Bill Meltzer: Meltzer’s Musings: Mason, LeClair/Desjardins Trade 20 Years Later, Alumni

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HOW MUCH IS TOO MUCH FOR MASON?

The 2014-15 season has been a frustrating one for both the Philadelphia Flyers and starting goaltender Steve Mason. The 26-year-old netminder has played brilliantly when he’s been able to stay in the lineup but has now had three significant injuries — two of which came about under seemingly innocuous circumstances — in seven weeks.

On Dec. 19, Mason appeared to hurt his back in practice. He missed the first four games of the team’s eight-game road trip before returning to the net on Dec. 29.

Shortly after his return, he played very well in a 2-1 shootout win over the Ottawa Senators on Jan. 6. He made 41 saves in regulation and overtime before stopping four of five shootout attempts. During the third period, there was a brief scare in which Mason felt obvious discomfort (which appeared to be in his right knee).

The following day, Mason left practice after about 15 minutes. Afterwards, he said there was a moment in the game where he felt some discomfort and the issue briefly returned at practice. He underwent a precautionary MRI and made his next scheduled start on Jan. 8 against Washington.

In the Jan. 8 game against the Capitals, Mason once again performed very well on the ice. He stopped 26 of 28 shots — one of the goals appeared to have been played into the net with a high stick — in a 3-2 overtime win. Afterward, Mason said he “tweaked something” early in the game but “it went away pretty quickly” and he felt fine thereafter. The goalie admitted it was the same issue he had in Tuesday’s game.

On Jan. 10, Mason got the start in an afternoon game against the Boston Bruins. At the 7:07 mark of the first period, he went down to make his fifth save of the game and couldn’t get back up as he tried to dig in and rise after making a routine kick save on Craig Cunningham. The goaltender rolled around, favoring his right knee. Eventually, Mason got up on his own power and skated off the ice and up the tunnel. Ray Emery came in to replace him.

This time, Mason was out until after the All-Star break, returning on Jan. 27. He had a run of brilliant starts without any apparent physical issues, although it was easy to feel skittish anytime the team’s star netminder did anything that appeared the slightest bit out of the ordinary.

On Jan. 30, Mason tried out — and disliked — a new set of “retro-themed” caramel-colored pads at practice. He skated around more than normal and flexed and stretched frequently when there were no shooters nearby. As it turned out, Mason was just trying to stay loose and didn’t even know he was doing it. The only issue he was having, he said, was a visual distraction from the pads.

“You guys are just watching too closely now, looking for things,” Mason said with a big grin to surrounding reporters after that practice. “I felt totally fine out there.”

The next night, Mason went out shut out the Toronto Maple Leafs on 30 shots. He had no apparent issues in that game.

In the team’s Feb. 5 practice, there was a very brief scare when Mason got hit up high with a shot. Teammates surrounded him to check on him. About 20 seconds later, he shook it off and finished the practice. Although this situation clearly had nothing to do with his other physical issues, it did show just how easy it was to get nervous any time Mason appeared even momentarily to be in distress.

The next night, Mason was once again the Flyers best player. He gave the team a chance to win and deserved a better fate in the club’s 3-2 shootout loss to the New York Islanders.

Mason’s play was the biggest reason why the Islanders were held off the board for nearly 37 minutes and why the Flyers got even one point at the end of regulation. New York generated 64 shots attempts (30 on net, 20 blocked, 14 misses). Many of the Islanders’ shots were from good scoring areas. During the shootout, Mason stopped five consecutive attempts between first-round and seventh-round goals. The Flyers shooters had three straight chances to score a winning goal.

In Sunday’s game in Washington, Mason did not see many shots in his 31:18 of action but flawlessly handled all eight shots fired on his net. Suddenly, during a television timeout, Mason was in severe distress near the Flyers bench. He needed help to get back to the dressing room and appeared to be favoring his right knee or leg.

While the media talked with Flyers defenseman Mark Streit in the postgame locker room, Mason walked past. He appeared to be moving with a slight limp, although it was hard to tell and he was not subsequently available to be interviewed.

