TORONTO - If goalie Steve Mason is sidelined for an extended period, the Flyers' playoff chances will virtually disappear and the team may be in the lottery hunt for the right to draft Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel, centers regarded as future franchise cornerstones.
And, so, yes, the Flyers' season depends on Mason's recovery from an apparent back injury.
Mason did not accompany the team on the first two legs of its eight-city road trip - Saturday night in Toronto and Sunday in Winnipeg. General manager Ron Hextall said he would not know more until Mason sees a specialist Monday.
"The doc has not had his hands on Mase yet," Hextall said Saturday in Toronto. ". . . He's got all the information from Jimmy [McCrossin, the trainer]" and he will see Mason on Monday. "I don't want to say he might play Tuesday or he might play in two weeks. I don't know."
Hextall said he was "optimistic that it won't be long, but until you get the information, you don't know for sure. I don't anticipate it being a long time, but that could change."
The 26-year-old goalie fell face down to the ice at the end of practice Friday in Voorhees. He was on the ice - and in obvious pain - for about seven minutes before being helped off.
"Just a shock to the team," defenseman Mark Streit said.
Forget his poor record. Mason has been one of the Flyers' best players, behind just Jake Voracek, Claude Giroux, and perhaps Wayne Simmonds.
With Mason, the Flyers entered Saturday seventh in the eight-team Metropolitan Division, tied for 14th in the 16-team Eastern Conference, and tied for 25th in the 30-team NHL.
Without him, they might drop to the bottom in the division, conference, and league standings.
For the 2015 draft in June, the NHL has changed the system, decreasing the odds for the worst team to get the No. 1 pick. The worst team will have a 20 percent chance (down from 25), the second worst will have a 13.5 percent chance (down from 18.8), and the third worst will have an 11.5 percent chance (down from 14.2).
Mason has just a 6-10-5 record, but it doesn't tell the story. He has been very good (See his 2.46 goals-against average and .921 save percentage) but has received little offensive support. The defense has improved in the last two weeks, but it was suspect earlier in the season.
If Mason was on a quality team, he would have a much different record. His save percentage, for instance, is better than the Islanders' Jaroslav Halak (.918), who has a 17-6 record. It is also better than Tampa Bay's Ben Bishop (16-6-2), Anaheim's Frederik Andersen (18-5-4), and the Rangers' Henrik Lundquist (13-7-3), among many others.
Ray Emery is a capable backup, but there are lots of questions about whether he could handle the load if Mason is out for a long time. Rob Zepp, recalled from the Phantoms to be the backup, is an unknown factor. The 33-year-old goalie has never played an NHL game.
Again, Mason may just have back spasms, as he did earlier in his career in Columbus, and could receive a positive medical report Monday. If he doesn't, the Flyers "will have to get tighter as a group. Ray-Ray [Emery] has been playing really well, and I think everybody trusts in him and that makes it easier to play," winger Michael Raffl said.
"Obviously, you don't want to see him out, but it's hockey and injuries happen," Voracek said. "When Mase got hurt before the playoffs last year, everybody was worried, but Ray did an outstanding job. He stole a game in New York and gave us a chance to win the series. He's experienced, and I'm sure we'll be fine."
That said, Emery has not played in at least half of his team's games since 2006-07, when he was with Ottawa. No one knows if he can perform well over an extended period.
That makes the doctor's report Monday one of the most important developments of the Flyers' sad-sack season.
Inside the Flyers: Top-Pick Odds
The 14 NHL teams that miss the playoffs have a shot at the top pick in the draft, although the odds have been changed this season. Here are the odds, starting with the non-playoff team ranked 14th in points, of getting the top pick.
Rk. Odds Odds
14 20.0% 25.0%
13 13.5% 18.8%
12 11.5% 14.2%
11 9.5% 10.7%
10 8.5% 8.1%
9 7.5% 6.2%
8 6.5% 4.7%
7 6.0% 3.6%
6 5.0% 2.7%
5 3.5% 2.1%
4 3.0% 1.5%
3 2.5% 1.1%
2 2.0% 0.8%
1 1.0% 0.5%
- Sam Carchidi