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July 08, 2015

Mason remains, but Flyers’ goaltending infrastructure under renovation

The Orange and Black have a new goalie coach and prospects, not to mention backup netminder

When listening to anybody associated with Flyers development camp talk about Flyers development camp, they emphasize it’s not meant to be competitive.

“We’re not here to evaluate the young players,” general manger Ron Hextall said. “We’re here to watch the young players and our coaches are here to help [them] get better. We encourage the players to ask the coaches how to improve this area of the game or that area. It’s a week of teaching.”

“Right now, it’s just for learning,” top prospect Samuel Morin said. “[They] told us to go slow on the ice, don’t try to do too much, and don’t try to do anything fast. We’re not here to impress and I like it like that.”

Think of the camp as a sort of corporate retreat for elite 20-year-old athletes, where the goal is to educate and build up the players rather than trim the fat. No jobs are going to be won or lost this week. 

Sure, both Hextall and the key young defenseman in the system he’s cultivated over the last few years said some other things (which will mostly be saved for a later piece hopefully running this week), but they were accurately describing the afternoon session. In front of a solid turnout of Flyer fans at Skate Zone in Voorhees hoping to catch a glimpse of the future, the players mostly did some individual skill work (skating, shooting) with some passing drills mixed in. Very basic stuff.

The story of the day might have been in net, where the Flyers, who have a well-documented history with goaltenders, recently had a busy few weeks addressing the position. In order, they:

1. Drafted three goalies in Rounds 3-7 of the NHL Draft, two (European prospects Felix Sandstrom and Matej Tomek, both third rounders) that are in camp.
2. Signed well-traveled 27-year-old netminder Michael Neuvirth to back up Steve Mason on a two-year contract with an AAV of $1.625 million.
3. Appointed Kim Dillabaugh, formerly a development coach with the Los Angeles Kings, as the team’s goaltending coach.

Neuvirth isn’t a prospect anymore, but Tuesday was the de facto introduction for both the young goalies and their new coach. Ron Hextall, a pretty darn good goaltender himself, was familiar working with Dillabaugh during his time as an assistant general manager with the Kings. Unsurprisingly, he had high praise for his new hire. 

“He’s one of the most intelligent guys I’ve ever been around with regards to the goaltending position,” Hextall said. “He’s very calm, he’s a terrific teacher, and he’s got a great personality. He knows how hard to push guys and when to kind of back off and put his arm around them.” 

As Hextall noted, a goaltending coach has to be on top of his game both physically and mentally. They are not only required to teach proper technique but also need to understand the correct buttons to push upstairs depending on how things are going for their pupils.

For Dillabaugh, that mainly entails becoming simpatico with Steve Mason. From his time in Southern California, the coach learned that individual players can have unique styles but it’s important for everyone to operate with “a core foundation/platform.” How that foundation can be applied to Mason’s game is something Dillabaugh is still working on as he becomes accustomed to his new surroundings. 

“It’s early on right now, kind of going through that process of getting to know him, getting to know his game,” Dillabaugh said. “Obviously the season he had last year was tremendous. We’re looking to continue to maximize his assets attributes and attributes and work on making areas of his game better.”

Mason did have an excellent season — Of all goalies that played at least 1000 minutes, his 5v5 even strength save percentage of .944 topped the NHL per War On Ice — but it was hindered a bit by a few injuries and also the Flyers’ questionable handling of those injuries.

Much of the controversy surrounded the man Dillabaugh is in effect replacing, Jeff Reese. A respected goaltending coach who was with the team for six seasons, Reese reportedly quit after voicing his displeasure with Mason’s handling. After the season, the 49-year-old was picked up by the Dallas Stars to lead their goalies.

Exactly much time the new coach spends in Philadelphia versus Lehigh Valley and other places is still an ongoing conversation between Dillabaugh and Hextall, but both parties agree that his primary responsibilities will be with the Flyers. After spending much of his time in Manchester, New Hampshire (which had to be the furthest distance a primary affiliate was located from its parent club), he has experience working with the types of prospects he’s currently showing the ropes.

Even though development camp isn’t a high stakes environment, Hextall believes the fundamentals that the goalies learn are critically important because this is the only time they can realistically step back and break down their game.

“They’ve got to continue what they learn here otherwise it goes for naught,” Hextall said.  “Summer is a time to teach because players during the season are stubborn. They don’t want to change, they want to win the next game, they want to score the next goal, and they want to help the team win. So this is the time to do it, and you just have to keep these habits going.”

Hextall was asked how his experience in net influences how much emphasis he places on the position, and he answered that it doesn’t affect his thinking at all. As the franchise’s primary decision maker, he already has enough on plate so delegating responsibilities to his coaches is a necessity.

Also shutting down any narrative talk was Dillabaugh, who said he didn’t care about any of the Flyers’ troubled history with the goaltending position. He’ll simply receive instructions from the head coach and go from there.

“There’s a unique relationship with the goalie coach and his goalies,” Dillabaugh said. “It’s more one-on-one, absolutely for sure. You’ve got two guys here and guys throughout your system, so you’re able to formulate maybe a little bit different relationship [with those guys], but again, I’ll take the lead from Dave [Hakstol] and what he wants me to do.”

Odds and ends

•    Hextall said that the Flyers are in the process of hiring a goalie development coach that will work under Dillabaugh and likely handle the prospects in Lehigh Valley, Reading, etc.

•    When asked about the ongoing negotiations with restricted free agent defenseman Michael Del Zotto, Hextall used the words “status quo” and “amicable” to describe the talks. If the two sides are unable to come to an agreement in the near future, the matter will go to arbitration sometime between July 20th and August 4th.

•    Hextall confirmed that extension talks have begun with Jake Voracek, a potential big picture move that has major implications on the franchise going forward. The star right winger is scheduled to make $4.25 million this year and then is slated to become an unrestricted free agent next summer.

Follow Rich on Twitter: @rich_hofmann