Will Flyers re-sign Mason to bridge gap to young goalies?

Rangers Flyers Hockey
Flyers goalie Steve Mason waits for play to resume during the third period of an NHL hockey game against the New York Rangers, Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2017, in Philadelphia. The Rangers won 5-2.

When the season started, the Flyers' goalie plans seemed to be pretty straightforward: Steve Mason and Michal Neuvirth, each of whom can become an unrestricted free agent in the summer, would battle it out for the majority of the starts.

The winner figured to be given a contract extension. The loser figured to move to another team next season.

Ah, that was then.

Halfway through a rollercoaster-ride of a season, there are questions about whether the Flyers will re-sign either goalie.

Poll

What should the Flyers do with their goalie situation?

Neuvirth missed significant time this season because of a knee injury. Barring a lights-out second half, Neuvirth - who had a career year in 2015-16 and was spectacular in the playoffs - seems too risky to be the No. 1 goalie for a long period of time. He can be outstanding, yes, but he is too injury-prone, and he will probably sign somewhere else in the offseason.

"He's a good human being and a really good goalie," general manager Ron Hextall said the other night. "The injuries are a reality; that's a part of it. As we go along, we'll assess Neuvy."

As for Mason? If he has another terrific second half, like he did last season, he still has a chance to sign a contract extension here. He led the second-half surge that enabled the Flyers to capture a playoff berth last year. He has had his good moments this season, especially during the team's 10-game winning streak, when he was 8-0 with 2.33 goals-against average and .926 save percentage. But he has been rather ordinary, or less, in other stretches.

Mason was at his best when Neuvirth was injured and not looking over his shoulder. Neuvirth is back. Will it affect Mason? Or will he be able to regain his form, using a playoff berth and a contract extension as motivators?

Complicating matters is the fact that the NHL expansion draft will be held for Las Vegas in June. Each team must protect a goalie who is under contract and leave another available for the Golden Knights.

It now appears that promising Anthony Stolarz will be exposed in the expansion draft. Las Vegas will have several quality veterans from which to choose in a draft that requires them to select three goalies. But a young, up-and-coming guy like Stolarz might appeal to Vegas with one of those spots.

It was a small sample, but Stolarz looked NHL-ready in four appearances with the Flyers recently. Why he wasn't given more time is baffling to those who watched Mason fight through fatigue caused by an unnecessary workload.

The best case for the Flyers might be to deal Neuvirth for a draft pick and add a backup goalie who can be exposed in the expansion draft. That would enable them to expose that goalie to Vegas and protect Stolarz.

Mason and Neuvirth both say they are blocking out their contract situations, but acknowledge they hope to stay with the Flyers.

"I love Philly. Great team and great group of guys," Neuvirth said. "I would love to be back, but I'm focusing on hockey and focusing on this season."

"This has been my home for five years and we really enjoy it," Mason said. "We'll see what Hexy and the organization decides to do."

Mason said he thinks of his pending contract status only when reporters bring it up.

"It'll happen when it happens, wherever that might be," Mason said of a new deal. "It's not really on the forefront of my mind [because] we're so busy with other things."

It is worth noting that Las Vegas will have a 48-hour window before the expansion draft to sign unrestricted free agents. If they signed Neuvirth or Mason, the Flyers would then be able to pull back a goalie, such as Stolarz, and he would no longer be available.

Among the veteran goalies who could be available to Vegas in the expansion draft or in a trade: Marc-Andre Fleury, Jimmy Howard, Semyon Varlamov, Roberto Luongo, and Thomas Greiss.

If the Flyers don't re-sign Mason or Neuvirth - and Stolarz remains - would they have enough confidence in the New Jersey native to make him their No. 1 goalie next season?

We shall see, but it's a good bet they would sign a veteran to complement Stolarz. Tampa Bay's 6-foot-7 Ben Bishop is among potential free-agent goalies, though the 30-year-old goalie could be high on Vegas' radar.

Bottom line: If Mason has a strong second half of the season, it would not be surprising if Hextall offered him an extension, bridging the gap until one of the gifted young goalies Alex Lyon, Carter Hart, Felix Sandstrom, or Merrick Madsen is ready for the NHL.

One of the goalie prospects, and Stolarz, could be a big part of the future.

scarchidi@phillynews.com

@BroadStBull www.philly.com/flyersblog