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It wasn't until around 3 a.m. on Thanksgiving, when the Flyers arrived home from a Florida trip in which they were swept by the Lightning and Panthers. The team was given the holiday off by coach Craig Berube, and if there was a player who deserved a day to kick back, watch some football and relax, it was Steve Mason.
November was a good month for the Flyers goaltender. He finished it with a 6-2-2 record, 1.94 goals-against average and, most impressively, a .938 save percentage. You have to go back to December 2008 to find a month in which he started at least 10 games and had a save percentage that high. That was his breakout rookie season in Columbus, the year that, in retrospect, might have not have been the best way for a 20-year-old goalie to break into the NHL.
At 10 a.m. on Thanksgiving, Mason passed on the day off and was on the ice in Philadelphia with a few shooters, getting ready for a game the following day that came with an 11:30 a.m. start. And he was nearly perfect against the Jets that following day, stopping 25 of 26 shots to squash a losing streak before it could get started.
Those who know him well questioned if Mason would have been willing to put in that work a few years prior with his ego still inflated from one of the most impressive rookie seasons any goalie has completed in recent memory. Later in his tenure in Columbus, when overconfidence wasn't an issue, the loss of trust and confidence between him and his former team made it hard to dig deep and put in extra effort. Those excuses are gone. Still just 25 years old, Mason is learning an important lesson with his second organization -- talent alone won't cut it.
"You get rewarded with the work you put in," Mason told ESPN The Magazine. "It's just realizing that you have a second opportunity to be a No. 1 goalie in the league. It's something I'm trying to achieve long-term. You get to the point in your career where you understand that in order to become one of the best goalies in the league, you have to work like it."
It's been less than a year since Columbus GM Jarmo Kekalainen gave permission to Mason's agent, Anton Thun, to call around the league to try to find a new home for Mason, whose time in Columbus was cooked. Mason was due a qualifying offer north of $3 million and with Sergei Bobrovsky on his way to a Vezina, the Blue Jackets made it clear that qualifying offer wasn't coming from them.
|Steve Mason knows being a Flyers goalie can take your breath away.|
A few weeks before the trade deadline, Thun was given the green light to find a new home for his client. He worked the phones and not surprisingly there wasn't a rush to trade for a guy with a sub-.900 save percentage and reputation as someone who still had maturing to do.
"It was limited, no doubt," Thun said. "Two or three teams in particular expressed a significant amount of interest. Philly was one of them."
Despite its reputation as a goaltending graveyard, Philadelphia appealed to Thun. There was a trust there with goalie coach Jeff Reese, who was also a client of Thun's. The two once even lived together. The expectation was that starter Ilya Bryzgalov was going to be bought out in the offseason and this was still a team with playoff-caliber talent elsewhere -- players, including Jakub Voracek, Mason knew well. The catch? The Flyers weren't doing the deal without a contract extension at a deeply discounted rate. Nothing close to the $3.2 million qualifying offer. In fact, it ended up being less than half that number.
"It was literally Steve's decision to OK the trade to Philadelphia," Thun said. "That was a place where if Steve performed well, he would have the opportunity."
To his credit, Mason has seized that opportunity. The early stages of December haven't been quite as kind to him. In his first three starts this month, he was 1-1-1, with a 4.01 goals-against average and .884 save percentage. Perhaps we're seeing the start of a statistical regression to totals closer to his career save percentage of .907. Overall this season, Mason is 10-9-3 with a .927 save percentage.
Mason has lost weight, is in great condition and playing a simpler game. He's staying back in net more and his patience playing that style has helped with consistency. If he can maintain that .926 save percentage over the course of the season, which is certainly a big if, the Flyers will remain in the hunt. Credit Mason and Reese for getting a talented young goalie's career back on track.
"Everything that we've done is such a simple tweak, but at the same time it's made just huge improvements upon my game," Mason said. "It's made me feel confident in what I'm doing out there. In previous seasons, I was doing different styles of play that I wasn't comfortable with, and it was frustrating me not being able to play that way. Jeff is really taking what I'm comfortable with and making it work."
There are certainly still those who need to be convinced that Mason can maintain his impressive Philadelphia production over the long run.
"I don't believe the hype," said one NHL scout. "God bless him, though. He's been good. He's been really good."
Mason's contract is up again after this season and it's going to be an interesting negotiation, considering the hangover that has to exist following the Bryzgalov buyout. Talk to players in the Flyers dressing room, and Mason has completely won them over. There's a confidence there that Mason feeds off and it works both ways.
"He's been the same way he played his first year in Columbus," Voracek said. "He was so excited to be here. He said his confidence level was very low. He came to Philly, he was happy to be in the net. When he has the confidence, he's unbelievable."
Thun said there haven't been any meaningful talks yet and he's in no rush to get an extension done. Technically, one couldn't be signed until January, anyway, since he signed a one-year deal worth $1.5 million in April. The Flyers have long been looking for a goalie and if they're convinced Mason is the guy, an extension for Mason might be one of the first deals done in the new year.
There might be doubters elsewhere but Mason has sold the man who matters most.
"He's been incredible," Flyers owner Ed Snider told ESPN The Magazine on Tuesday. "He should have a great record because he's kept us in games we lost. We could have lost by four or five goals and [were] in the game all the way to the end. He's done an incredible job for us. We're thrilled to have him."
Snider has been burned before by giving big money and term to a goalie. He was asked if recent history would scare him off from doing it again.
"No," he said, then smiled. "We never learn from our mistakes."