Making sense of the Steve Mason reclamation project

Bruce Bennett

Steve Mason is one of the Flyers' two goaltenders next season. Let's ask why that is, because none of the explanations really make much sense.

With today's news confirming that recently-acquired goaltender Steve Mason has received a one-year, $1.5-million contract for next season, we can stop wondering what it is that Mason's going to make and why it is that he's going to make it. Travis did an excellent job talking about the ramifications of the trade for the team last Wednesday shortly after it happened, but let's talk about the thought process again.

The reaction I've been seeing most since it was signed is "I guess that's an OK amount to pay for a backup." If that's the case, then this is a fairly silly contract. Our own Eric T. made several relevant points on Twitter this morning on that front, and if I may sum them up:

* Backup goalies with better career numbers than Mason usually get less money in free agency than $1.5 million.

* Not many teams pay $1.5 million to their backup goalie.

* The dollar amount is very similar to the deal Michael Leighton got three summers ago, when we weren't quite sure what his role on the team would be either.

Basically, paying a high-end backup salary to a guy like Mason makes very little sense.

Of course, the alternative doesn't make a lot of sense, either. The alternative, of course, being that the team expects Mason to contend for or even win the starting goalie spot next year -- whether he's with Ilya Bryzgalov or whether Bryz gets bought out and is replaced by another goalie to be determined.

Steve Mason's struggled for, well ... almost his entire career.

Steve Mason's struggled for, well ... almost his entire career. That's been chronicled in a lot of places. Sure, he did pretty well in 61 games in his rookie year in 2008-09, when he won the Calder Trophy and helped get the Blue Jackets to their only playoff appearance in franchise history. Finished second in voting for the Vezina, even.

But he's played in 172 games since then, and his poor numbers in that time by far outweigh what's happened since that rookie year. There's a case to be made that he's literally been the worst goalie in hockey since the full-season lockout, so let's just acknowledge right away that his numbers don't leave a whole lot of room for optimism here.

That's what we can see. What we can't necessarily see are intangibles and all of that, and how those may affect his play. And in recent years, the reports on Steve Mason's intangibles haven't been good. Even ignoring the "he didn't know that he could wear regulation-sized pads" story (which is probably on Columbus as much as it is him, but damn if it isn't hilarious anyways), there have been a lot of questions about his work ethic in Columbus.

I try not to look too much into this kind of stuff, especially given that this city has been wrong about players and questionable work ethics before. Still, at the end of last season, the Columbus Dispatch's Aaron Portzline wrote a fantastic piece discussing what had gone wrong with Mason. You should read the entire thing, but here are some snippets:

But the first cracks in Mason's foundation appeared the next fall, when he arrived at training camp in less than ideal shape but yet with the swagger of an NHL star.

...

"What could (the Blue Jackets) do (in 2008-09), not play him? He caught fire and they caught fire, and the franchise had never done something like that before. But he was given the keys to the kingdom. He was given a big contract and he wasn't mature enough to handle it. Still isn't."

Behind the scenes with the Blue Jackets, many say Mason is a decent teammate, but can be petulant and moody. Coaches - those here, and those long gone - have said he cuts corners during practice and workouts unless kept under a watchful eye. And then there's the issue of maturity.

...

"When I hear (Mason) after a game say ‘I don't think you can put any of the goals on me tonight,' I just cringe. You can't go there. The goalie has to be the strongest mind in the room. You're going to be hung out to dry sometimes. That's the game. It's your job to stop those pucks."

Rough. Our friends over at The Cannon have chronicled Mason's tailspin of a career in a similarly depressing way in the past.

And yet, ironically enough, with the evidence that we have on hand, Steve Mason's allegedly crappy work ethic might actually be the best reason to think that the Flyers traded for him.

All the evidence suggests that Mason began to slack a bit after his good rookie season, as well as after the contract that the Jackets gave him following his second season in the league. He had Columbus tied around his finger for at least the year following his rookie year, and he knew what he'd be making for the three straight seasons after that, so the idea that his work ethic might have tailed off after that rookie year isn't too much of a surprise.

The quotes that came from Holmgren and the coaching staff last week following the trade seem to suggest that they certainly think that they can turn Mason's career around. I find it hard to imagine that they weren't aware of Mason's alleged attitude problems, which would indicate that they think that going from Columbus to Philadelphia is what's going to get him back on track, and...

...hang on, let's read that sentence again.

They think that going from Columbus to Philadelphia is what's going to get him back on track.

I'll give you a second to pick yourself up from the floor after reading that statement. We've all seen what's happened here in the last few years, right? We all know how this city tends to be on its goalies as soon as anything goes wrong, right? We all know that this is probably the most highly-scrutinized sports city in the country when it comes to players who don't play well, right?

At best, they're hoping that the scrutiny of what has to be the worst city in the world to be a goaltender is what forces Mason to work harder and play better, helping him recapture the strong play that he showed four seasons ago in Columbus. That strikes me as a really, really, really big leap of faith for Holmgren, Peter Laviolette (or whoever's coaching next year) and the rest of the gang in charge of a team that's mishandled its goaltending situation at least seven times in the last three seasons alone.

At worst, they're looking at Mason's rookie year, ignoring the three and a half seasons that have happened since then, and saying "he's done it once before, meaning he can do it again, so let's give him a shot." If that's the case, that's terrifying, shortsighted, and directly contradictory with the thought process of an organization that recently had a goalie play a good rookie year but then decided to sit him down after one bad period of a playoff game, in turn leading us to the situation we're in now.

I'm not going to say it's fully, 100 percent out of the realm of possibility that Mason turns into a decent goalie. Goalies are nuts. You never know. And on principle, I try not to hate one-year contracts because they're about as low-risk as can be, so I don't think this is awful.

But it's a really big gamble, to say the absolute least. And when we're talking about a guy whose career went to hell as soon as he was given the keys to one organization already, handing that guy money that suggests he'll probably fight for a starter's role next year -- after having played 20 minutes with the Flyers -- is just maddening.

Back to Portzline, who closes up his piece from earlier as such, emphasis ours:

Nobody's entirely sure where his game has gone. They only know that a really good goaltender is in there, somewhere.

Earlier this season, [Jackets goaltending coach Ian Clark] said he and Mason watched film together a few times from his wondrous rookie season.

"Sometimes he looks at me and cringes and says, ‘I wasn't a very good goalie back then,'" Clark said. "But the results were there. Sometimes it's a mysterious thing."

There's a good goalie in there somewhere, but Mason himself didn't even know it was there. Just about sums it up.

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