Flyers GM says he's high on Michal Neuvirth despite his dismal season

Maybe it was a smokescreen.

Maybe Flyers general manager Ron Hextall plans to expose Michal Neuvirth in the expansion draft in June or trade him to Las Vegas, where he would be reunited with George McPhee, the former Washington GM who now holds that position with the Golden Knights.

But at his end-of-year news conference on the state of his hockey team Thursday, Hextall made it sound as if Neuvirth - who had the NHL's worst save percentage of the 58 goalies who played at least 15 games this season - was a big part of his 2017-18 plans.

Neuvirth, 29, had an .891 save percentage and a 2.82 goals-against average in 28 games this season.

"Typically, you look at guys that have off years, they come back real strong the next year," Hextall said at the Skate Zone in Voorhees. "I think it's human nature. You have an off year, you're that much hungrier the next summer; you work harder and you're that much more focused come September."

Hextall met with Neuvirth - who was recently given a two-year extension for a total of $5 million - on Tuesday and came away with good vibes.

"I really believe [he] is going to come back focused," Hextall said. "He was really good for us last year. This year, he was kind of reflective of our team. He was inconsistent. He had some good times and some times that weren't very good. I expect [him] to come back and be a really good player for us. In saying that, we need two guys."

"I feel very confident in Michal Neuvirth," coach Dave Hakstol said. "I believe that we need to have two good goaltenders. I think we can be successful in doing that."

Hextall is undecided about whether he will make an offer to Steve Mason, a prospective free agent who finished strongly but had an inconsistent season.

The Flyers have several promising goaltender prospects in the system, but they are probably at least two years from reaching the NHL. For that reason, "I don't have a lot of interest in getting into a long, drawn-out deal with a goaltender," Hextall said. "But again, we'll look at our options and move when we feel it's our best option at the appropriate time.

Added Hextall: "We know we have some good goalie prospects, which is why we don't have a whole lot of interest in biting into a goalie on a seven-year deal or anything like that. That's not going to happen. If we can get a guy at a reasonable dollar and a reasonable term, whether it's [Mason] or somebody else, that's what we're going to look at."

Mason said he was hindered this season by the fact that the team had no definitive No. 1 goalie.

Hextall said he understands why Mason or Neuvirth wants to know if he is No. 1, "but you've still got to earn your ice time."

"In an ideal setting, it's nice to be able to have a No. 1," Hakstol said. "I still strongly feel our strength is in both guys that we had."

Trying to find time for both goalies is "not a perfect science," Hextall said. "When a goalie's on a roll, you want to play him. You don't want to leave your second guy out too long. It's a tough thing with goalies. It's a hard area to manage."

Anthony Stolarz, who was injured Wednesday with the Phantoms and is questionable for the AHL playoffs, could fit into the Flyers' goaltending plans next season. In seven games with the Flyers this season, he had a 2.07 goals-against average and a .928 save percentage.

"From the small sample size and everything I saw, [he] was headed in the right direction," Hakstol said. "Whether he's ready to be a full-time NHL goaltender, I think we have to wait and see where he's at in training camp. That's the next step for him . . . to earn a full-time NHL job."

Hextall said he thought the Flyers were a "good enough hockey team to make the playoffs . . . so there's a part of me [that says] there's some failure there. Now, to be successful, sometimes you have to fail. We're going to learn a lot from this year."

He said the players now have a better understanding that points collected in October and November are "every bit as valuable as the points in March and April. In talking to the guys over the last couple days, I think there's a recognition of that from the group and we need to be better throughout the season. We can't be as streaky as we were this year."

Who gets the blame for the disappointing 39-33-10 season?

"Every one of us," Hextall said. "It starts with me and trickles down. We all have culpability here. We all need to be better."