Through the first seven games of the 2013-2014 Philadelphia Flyers season, the early storyline in the Philadelphia crease has been the rise of Steve Mason.
The 25 year old has earned 5 starts to Emery’s 2 and looked good in the process, posting a 2.23 GAA and .926 SV%. He may have a record of 1-4, but the mood in Philadelphia surrounding the promising young goaltender is almost unanimously positive. There are some who caution that his current level of play is probably not sustainable – including Justin Brennan here on CtC last week – but for the most part, Flyers fans are in universal agreement that Mason has been great in giving this team chances to win in the early going this year.
But what’s odd is that last season, with the team off to a similar start, such understanding was in short supply. Any fluke goal or “would have been nice” borderline save was, for some, a demonstration of how the goaltender lost the game.
So, why the difference in tone between then and now?Has Mason been that much better than Bryzgalov was?
Through his first five games of the 2013-2014 campaign, Mason’s stats have been pretty similar to the beginning of Bryzgalov’s 2013 campaign:
|Mason: First 5 Games in 2013-2014|
|Game 1||3-1 L||Leafs||22/25||0.880||0.880|
|Game 2||2-1 L||Hurricanes||32/34||0.941||0.915|
|Game 3||2-1 W||Panthers||33/34||0.971||0.935|
|Game 4||2-1 L||Coyotes||29/31||0.935||0.935|
|Game 5||3-2 L||Canucks||29/31||0.880||0.926|
|Bryzgalov: First 5 Games in 2013|
|Game 1||3-1 L (ENG)||Penguins||24/26||0.923||0.923|
|Game 2||5-2 L (ENG)||Sabres||36/40||0.900||0.909|
|Game 3||3-0 L||Devils||23/26||0.885||0.902|
|Game 4||2-1 W||Rangers||18/19||0.947||0.909|
|Game 5||7-1 W||Panthers||30/31||0.968||0.922|
Mason has enjoyed a 0.926 SV% and 2.23 GAA while Bryzgalov posted a 0.922 SV% and 2.20 GAA, making the edge between the two pretty thin. Mason stole that game against the Panthers, but Bryz also helped steal one from the Rangers last year and was equally good against Florida despite getting goal support.
So if the numbers aren’t that different, what gives?
Ultimately, it comes down to something simple: expectation. Every player has a set of expectations people want them to meet to be considered a success.
Flyers fans will say that Bryzgalov’s hype upon signing in Philadelphia, large contract, and high expectations meant he had to steal more games for the team. There’s also his well-documented quirks and rumored penchant for being a distraction to his teammates, which are still a topic of discussion even though he’s long since been bought out. Those expectations meant that every weird bounce or rebound goal in a loss made the game his fault even if it was almost entirely the result of a defensive breakdown, because he should be better.
Conversely, Steve Mason has no such expectations. He’s signed to a one-year, no-risk, cheap deal ($1.5 million) that undoubtedly makes him a much better value than Bryzgalov given their production.
That Mason has regarded as almost completely blameless so far this season when Bryzgalov was not so fortunate comes down almost completely to expectations, and the blindness they cause to reality. Goaltending is a nuanced thing, and goals will happen. Even the best of the best will be the victim of an ill-timed fluke that can change a game. When Kesler scored off an unfortunate bounce to tie the game not ten seconds after the Flyers took the lead in Vancouver, nobody said a peep about Mason. It’s difficult to imagine the same leeway being given to a goalie with the type of unrealistic expectations that were placed on Bryzgalov.
And that’s where the problem lies. It’s completely fair to say Mason has been better than Bryzgalov relative to his contract or expectations in terms of value. Bryz failed to live up to expectations and it’s ultimately for the best that he’s gone. But it’s revisionist history to suggest that he wasn’t giving the Flyers the chance to win games, and it’s a problem when expectations shift blame to the goaltender when the real culprit is out in front of the net. Steve Mason has been considered blameless because – like Bryzgalov – he’s been left out to dry but has been great at times, just fine at others. Unlike Bryzgalov, though, his lack of expectation allows him to get the benefit of the doubt – which is good, because his play is being taken at face value.
However, if Steve Mason continues to play well this season, expectations for him will rise. It’s important that as they do, fans remember that sometimes the goalie deserves that benefit of the doubt even when we do have higher hopes for them. Other franchises and their fans who’ve found goaltending success have learned to be objective even when expectations aren’t always met; if Flyers fans want Mason to be successful here, they’ll have to learn as well.