When a pro athlete is traded, it is an inherently sobering experience. The player himself might speak of fresh starts and new beginnings, but he also often speaks of being wanted, as in, It’s great to be wanted. There’s a reason he uses that kind of language. At the core of the transaction is this truth: The team you were playing for doesn’t want you anymore. The team you were playing for believes it has to get rid of you to get better.
That’s the nature of a trade in the best of circumstances. Even by that standard, Petr Mrazek’s journey to the Flyers from the Detroit Red Wings was humbling. At 9:30 Monday night, he learned, from Red Wings general manager Ken Holland, that he had been traded to the Flyers for two conditional draft picks. “I didn’t see it coming,” he said. A few minutes later, he spoke to Flyers GM Ron Hextall. He went to bed at 2 a.m., woke two hours later to catch a flight to Philadelphia, and arrived at the Wells Fargo Center at 9:30, an hour before the team’s morning skate. After a brief conversation with Kim Dillabaugh, the Flyers’ goaltending coach, Mrazek took the ice with his new teammates, wearing his old red-and-white leg pads from his days in Detroit. Good. You’re here. Get out there.
It was hardly a welcome befitting a potential savior for the Flyers, which is fine. They aren’t really asking Mrazek to be a savior. There’s always a Here we go again feeling whenever the Flyers acquire a new goaltender – understandably so, given their tortured history at the position. You can only count on an aging John Vanbiesbrouck or a spacy Ilya Bryzgalov or an injury-prone Michal Neuvirth so many times before you start to get cynical. But the NHL has changed over time with respect to both goaltenders and their relative importance, and this season, the Flyers have given Hextall reason to think that a competent goalie – not a great one, just a reliable one – could be enough to help the team make a decent postseason run.
This is an unfamiliar spot in which the Flyers find themselves, at least compared to recent seasons. They have missed the playoffs three of the last five years, and on those two occasions that they did qualify, they lost in the first round to the Rangers (in 2014) and the Capitals (in 2016) – teams that, from the tops of their rosters to the bottoms, were bigger, faster, and more skilled. Only the excellent play of Steve Mason and Neuvirth stretched those series to seven and six games, respectively. The Flyers were outmanned and outplayed, and it was obvious. The Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist and the Capitals’ Braden Holtby didn’t have to win games for their teams; they merely had to not lose them.
The dynamics of those two series fit into a larger, NHL-wide trend, one that those who follow hockey closely have recognized for a while: Goaltending on the whole has gotten a lot better. The position draws better athletes than it once did, and goalies play it with more-refined technique. Coaching has improved. The NHL’s average regular-season save percentage has risen from .901 in 2005-06 to .913 this season, according to the database QuantHockey.com. It hasn’t dipped below .910 since 2008-09. The advantage that a team derives from having a truly great goaltender has diminished, because virtually all goaltenders who have established their NHL bona fides are excellent.
Rookie Alex Lyon, who has all of four games of NHL experience, isn’t one of those goaltenders. Mrazek, who in 2015-16 posted a .921 save percentage and four shutouts for the Red Wings, is. “Petr’s a proven guy,” Flyers coach Dave Hakstol said Tuesday. That’s why, once Brian Elliott and Neuvirth were lost to injury, Hextall would have been delinquent had he not acquired Mrazek or another goalie at such a relatively small cost. This Flyers team might make a deep playoff push, or it might get bounced in the first round again. But by now, no one can dispute that, unlike those 2014 and 2016 teams, it can make that deep playoff push, based on the overall composition of and talent on the roster.
Ahead of their game Tuesday night against the Canadiens, the Flyers were 22-8-3 over their previous 33 games, scoring a robust 3.27 goals per game during that span, and had moved within five points of first place in the Metropolitan Division.
“We’re in a different position than we’ve been in the past,” forward Jake Voracek said. “It feels good to know that, when we go on the ice, we have a chance to win, no matter who we’re playing against.”
That difference has more to do with the terrific performances of the Flyers’ stars (Voracek, Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier, Shayne Gostisbehere) and the maturation of the team’s promising youngsters (Travis Konecny, Nolan Patrick, Ivan Provorov, Robert Hagg) than it does with the position that has bedeviled this franchise for generations. A humble journey and arrival were just right for Petr Mrazek on Tuesday morning, for a proven goalie who, for the Flyers, doesn’t need to be anything more than what he is. He matters, of course. No one would argue otherwise. It’s just that the men in front of him will matter more.