The Columbus Blue Jackets and Steve Mason recently came to an agreement on a two-year extension for the 2011-12 and 2012-13 seasons, at an annual cap hit of $2.9 million.
This deal doesn't make sense to me. First of all, the number seems high relative to Mason's comparables, particularly Carey Price's cap hit of $2.75 million. Secondly, and probably more importantly, I don't think the Blue Jackets really know yet what they have in Mason, who followed his good but overrated 2008-09 season with a pretty weak 2009-10.
Steve Mason's career save percentage in the NHL, regular season and playoffs combined, is .907. That's a below average number in today's scoring environment. I will cut him some slack because he did break into the league at a very young age, and it is entirely possible that he will continue to develop into a goalie with significantly better numbers down the road. But that's why I think this season is pretty important in terms of pegging Mason. It's his third year in the NHL, he's 22, and by all accounts he worked hard on his game over the summer. If I was running the Blue Jackets, I'd tell Mason to prove to me that he deserves to get paid, rather than giving him a sweet deal coming off of a down season. Maybe Mason breaks out and it costs me an extra $500K per season to buy his remaining RFA years, but in the cap era I think it's better to avoid costly mistakes than to pay market value for guys who deserve it.
A lot of people talk about consistency in goaltending, and often it is debatable whether they are actually talking about the variance in the goalie's performance or whether they are simply criticizing or complimenting the goalie's ability. So far in his career, I think it is quite fair to say that Steve Mason has been inconsistent. Kent Wilson at The Score put together an interesting graph of the game-by-game results so far in Mason's career. In 120 career starts, Mason has 15 shutouts and 13 games with an .800 save percentage or worse. That's a shutout percentage of 13% and an awful outing rate of 11%, which are both well above the averages of 6.5% and 7.7% respectively.
I've heard a few explanations given for Mason's results last season. Some questioned his conditioning, others his mental toughness. Teams were shooting high glove on him with great success, which suggests that he needs to work on his technique. Probably a lot of it was simply higher-than-normal random variance resulting from a small sample size. Once again, to me that's a reason to be cautious. If you focus on his shutouts and great games and the way he broke into the league by storm in late 2008, it's probably easy to think that Mason just needs to fix a few things in his game and he is headed for greatness, but that's an overly optimistic viewpoint.
Mason is particularly interesting because he's a guy that has been rated highly by the scouts throughout his career, often perhaps higher than his numbers would suggest he actually deserved. He got drafted in the third round despite not playing very much as a 17-year old in the OHL, he started for the Canadian world junior team ahead of Jonathan Bernier, he was invited to the Team Canada Olympic camp last summer, and he won the Calder and was nominated for the Vezina in 2009. His new contract was mostly based on projection, which again likely relied heavily on input from the team's scouts. Mason is big and moves well, he looks like a butterfly goalie should look, but unless he's actually stopping the puck at a high rate that doesn't translate into helping his team win hockey games.
Columbus is making a bet that they didn't need to make (or at least one they didn't need to make right now), and they likely parted with more money than they needed to, given comparable contracts. I'll be interested to see how it works out for them. I think we'll know a more about Steve Mason after this season, but as of right now I'm not convinced he's an above-average NHL goalie, either now or in the near future. It's a pretty safe bet to expect him to rebound from last year, but I'd still be a bit surprised if he repeated his rookie season mark of .916, especially with Ken Hitchcock no longer behind the bench.