DENVER - By the time the Flyers acquired Steve Mason last April 3, contract negotiations already were underway on an extension for the goaltender.
In fact, it was Mason's agent, Anton Thun, who helped broker the trade between the Flyers and Blue Jackets.
Mason earned $3.2 million last season in Columbus. As a pending restricted free agent, he was due a qualifying offer that summer for at least 100 percent of the same salary.
Already spending a boatload on goaltending with Ilya Bryzgalov, it was clear the Flyers weren't willing to pay anywhere near that price for a goaltender whose once-bright future was slowly slipping away.
His extension - or "haircut," as Thun called it - was consummated in 5 days. Mason took $1.5 million, less than half he'd earned the season prior, just to get away from a franchise that knows only how to lose.
"There wasn't really much to negotiate," Mason told the Daily News with a smile after Monday night's comeback win in Vancouver.
Yesterday, for the first time since signing that extension, Mason was able to sign another one with the Flyers. NHL rules restrict players on 1-year contracts from signing a new one until Jan. 1, in an attempt to prevent salary-cap circumvention.
A lot has transpired in the last 9 months - easily the 9 most important months of Mason's career. Bryzgalov was jettisoned. Mason has enjoyed a renaissance in Philadelphia, one of the NHL's best stories of the season. Fans and media no longer snicker when he's announced as the starting goaltender after three horrific seasons in Columbus.
Since April 3, 83 goaltenders have played in an NHL game. Among those who have appeared in at least 20, Mason has a better goals-against average (2.29) than all but seven of them. In 37 appearances, his full body of work with the Flyers, he is 20-11-4 with one shutout and a .926 save percentage. He has been the Flyers' unequivocal MVP.
As much of a pleasure that is for general manager Paul Holmgren, who was one of only three GMs with any remote interest in claiming Mason off the scrap heap, it is now a bit of a pleasant headache. This is a complicated and messy contract negotiation.
Reading the tea leaves, it is one that might not be resolved in short order. Mason does not officially become a restricted free agent until July 1. Holmgren could wait until then and make a qualifying offer to retain Mason's rights, but that doesn't seem like a viable option for such a valuable asset.
All told, does Mason's resume make him closer to Carey Price or closer to Kari Lehtonen? Is he more comparable to Mike Smith or Ondrej Pavelec? Before term and even dollars, that seems to be the sticking point.
In this case, past history cannot be completely ignored. Neither can Mason's Calder Trophy as rookie of the year in 2008-09 and the unflappable moxie he has shown this season.
"We've had some conversations," Holmgren said this week. "Nothing really in-depth to this point. I don't really want to get into anything through the media. I'll just talk to Anton when the time comes to see what we can come up with."
When asked if this is a negotiation that could take some time, Holmgren said: "Yeah. It could."
Given the Flyers' recent history with goaltender contracts, it is believed Holmgren would be unwilling to sign a deal longer than 3 years.
Mason wants to be a Flyer. Since Day 1, the franchise where goaltenders go to die has been a safe haven - a match made in heaven, playing for a goaltending coach in Jeff Reese who truly believes in him.
"I'm just very happy within this organization," Mason said. "They've given me the confidence to play night-in and night-out."
What has been different with Mason? Reese revamped his entire style of play, pushing Mason back in his crease to better utilize all of his 6-4 frame. Since Mason is not further out in the crease to cut down on shooting angles, he is slightly more susceptible to being beaten by clean shots, but he is able to move laterally quicker.
Using simple geometry, Mason and Reese are playing the odds.
"Everything that he's been trying to get me to do has felt extremely comfortable," Mason said. "Years prior, I'd be out beyond the blue [crease] paint and I'd have an extra foot to cover to get back to the post. This makes a huge difference.
"It takes patience to trust your size and reflexes. There are pucks that are hitting you that you don't even see because you're in the right position."
Mason, the second righthanded-catching goaltender in team history (Stephane Beauregard, 1992-93), is also concentrating on staying on his feet longer instead of dropping into the butterfly as a first instinct. That allows him the option to beat a pass or set for the next shot quicker.
The only other change is that Mason will be earning more next season - likely more than double. Mason said he's leaving that up to Thun - who also serves as Reese's agent. Mason prefers to be left in the dark, told only when a deal is close. He hadn't heard anything this week.
"We'll see what happens," Mason said. "If something happens, great. If something is going to get done, I'd prefer it to be a short process, that way it's not dragging on. At the end of the day, that's not really my choice."
His choice, his willingness to go to a goaltending graveyard, take less money and rebuild his career from the goal line up, has given him something to negotiate.