Flyers general manager Ron Hextall said that Mason would not accompany the team to Montreal and that he did not expect the goalie to be available for the rest of the team’s current four-game road trip. Hextall said that he did not believe the latest injury was related to the previous ones, although more would be known after Mason was re-examined in Philadelphia on Monday.

On Friday night, Lehigh Valley Phantoms goaltender Rob Zepp had to be helped off the ice, favoring his right leg, after a heavy collision with the Binghamton Senators’ Matt Puempel. He did not accompany the team to Hershey for Sunday’s game — a 5-4 overtime win — but the early word from Allentown is that Zepp’s injury is not a serious one.

With Mason hurt and Zepp unavailable for immediate recall, the Flyers were left with just one other goaltender under NHL contract: Phantoms rookie goaltender Anthony Stolarz, who recently turned 21 years old. While the organization is high on Stolarz’s long-term upside as a potential future NHL goalie, sources have said the Flyers foresee a lengthy process to get their 2012 second-round pick ready to graduate to the top level.

This is hardly unusual. Three days ago, NHL.com’s Corey Masisak wrote an article on just how long it takes most goaltenders to develop into NHL regulars. The ultimate case in point: Capitals starting goalie Braden Holtby (151 career regular season games to date) is the only goaltender from the NHL’s past eight draft classes to have reached 100 career NHL games up to this point. (Note: the article says “nine” draft classes, but is actually from 2007 onward).

Side note: The protracted development cycle for goalies is a big part of the reason why all those Steve Mason critics missed the boat. He played over his head as a 20-year-old NHL rookie but still had to experience the learning curve that nearly overwhelmed him the next few years.

Hextall conceded that Stolarz is “probably not” ready for the NHL right now. It’s closer to definitely not ready –and not just because he hit a rough patch of games in most of his recent starts for the Phantoms but simply a function of being inexperienced and still raw (by NHL standards) in reading plays and conquering a variety of other physical and mental hurdles that stand in the way of turning promise into consistent performance.

While the team will try to go with Emery exclusively (at least until Zepp is ready to play, which could be later this week for all anyone knows for sure) for the time being, Hextall pointed out that if a goalie is ready to back up it also means he has to be ready to play.

Look at what Mason did in relief of Emery against the Arizona in the first game back after the All-Star break. Returning from the right knee injury suffered on Jan. 10 against Boston and dealing with the remnants of the flu, Mason had not had a regular practice day in weeks. The gameday morning skate was the third day he skated. The goaltender said after the game that he had “tunnel vision on the puck,” rather than reading the play developing around him and did not get fully comfortable until overtime.

Nevertheless, Mason battled valiantly and stopped 22 of 23 shots in regulation and overtime before going 3-for-3 in the shootout to nail down a 4-3 win for the Flyers.

Entering that night, Berube had no intention of using Mason in goal. However, things happen in hockey. Emery, for whatever reason, was not sharp and neither was the team in the early going of the Coyotes game. The team found itself in a quick 2-0 hole, and Berube really had no other choice but to send Mason out and hope for the best.

Mason delivered in a big way. To expect similar from Stolarz in a pinch would be unfair. It would probably take an injury to Emery or a monstrous deficit — perhaps a four-goal hole — before Stolarz would be sent out on the ice.

In the short term, the Flyers will have to piece things together with Emery and, when he’s ready for recall, Zepp. However, the big mystery and dilemma right now is what to do with Mason.

It is getting harder and harder to believe that the series of injuries are in no way interrelated — if only because of overcompensating and leaving himself vulnerable to other issues — and there were also hints that Mason was already looking at a need to address the issue in the offseason.

Make no mistake: Steve Mason wants to play. He has performed remarkably well from day one of his arrival in Philadelphia and seems to be getting better and better as he reaches what should be the prime years of his career if he stays healthy. Mason also deserves to be trusted to know his own body well enough to know when he is and isn’t feeling up to playing.

At a certain point, though, the Flyers have to start thinking long-term. Even if he is able to return to the lineup in the near future, Mason’s injuries keep popping up with too much frequency and without any obvious triggering event like the one that caused Zepp to go down on Friday.

