around the age of 25. All of the data and the list of comparable players is in that piece; here is the conclusion:
...from the data we have, no goalie has managed to pull off the kind of transformation Mason did and use it as a springboard for improved play down the line. The early signs with [Brian] Elliott are encouraging but far from definitive, and they are countered by a opposite trends in (Jonathan) Quick and (Sergei) Bobrovsky. The most likely outcome is that Steve Mason goes back to being the fringe NHLer he was when the Flyers acquired him. He’s defied prediction before; we’ll see if he can do so again.
What has happened since that piece was published on December 7? Mason has done his level best to live up to its predictions. In 16 games played since, he has allowed three or more goals on 10 occasions and posted an overall save percentage of .894.
Even when Mason was at his peak this season, this would have been a highly questionable contract. Now he’s in the middle of an ugly slump, which makes the thinking behind it even more suspect. Perhaps he will defy history, evolving into the No. 1 goalie Philadelphia so obviously sees him as. That isn’t where the smart money lies, though, which means the Flyers have put a pile of dollars on the hope that a long shot can beat the field.
That’s how it is in Philadelphia, though. Mason is just the latest in a long list of unlikely saviors. His predecessor, Ilya Bryzgalov, was handed a massive contract as a pending free agent but was bought out after only two seasons. Before him, Michael Leighton went from waiver claim to playoff hero to new contract and then back to the waiver wire. There have been countless stops along the way—Ray Emery, Brian Boucher, Robert Esche, Martin Biron, Roman Cechmanek, Antero Niittymaki—but the only constant has been the Flyers’ inability to bank on their starting goalie.
It’s not a pattern likely to change with today’s news.
Statistics courtesy of NHL.com and current through January 18.