Backup goalie a priority for Flyers in offseason
The identity of a backup might not seem important, until the starter goes down.
VANCOUVER - On the day of the ninth start in a row, Craig Berube said: "Let there be rest."
And so, Steve Mason enjoyed a rare night off on Sunday in Ottawa.
Ray Emery was tremendous in his stead, stopping all but one Senators advance. It was Emery's first appearance in nearly a month - since Feb. 19 - a span that included an injury, a capable run from Rob Zepp, and Mason's return from knee surgery.
All of which begs the question: What exactly will the Flyers do for a backup goaltender next season?
If that sounds like a silly one to ask with 11 games to play, it's probably a conversation worth having considering the Flyers' third-string netminder has played 15 percent of the season so far.
It will be an important position moving forward - and one of the few roster spots on this team that hasn't been filled for next season, barring any trades this summer.
Mason, 26, is enjoying his best season since capturing the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year in 2009. He is second to only Carey Price in even-strength save percentage since Nov. 1.
When Mason has been healthy, he's been lights out. It's just that he's had two issues with the same right knee - following the exact surgery on the left one in 2009-10 in Columbus - and a back-spasm issue that kept him out four games in December.
Emery, 32, doesn't exactly produce the same warm feeling when he's in net - just ask Berube, who yanked him after just 5:50 one night and after the first period of play twice.
His year has been polarizing, but not in the bipolar Roman Cechmanek kind of way. There are starts like that Jan. 27 one against Arizona when he allowed two goals on four shots, then there are ones like Sunday in Ottawa or Jan. 20 against Pittsburgh.
He also has the surgically repaired hip of a 64-year-old grandmother - which he says has not bothered him this season. Emery said his "lower-body" issue that kept him out from Feb. 23 to March 3 was "not related at all" to his hip, which includes grafted bone from his leg.
And what about Zepp?
Zepp's case is more complicated. The Flyers seem like they play with more energy in front of the 33-year-old rookie. Then again, Berube also pulled Zepp unexpectedly on Feb. 26 - on a night Mason was told he was not going to play unless an emergency presented itself - when two rockets found their way past him on eight shots. He went back to the Phantoms 3 days later.
Both Zepp and Emery are due to become unrestricted free agents. They have both shown their warts.
So far, general manager Ron Hextall has not had any known dialogue with representatives for either goaltender on a contract extension. Emery would presumably want to be back. He took a $650,000 pay cut to remain with the Flyers this season.
Believe it or not, Zepp actually turned down a one-way NHL contract from the Flyers two summers ago, before finally accepting this AHL-NHL combo deal last July 1, according to a source.
"I'm not really going to get into what I was offered," Zepp said in Toronto a couple weeks ago. "I've had offers from various teams over the years, and for whatever reason, the time or opportunity or whatever - there were a few things that came into play. Obviously, the situation over in Europe was going really well. I'll leave it at that."
That is an interesting fact, which may give a small peek into his desires, possibly for more money if the opportunity presents itself. Other teams were interested in him last summer, including Los Angeles, so he likely would still draw interest elsewhere.
He seemed lukewarm when asked about returning to the Flyers.
"I certainly have really enjoyed my time and I'm extremely grateful for the Flyers to think outside the box and really offer me that opportunity to come in as their third guy this year," Zepp said. "All my interactions have been great with the team. Certainly, I enjoy it here. What happens in the future remains to be seen."
The market for a backup is teeming, but not with top choices. Devan Dubnyk signed for $800,000 in Phoenix on July 1 - creating a domino effect leading Emery back to the Flyers. Dubnyk was traded to Minnesota in January and his 20-5-1 record has led the Wild back to the playoffs. He will be a starter somewhere next year. Are Jhonas Enroth and Antti Niemi backups? Michal Neuvirth and Anders Lindback have struggled mightily at times.
What's left? A host of talented restricted free agents who will be retained, like the "Hamburglar," Andrew Hammond in Ottawa, Jonathan Bernier in Toronto and Niklas Svedberg in Boston. The Flyers already passed on Vancouver's Jacob Markstrom on waivers this season.
The Flyers first need to hire a goaltending coach. Mason said last week he'd like to have input in that process, to find someone he is comfortable working alongside.
After that, narrowing down the backup list should be a priority. It seems like a minor decision, until it isn't.
The NHL general managers meetings got underway yesterday in Boca Raton, Fla. In addition to serenading Senators general manager Bryan Murray, who has bravely battled Stage 4 colon cancer, with a dinner, the group is also expected to further discuss the idea of using 3-on-3 in overtime to try to avoid the impact of shootouts . . . Defenseman Michael Del Zotto, out since March 8 with an "upper-body" injury, is possible to return Thursday in Calgary . . . Matt Read flew back to Philadelphia to be with his expecting wife, which means Nick Cousins will make his NHL debut tonight.