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Can we realistically expect Steve Mason to improve as a goaltender?

Steve Mason's spent most of his career being not very good at goaltending. But he'll be just 25 next season. Do guys at his age usually improve during the rest of their careers?

He'd have stopped that one if he was 25, obviously.
He'd have stopped that one if he was 25, obviously.

Every once in a while I see discussions/arguments about the remains of Steve Mason's potential as a starting goalie in the NHL pop up in various places. In the comments here, on Twitter, wherever it may be. I saw a few come up this past Friday in light of this Yahoo! ranking of starting NHL goalies that placed him at 28th out of 30 (while also saying that they "have an inkling [Mason] might work out") and this follow-up from which suggested that "Mason deserves to be a little higher than 28th".

Generally, most of those discussions have the same structure. People who think he still has a chance say that he still has time to get his confidence back and that he's only now turning 25, which is still young enough for a goalie to prove himself. Meanwhile, people who don't think he has a chance point to the fact that, despite his age, he's played in the NHL for five seasons now and has been bad for about three-quarters of that time (his rookie season and the last month of this past season being the exceptions), and that all the confidence in the world doesn't matter if you aren't actually any good at what you're doing.

I can't say a whole lot about Mason's confidence. I've written before about work ethic questions surrounding him, and we can hope that he's actively trying to improve there, but I try not to speculate a ton about athlete's mental states when I can't see inside their minds. Maybe there's something there, maybe there isn't, but it's probably useless for us to speculate on.

But we can look at whether or not goalies around his age, as well as goalies who we've already seen play multiple seasons in the league, generally have room for potential improvement.

Since 1996-97 (the season since which average save percentages have stayed above .900) there are twelve goalies who (a.) faced at least 3000 shots in their careers up through their age-24 seasons** and (b.) faced at least 3000 shots in their careers in the years after their age-24 seasons. Here's how those splits look for each of them. (All data regular-season only.)

Shots faced thru 24 Save % thru 24 Shots faced after 24 Save % after 24 Post-24 difference
Cam Ward 6169 0.903 6404 0.917 0.014
Jonathan Quick 3189 0.908 4383 0.919 0.011
Marc-Andre Fleury 6873 0.907 6163 0.913 0.006
Jose Theodore 3177 0.905 14806 0.910 0.005
Rick Dipietro 3846 0.900 5069 0.904 0.004
Kari Lehtonen 4864 0.913 6680 0.916 0.003
Jean-Sebastien Giguere 3183 0.911 12534 0.913 0.002
Henrik Lundqvist 3412 0.919 10847 0.921 0.002
Roberto Luongo 8202 0.920 14024 0.918 -0.002
Martin Biron 3316 0.913 10539 0.910 -0.002
Jaroslav Halak 3083 0.919 3015 0.915 -0.003
Jocelyn Thibeault 4609 0.906 11097 0.903 -0.003
TOTAL 53923 0.9105 66886 0.9140 0.0035

First, the positives:

* There's a wide variety of results there, ranging from "much improved" to "slightly worse", but more often than not, these guys have done a little bit better since their age-24 seasons than they had before/during them. Eight of the 12 guys listed posted better save percentages after that season, and as a whole the group improved by .0035 after it.

* Even for the guys who faced a ton of shots before 25 (similar to Mason, who's faced 6,768 shots in his career to date) the trend is generally positive, if not even moreso. Cam Ward, Marc-Andre Fleury and Roberto Luongo, put together, averaged a .911 through their age-24 seasons and have collectively posted a .918 since. In fact, Fleury and Ward were two of the guys who've improved most in those seasons. The fact that we've already seen a lot of Mason (relative to the rest of the list) doesn't mean he's disqualified from getting any better.

So if someone says "Mason still has time to improve", they're not wrong. There's certainly precedent for players in similar situations having done the same thing.

But there are some important qualifiers here, too:

* Generally speaking, save percentages have gone up over this timeframe in question (with a reset around the first season post-lockout), particularly for the guys who have done most of their work in the last decade or so. So if you're looking at a marginal rise in save percentages between an earlier timeframe and a later one, it's possible that league-wide trends are a big part of the cause.

* While a save percentage bump of .0035 isn't meaningless, that bump isn't going to take a bad goalie and make him a good one. If Steve Mason improves by that much and plays like a .908 goalie for the rest of his career, that's still not much more than the level of a decent backup/very low-end starter. Certainly not something that will (or, at the very least, should) make the Flyers want to keep him around long-term.

* Even if these improvements are real and significant, and even if we can expect Mason to be a .908 or so goalie for the rest of his career (which is not even close to a sure bet), they still don't necessarily predict what will happen in the span of the 2013-14 season. There's enough volatility in single-year goaltending results that he may end up well below or above that mark in any given year.

So even though I ultimately think both sides of the hypothetical Steve Mason argument (as described above) have a point, there's certainly a limit that leads me closer to the "he's just not going to turn into a starter" side. It's true that his book hasn't been closed yet. He very well could still improve, and it's feasible to think or even expect that he will do so a small bit -- enough that he won't be a total disaster.

But the expected improvement probably isn't even enough to even get him to the "low-end starter" threshold, let alone "good goalie", and he'd need to well-outperform some historical averages in order to get there. And even if he's going to improve, he's far from a sure bet to show that potential improvement this season.

** "Age-24 season" is defined as the year in which the player was 24 on February 1 of that year, as per's records.