Steve Mason's struggles in the past three seasons have been no secret, and now, the 24-year-old goaltender is embarking on a pivotal time in his career.
It doesn't seem long ago that Mason was on his way to Columbus from the Syracuse Crunch as an emergency goaltender, and a few hours later, he found out he was starting his first NHL game that night against the Edmonton Oilers. He picked up a 5-4 win as the Blue Jackets won in dramatic fashion, but that wasn't the last of the theater as the 2008-09 season unfolded.
Mason played a major role in the Blue Jackets' playoff appearance that year, winning 33 games and posting 10 shutouts in winning the Calder Trophy as the league's top rookie. But it has been tough sledding for Mason since that point, stumbling out of the gate in 2009-10 as the Blue Jackets failed to capitalize on the momentum of their Stanley Cup playoff berth the year prior.
He slid from a 2.29 goals-against average (08-09) to 3.06 (09-10), and it coincided with a lengthy swoon by the Blue Jackets in late 2009 to early 2010 ultimately cost Ken Hitchcock his job. But when Claude Noel took over as interim head coach, Mason rebounded along with his teammates for a strong close to the campaign.
Now with one year left on a two-year, $5.8 million extension he signed in September of 2010, it's showtime for Mason. GM Scott Howson brought in Sergei Bobrovsky from the Philadelphia Flyers in June to compete for the No. 1 goalie job, sending a clear signal to Mason that the net is not guaranteed to be his when the season begins.
Pro goalie scout and NHL.com writer Justin Goldman believes this season is the most important of Mason's career, for a multitude of reasons other than his soon-to-be expiring contract.
"When you have those high expectations after such a great rookie season, it comes down to your work ethic and your ability to continue to find ways to improve and find ways to prove you're still trying to get better," Goldman told BlueJackets.com. "At the end of the day, he's now under pressure because someone else is threatening his starting role in Columbus.
"I think he was going to get that with Mark Dekanich, but unfortunately, he got injured and it became a real unfortunate situation for everyone. But this year, with Bobrovsky coming in and knowing he's going to be legitimately pushed for the No. 1 job, that's what you hope for in training camp. You hope the chemistry works out so that Bobrovksy forces Mason to work his tail off way more than he did over the past few seasons."
|Steve Mason (left) makes a save on Craig Smith of the Predators. |
What has frustrated fans and Blue Jackets management the most is the amount of raw, natural ability that Mason possesses. Not many goaltenders are blessed with the athleticism and lanky 6-foot-4 frame that Mason has, and when he assembles the components properly, he has proven to be an elite goaltender in the NHL.
That potential is one factor which elicits impatience; the number of game-changing, momentum-turning saves Mason made in his rookie season were too plentiful to be counted. The sweeping glove save on Kyle Wellwood right along the goal line, the thrilling shootout win over Montreal in front of a packed house at Nationwide, battling mono to shutout the high-flying Washington Capitals with seven regulars out of the Blue Jackets lineup...the list goes on.
Simply put, Goldman said, there are a lot of people waiting to see that Steve Mason again.
"People are down or negative on him because they see the potential he has, in terms of his skill set," Goldman said. "He's got great size, great mobility, and great reflexes. We've seen him have tremendous success before, even if it was behind Ken Hitchcock's style. He still stopped the pucks, and he still won those games in that Calder Trophy-winning season.
"I'm going to be honest -- this is a crucial season for Steve Mason."
Both Howson and Blue Jackets goalie coach Ian Clark have raved about Bobrovsky's tireless work ethic and eagerness to soak up as much as he can during practices and games. That attitude and competitive demeanor figures to be mutually beneficial for Bobrovsky and Mason, because although they will be teammates and constantly supporting each other, they both still want the net -- and both goalies can't play at once.
If Mason and Bobrovsky can feed off one another and push the other to battle for every puck as if it's their last, the Blue Jackets will reap the benefits.
"It's going to take a lot of work for Mason and he'll have to be a little more situationally aware, and be ready to bring that intensity to practice each and every day," Goldman said. "When that happens, his consistency will improve and a lot of those 'little' elements of his game like rebound control or letting up early goals will get better.
"Some games, it didn't look like he was totally locked in -- maybe at 90 percent. But that 10 percent makes all the difference in the world on a team that thrives on good goaltending."