When he sat down Tuesday for his succession of season-ending exit interviews with general manager Ron Hextall, coach Dave Hakstol, and goaltending coach Kim Dillabaugh, Steve Mason made it clear that he had no interest in having the Flyers string him along into the summer.
Mason will become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, and in his telling, Hextall left the door open for him to return. All Mason asked was that the Flyers inform him of their plans as soon as possible. Would they re-sign him? Would they let him walk away? If Mason's career here was indeed ending, he would need time to sell his house, to find a new home for his family, but he has to wait for that closure. Although Mason came away thinking that Hextall already has devised an offseason strategy to address the team's goaltending situation, their meeting ended without a resolution.
"They have to figure some things out," Mason said. "Whatever those things are, I'm not aware of."
Those things, just to fill Mason in, include the salary cap, Michal Neuvirth's value to the team and ability to stay healthy, Anthony Stolarz and the other goaltending prospects in the Flyers' system, and the player-personnel game of chicken that the June expansion draft will inspire. This is a tricky, twisty road for Hextall and the Flyers to negotiate, but in Mason's mind, there ought to be no great deliberation. He wants to be back. From his overall body of work with the Flyers to his final 17 games of this season - when he went 10-5-2 with a 2.14 goals-against average and a .926 save percentage - he believes he has earned the right to be back. So the Flyers ought to bring him back.
"I'm confident in my abilities as a goaltender and as a number-one goaltender," he said, "and I hoped the organization would have echoed those statements."
It sounds simple, at least from his perspective. It is not simple. Already the Flyers have Neuvirth signed through the 2018-19 season at an annual cap hit of $2.5 million, and it would make sense for them to keep one of their young goalies, presumably Stolarz, on the roster next season and start grooming him to become a potential No. 1 starter. Mason's contract counted $4.1 million against the cap this season, and it's logical to think that he would want a comparable deal this offseason.
Because Neuvirth is under contract, the Flyers could choose to leave him unprotected in the expansion draft, where the Vegas Golden Knights - whose general manager, George McPhee, drafted Neuvirth in 2006 for the Washington Capitals - could scoop him up. Or, they could protect him, bank that his star-crossed injury history is a thing of the past, and let Mason walk.
Given that the Flyers need to create cap space, and given that Mason is both a better and (from a health standpoint) more reliable goaltender than Neuvirth, the question they have to ask themselves is this: Which scenario benefits us more, keeping the slightly superior goalie at a slightly higher price or keeping the slightly lesser goalie (who could get hurt again) at the slightly lower price?
"I'm not trying to rob the bank," Mason said. "I'm looking for a fair contract. Coming off a three-year contract, I think for the most part I was a pretty solid investment for them. . . .
"I'm well aware that they have prospects in the system, but goaltenders have a hard time stepping in right away. They need time to develop. I think Hexy understands that they don't want to rush anybody, so whether it's two, three, four years down the line, whatever it may be, I understand that there are goalies here who they're going to be high on."
Mason left no doubt that he wouldn't mind serving as a mentor to Stolarz, in part because he and Stolarz get along well, in part because he doesn't perceive him as a threat to usurp him anytime soon. The Flyers began this season by, in essence, establishing a goaltenders' Thunderdome and setting Mason and Neuvirth inside it. Each goalie was in the final year of his contract, and the organization's thinking was that each one's desire and desperation to secure a long-term deal would raise his level of play.
The plan failed. Neuvirth's .891 save percentage was the lowest of his eight-year career, and his season ended with him flat on his back after he passed out from dehydration during a game against the Devils on April 1. Mason's mark of .908 was his worst in his four full seasons here, and he said the early uncertainty over which goalie would play when and why contributed to his and Neuvirth's inconsistency.
"It doesn't work, and I think it's shown throughout the league that it doesn't work," Mason said. "Tampa got rid of their situation. St. Louis got rid of their situation. It's got nothing to do with Neuvy and I as people. I've got no issues with Neuvy. It just doesn't work for the goaltending position. . . . It's just the way the position is played. You can't be in and out, in and out. You have to have the flow. I believe when given that flow, we've done well with it."
Sounds simple. It isn't. Not for the Flyers, not for Steve Mason. He may yet get his wish. He may yet be back. But he will have to wait, and he will have to get used to it.