Few hockey teams win championships without getting good goaltending, but that will be particularly true for the 2014-15 Philadelphia Flyers. The Flyers’ success this season will be very dependent on the performance of goalie Steve Mason, a player who has never put back-to-back winning seasons together during the course of his six-year NHL career.
Mason had a good year in goal for the Flyers last season. He finished with a 33-18-7 record and a 2.50 GAA. His .917 save percentage was his career best for a full season, and that includes his Calder Trophy-winning rookie season of 2008-09.
In the playoffs, Mason was even better, going 2-2 in the four games he was able to start with an impressive 1.97 GAA and a .939 save percentage.
Despite the solid performance last season, Mason still has his detractors. For example, broadcaster Jeremy Roenick had this to say about Mason at a charity golf tournament in July: “I like Steve Mason, but I don't think Steve Mason is the answer to winning the Stanley Cup" Roenick said on Philly Sports Talk as reported by CSNPhilly.com’s Mary Clarke. "I think you need an upper echelon defenseman, I think you need an upper echelon goaltender. The Flyers do not have either.”
There are a few facts to support Roenick’s analysis of Mason.
First, the 26-year-old Oakville, Ontario, native has never put together back-to-back solid seasons since he joined the NHL in 2008-09. Mason always follows a good season with a mediocre one, or even worse, a poor one. Can he be consistent enough to play well two straight seasons? The Flyers need the answer to that question to be yes.
“The thing that he's got to come back with is he's got be consistent from year to year," general manager Ron Hextall told Adam Kimelman of NHL.com. "That's what he's out to prove and that's what we're looking forward to seeing, the consistency from year to year."
Mason’s consistency will be a huge key for the Flyers. Last year, the Philadelphia defense was considered below average. The team struggled to stop opposing players and finished 20th in the league in goals allowed per game.
During the offseason, the Flyers lost defenseman Kimmo Timonen for an indefinite period due to blood clots in his right leg and both lungs. Timonen was arguably Philadelphia’s best defenseman last year even at the age of 39. Timonen’s career may be in jeopardy. Even in the best-case scenario, it is safe to say the Flyers will be without his services for at least half of the upcoming season.
The Flyers signed free agent Michael Del Zotto to replace Timonen, but Del Zotto doesn’t have the reputation of being very strong in his own zone.
The Flyers do have some young defensemen in their system such as Samuel Morin, Robert Hagg and Shayne Gostisbehere, but Hextall has indicated he doesn’t want to rush any of them to the NHL.
“I don't want to put a kid in a situation who is not ready for it," Hextall told Kimelman. "The way to protect yourself is to add a veteran if possible."
Barring the emergence of a young defenseman or a shocking turnaround defensively by Del Zotto, the Flyers defense may not even be as strong as it was last season.
Playing in front of a questionable defense will only make the Flyers rely on Mason even more.
So, the Flyers' ultimate success will be closely tied to the performance of their goalie.
If Mason is equal to the task and continues his improvement under the eye of goaltending coach Jeff Reese, the Flyers could be a dangerous playoff team in April. If Mason regresses, however, the Flyers could be on the outside looking in when the playoffs get under way this spring.