Mason and Emery battle to be Flyers' top goalie

Steve Mason was superb in seven games with the Flyers last season after being obtained from Columbus. He is trying to resurrect his career.
Steve Mason was superb in seven games with the Flyers last season after being obtained from Columbus. He is trying to resurrect his career. (YONG KIM / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 30, 2013

Two years ago, the Flyers were so desperate to end their goalie carousel that they gave Ilya Bryzgalov a $51 million, nine-year deal that was scheduled to end when he was 40.

But it turns out money can't buy stability between the pipes, which is why the carousel continues.

Bryzgalov lasted just two years with the Flyers, who watched the zany goalie's mediocre 2013 season and bought out the remainder of his contract, giving them more cap flexibility. The "costly mistake," as general manger Paul Holmgren candidly labeled it, has the Flyers hoping Steve Mason and/or Ray Emery will solve the franchise's longtime goaltender problem.

In the last 19 seasons, Martin Brodeur has been the No. 1 goalie for New Jersey and has led the Devils to three Stanley Cups. During that time, the Flyers, Cup-less since 1975, have used 24 goalies.

Repeat: 24.

Since 1989-90, no Flyers goalie has played more than two consecutive seasons in which he has appeared in at least 50 games.

And so, yeah, the odds say the Flyers, who rode Hall of Famer Bernie Parent to back-to-back Stanley Cups nearly 40 years ago, are due for some good goaltender fortune.

Aren't they?

A challenge for goalies

Ritch Winter, Bryzgalov's agent, sharply criticized the Flyers in the offseason and said it's not a coincidence that Philadelphia is a place where goalies' careers fade.

During an interview with an Edmonton radio station after the Flyers brought out Bryzgalov, Winter complained about coach Peter Laviolette and his system.

"It's terrible in Philadelphia for a goaltender," Winter said during his on-air interview on 630 CHED. "They block shots. They don't open up lanes. Goaltenders can't see the puck. The goalie coach [Jeff Reese] has no authority. The head coach doesn't listen to him. It's an issue and it's made it a challenge."

Winter said Bryzgalov told him, "They pay you $51 million because they seem to think I was good at stopping the puck and then they never let you see it."

The agent added a parting shot: "And Sergei Bobrovsky, who struggled, leaves Philadelphia, goes to Columbus, and wins the Vezina Trophy. Yeah, Ilya has to take some responsibility for his performance . . . [but] at the end of the day, I think there is more wrong with Philadelphia's goaltending than just the goaltending."

Laviolette declined to comment on Winter's remarks.

"I'll pass on that," he said during training camp the other day. "We're focusing on what we've got here this year. Excited to get going. No sense in me digging anything up."

Some Flyers defensemen took offense at Winter's comments.

"I don't necessarily agree," Luke Schenn said. "We try to play solid defensively, and I don't think we play differently than a lot of teams out there that are aggressive offensively. The whole Bryz situation is in the past, and we're looking forward to the goalies we have. We really don't care about the past anymore."

Andrej Meszaros, who suffered through an injury-plagued 2013 season, said people are misguided if they point fingers at the defense.

"It's not just the defense. The forwards have to help us, too, and we have to help the forwards and join the rush," the veteran defenseman said. "It's a team game, and for someone to say it's just the defense's fault, it's not right. Everybody who understands hockey knows that."

Two good goalies

The Flyers are hoping Mason, 25, and Emery, 31, can build off last season.

"They're in different stages of their careers," said Ron Hextall, a onetime star goalie with the Flyers who is in his first year as their assistant general manager. "Mase is a young guy; he's proven, but he's also trying to get back on track. Ray is a veteran who has been around and kind of has things figured out. Ray has been pretty solid in the preseason, and Mase is a big guy with lots of ability and talent and has to find a way to be more consistent - and if the last few months are any indication, he's on his way to big things."

