Editor's note: This is the latest installment of a weekly column from BlueJackets.com writer Rob Mixer, which will be featured exclusively on the CBJ Today blog. Be sure to follow Rob on Twitter at @RobMixer.
The first person to tell you that Steve Mason has struggled the past three seasons will be Steve Mason himself. He's an honest guy, is never afraid to share his feelings, and to his credit, answers every question directed at him in the dressing room - win or lose.
At the core of these characteristics is a ridiculous competitor; I often think back to his rookie season in 2008-09 when he posted 10 shutouts and was a finalist for the Vezina Trophy. There wasn't a single puck that he didn't at least have a chance to stop. Mason is a crazy athlete, and at a lanky 6-foot-4, a rare physical specimen for a goaltender.
If you watched Mason's interview on JacketsTV with Bob McElligott earlier this week, you may have noticed some changes. Mason has shed about 15 pounds this offseason and is looking as lean as I've ever seen him, and he has firmly stuck to the game plan laid out for him by strength and conditioning coach Kevin Collins. It has resulted in a more trim and fit Mason, and one that knows he's got a lot of work to do before training camp opens in September.
For the first time since entering the league, Mason's hold on the No. 1 job is being threatened before the season begins. GM Scott Howson brought in Sergei Bobrovsky to fight for the top job in goal, and figures to give Mason all he can handle. Bobrovksy was stuck behind Ilya Bryzgalov in Philadelphia despite posting solid numbers during his rookie season in the NHL.
The guy they call "Bob" is going to be hungry for minutes, and it's up to Mason to earn playing time of his own this fall - and that's just one of the reasons behind my belief that we're going to see a different player come puck drop.
COMPETITION: Like I just mentioned, Bobrovsky really wants this opportunity. He won 28 games in 2010-11 and saw his starting role evaporate with the free-agent signing of Bryzgalov. Since then, he's seen spot duty in goal and never really seemed to earn the trust of the Flyers coaching staff. A clean slate with the Blue Jackets may be just the tonic required to get the best out of Bobrovsky, who is still just 23 years old. The partnership that Mason forms with Bobrovsky will be crucial, and I think it's going to serve Mason well. The only person standing in the way of him getting the No. 1 role is Bobrovsky, and there's one way to get it back - step up your game. And I think Mason is fully capable of doing so.
CONSCIENCE: The one major thing I gleaned from Mason's interview was that his mind seems to be in a good place. He's got a clear plan of what to do and has a vision of where he's headed, and for a young goaltender, that's such a vital element to have in place. He's been in contact with goaltending coach Ian Clark throughout the offseason and they have discussed the highs and lows of last season, and how to convert the positive momentum from the final 20 games into a better start this year. Clark has a really good grip on Mason's game and if there's one guy who can get the best out of the 24-year-old netminder, it's Clark.
CONDITIONING: Many of the Blue Jackets players have talked about the strong commitment needed to stick to Collins' workout plans and to keep up and meet his expectations. That's what you want to hear, and for Mason, it's no different. He has stuck to the game plan all summer long, and the results are showing. When Mason came in to Nationwide Arena for a workout last week, it was an intense, demanding session that gave both the player and conditioning staff a good gauge of his progress just over six weeks before training camp.
These are three key items in play as Mason enters a very important season. He's in the final year of his contract and will be a restricted free agent (RFA) at season's end. For the Blue Jackets to have success this year, they will need both Mason and Bobrovsky to take a step forward and compete like crazy for the starting job between the pipes.
When camp opens, there will be no guesswork required: the goalie who rises to the occasion will earn the minutes. For Mason, it's pretty simple: it's time to let his preparation and his game speak for itself.
Count me among those who think he will do it.