If the club were closer in the playoff race — even in gaining 11 of 12 possible points in the last six games, the Flyers are still nine points behind Boston for the last wildcard spot, 11 points behind the Rangers (who have two games in hand) for the higher wildcard spot, and 12 points behind the Capitals (who have played one more game) for the guaranteed playoff spot that comes with a third-place divisional finish — there might be an argument to be made for trying to nurse Mason through the rest of the season. However, that is not where the Flyers are right now.

Along with Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek, Mason has become an indispensable part of the Flyers’ short-term and long-term vision for the club. No matter how well he’s been playing, Mason is too important to this team to simply keep deferring to his competitive instincts above common sense. Actually, he’s been playing so well that it’s even more imperative to make sure he has the best possible chance to remain healthy for the long haul.

The Flyers road trip continues on Tuesday in Montreal and Friday in Columbus before concluding next Sunday in Buffalo. The team will practice in Montreal on Monday, fly to Columbus on Wednesday, practice in Columbus on Thursday, travel directly to Buffalo with a practice on Friday and a game on Sunday. The club will take a complete off day after the Buffalo game before the Blue Jackets come to Philly on Feb. 17.

************* 20TH ANNIVERSARY: FLYERS TRADE RECCHI, ACQUIRE LECLAIR AND DESJARDINS

Twenty years ago today, the Flyers made a franchise-altering trade: On Feb. 9, 1995, Flyers general manager Bob Clarke sent top-line right wing Mark Recchi to the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for top-pairing defenseman Eric Desjardins, third-line center/winger John LeClair and fallen-from-grace second-line winger Gilbert Dionne.

At the time, the Flyers had missed the playoffs five straight years and seemed well on their way to making it six in a row. When the lockout-shortened 1994-95 season finally got underway, the Flyers dropped five of their first eight games, with one tie. It was clear that major changes were necessary.

By everyone’s admission — including Clarke’s and then-Flyers head coach Terry Murray — no one had any idea that LeClair would immediately blossom into an NHL scoring machine after making a permanent switch from center to left wing and being tried on the Flyers’ top line with Eric Lindros and second-year NHLer Mikael Renberg.

For LeClair, the hope was simply that he would use his size effectively on the forecheck, creating space and opportunities for burgeoning superstar Lindros and the skilled and speedy Renberg. As it turned out, LeClair was a 50-goal-a-year power forward who simply needed a change of scenery and the right chemistry to go from role player into bonafide star.

Desjardins was the real key to the deal on the day it was made. He was the capstone of Clarke reshaping virtually the entire Flyers blueline in the course of less than a calendar year. Desjardins had played in an All-Star Game (coincidentally enough, in Philadelphia) and was young, mobile and reliable at both ends of the ice and in all situations. Few defensemen in franchise history have made a better first pass than Desjardins.

While Desjardins was not a top Norris Trophy candidate, he was in the next half-step down, similar to fellow righthanded shooting defenseman Teppo Numminen. Desjardins was a bonafide two-way standout although not an offensive superstar or an intimidator to opposing attackers. He just got the job done, calmly and effective, on a game-in and game-out basis.

In short, even on the day he was acquired, Desjardins was a safe bet to at least help stabilize the Philadelphia blueline. He ended up being everything the Flyers hoped he could be. He anchored the defense for most of the next decade, despite a subsequent series of injuries that forced him to make adjustment to his game in latter years.

Dionne proved to be bust with the Flyers just as he had been after making a splash as a rookie with the Habs. The NHL caught up with him and he didn’t adjust. However, at the time the trade was made with Montreal, the hope was that he’d help provide scoring depth and could be a sniper to play on Rod Brind’Amour’s line.

Ultimately, because LeClair became an immediate and prolific goal scorer, the Flyers were able to withstand what they lost in Recchi and it also did not matter that Dionne (as well as Swedish forward Patrik Juhlin) failed to become a second-line scoring threat, which prompted to acquisition of Pat Falloon the next season. The combined impact of LeClair and Desjardins more than offset any subsequent drawbacks.