Emery went 17-1 with a 1.94 goals-against average and .922 save percentage for the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks. This is the same goalie whose career appeared over when he underwent major hip surgery on April 1, 2010.

Suffering from a condition called avascular necrosis - the bone at the head of his femur was dead because of a lack of blood flow - Emery had the dead bone replaced with one from his fibula.

A grueling, painful rehab followed. So did a remarkable recovery from the same degenerative condition that ended Bo Jackson's two-sport career.

Emery appears humbled by the turn of events.

During his first stint with the Flyers in 2009-10, the 6-foot-2, 196-pound Emery, called "Razor" by his teammates, was moody and sometimes sullen.

Three years later, he seems more upbeat, more at peace with himself.

"Sometimes when somebody tells you that you can't do any something anymore and all of a sudden you get that second opportunity, you come in and really appreciate every day," Laviolette said.

As for the 6-foot-4, 217-pound Mason, he was lights-out after being acquired late last season from Columbus. In seven games with the Flyers, Mason had a 1.90 goals-against average and .944 save percentage. He looked confident, like he did when he first broke into the NHL.

Mason's late-season success, you could argue, put holes in Winter's theory about goalies not being able to excel in Laviolette's system. But seven games is a small sample. Mason, who was named the league's top rookie in 2008-09 before scuffling in the next three-plus years in Columbus, knows that and is determined to show it wasn't a fluke.

"This," Mason said, "is a fresh opportunity."

It wouldn't be surprising if Mason - who had 10 shutouts as a rookie and then combined for nine over the next four years - and Emery divided time in the season's first month until one went on a roll and began playing most of the games. Laviolette loves going with the hot hand.

"I don't really think it's a battle," Emery said of the training-camp competition. "It's two guys getting ready to play as well as they can in the season."

Unlike Bryzgalov, Mason and Emery are excellent stickhandlers, and that should save some wear and tear on the defensemen.

"At times, it's like having an extra defenseman out there," Schenn said. "I played with Mase at World Juniors and last year, and he's probably the best puck-mover [for a goalie] I've ever played with. And Razor looks like he's a good puck-handler, too."

"They're both great with the puck," Meszaros said, "and if you look at the goalies around the league, especially Brodeur, they really help the D. It's huge."

Meszaros smiled.

"For the D, they can save you maybe three more years of hockey because you don't get hit as often. You never know what's going to happen when guys are flying 100 miles an hour . . . but when you have a goalie who can send it off to the corner, it's a huge help."

It's a partnership

In the franchise's history, no goaltender has been more revered than Bernard Marcel Parent.

Now an ambassador with the team, Parent likes the fact that Emery and Mason view their duel as a partnership instead of a competition."They're helping each other, and when you have that situation, you become a force," he said.

Parent, who was extremely high on Bobrovsky during his brief Flyers tenure, said Mason's situation is similar to his development early in his career.

"Mason was rookie of the year and then he struggled, and I can relate," Parent said. "When I played in Boston in '65, I played in 45 games [actually 39] and played pretty well, and then the second year I had some problems and didn't have the experience to compensate for the mistakes. You're playing against guys that are smart and will always find your weakness, so you always have to improve."

During a recent golf tournament, Parent met Mason for the first time.

"Sometimes, you don't fit in a city, for whatever reason," Parent said. "But you could tell he feels at home here, and when you feel at home, the crowd and the team become your family and you perform much better."

Parent admires the way Mason faces shooters, his timing, and the way he follows the puck.

As for Emery, Parent is amazed by his resilience.

"For him to bounce back and play in the minors and rebuild himself, it takes a strong, powerful mind to do that," he said. "I have so much respect for what he did last year. People say he had a good team in front of him, but I watched him on TV and he was very solid."

Emery and Mason are on one-year contracts. They are playing for more than a big payday. They are trying to be a long-term answer, trying to be the player who ends the perpetual goalie carousel that, fair or not, has become a part of the Flyers' identity.


scarchidi@phillynews.com

@BroadStBull

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