Ron Hextall, who was in his second stint as the Flyers’ starting goaltender and is now the team’s general manager, still marvels at how much that trade reshaped the organization. Shortly before the inductions of LeClair and Lindros into the Flyers’ Hall of Fame — Desjardins’ turn will come on Feb. 19 — he reflected on the impact the deal had in changing the team’s direction.

“I don’t think you can overstate what it meant to our team,” Hextall said. “I mean no disrespect whatsoever to Mark Recchi, who was a great player in his own right, but that trade absolutely had a monumental impact on us.”

Hextall, who played as a rookie with Hall of Famer Mark Howe in the final year of Howe’s prime, went on to deem Desjardins the savviest and best puck-mover the goalie played with during his career. It should be noted that, after the 1986-87 campaign, Howe frequently missed large chunks of each season with injuries so Hextall only played sporadically with Howe beyond his final of three seasons as the first runner-up for the Norris Trophy. Howe was still a fine player when able to play thereafter, but was never again quite the same.

Additionally, Hextall noted that LeClair brought more than just goals to the team. He was almost impossible to knock off the puck or move from in front of the net and he could also simply overpower goalies with full windup slapshots off the line rush — something that has become scarcer and scarcer in today’s game with it’s shot-blocking emphasis and pacing.

Although LeClair and Desjardins never won a Stanley Cup with the Flyers — after being important contributors for Montreal in the 1993 Finals when Montreal won the Cup over Los Angeles — they helped bring a winner’s mentality to the club. The Flyers went on to win their division in 1995 and come within two wins of reaching the Final before they bowed out to the eventual champion New Jersey Devils.

Making the trade a complete victory for the Flyers, the club was even able to reacquire Recchi a couple years later and got several highly productive years out of him in his second stint with the team. He even returned to Philadelphia as a little more complete all-around player than he had been in his first stint when he set a single-season franchise scoring record.

In the end, there was no downside for the Flyers. However, on the day the deal was made, it was very unpopular. The talk-show switchboards, including a show hosted by Gene Hart, lit up with Flyers fans instantly lambasting the deal because they knew Recchi was a star. At Hart’s prompting, most then conceded they knew very little of any of the players the Flyers were getting in return.

Before too long, Flyers fans came to know what Eric Desjardins was all about — the majority even appreciated him, although Philly has and will always be a city that eats its defensemen alive and thinks the ice is smoother on the other side — and they certainly loved what the soon-to-be dubbed Legion of Doom line could do.

In many ways, the impact of the trade was the resurrection of a team that had fallen on hard time and the immediate emergence into a long-time contender. That the Flyers never quite reached the top of the mountain in the playoffs in no way diminished what John LeClair and Eric Desjardins came to mean to both holdover Flyers fans and a new generation that grew up watching them play key roles on the club.

Today in the Flyers’ Alumni Official site, I took an in-depth look at the acquisitions of LeClair, Desjardins and Dionne in the bigger picture of how Clarke so quickly retooled the roster and Murray instilled a system than replaced disorganization with much-need structure.

********** JOIN HOUND AND FRIDGE AT YOUTH HOCKEY OPEN SKATE

Flyers Alumni Bob “the Hound” Kelly and Todd “Fridge” Fedoruk are doing an open skate this evening at the new Horizon Riverfront Rink in Wilmington (308 Justison Street) from 6 to 7:30 p.m. EST. The event is open to youth hockey players ages 12 and under and their families.

During the evening, Kelly and Todd Fedoruk will skate and provide instruction to the children on the ice. There will also be special ticket and autographed merchandise giveaways.

In conjunction with co-sponsor, AAA Mid-Atlantic, this evening’s event is part of the Flyers Love Our Fans Month, which gives a thank you to Flyers fans through various local and regional alumni appearances and community events.

This and similar events were created to give local youth hockey players an opportunity to learn the game, as well as thanking local parents for their sacrifice in supporting their children’s love of the game. This season, AAA Mid-Atlantic has been asking local hockey parents to share their stories through its #ShareYourJourney campaign on Twitter.

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