One of the major questions surrounding the Blue Jackets heading into the 2012/2013 season is goaltending. Returning goalie Steve Mason appears to be the secondary option to newly acquired Sergei Bobrovsky. This is assuming the young Russian netminder can find his way back to his rookie season form, which he finished with a save percentage of .915. While I am optimistic that we will see a quality goaltender in Bobrovsky, my limited knowledge of him as a player leaves me waiting for training camp to see what he can really provide Columbus.
Mason on the other hand reads like an open book. An extremely promising rookie season was followed by a number of disappointing years for the young goalie, not unlike the rest of his team. His compete level, his conditioning, and his confidence all seemed questionable, especially when a couple of bad breaks worked against him during games. A common opinion notes the lack of success of Columbus directly relates to their goaltending situation, and with that, Mason.
For many, Mason’s time in Columbus should be over. He cost them (arguably) a number of wins last season, and the team showed a strange inability to protect him, unlike their style with the likes of York or Sanford in the net. A toxic combination for a team looking for a standout. Burying him in the minors or ‘trading him for a bag of pucks’ is the typical solution for this group.
For others, the constant barrage of undefended shots and poorly covered opposition on rebounds became the catalyst for Mason’s downfall last year. Were this the case, surely the beginnings of his demise began in the early season game against Dallas, where the Columbus’ defense allowed three separate backdoor goals to go uncontested in what ended as an extremely easy win for the Stars. Often deemed the “Mase face” or staring straight up with shoulders slumped, the visible destruction of Mason’s confidence was obvious.
In any case, Mason should be looking at this summer as an opportunity to prove people wrong. In a backup position, he can remove the pressure associated with being the best option on the team, and focus more on fighting for ice time. He is in the final year of a three year deal and he remains an RFA. He will certainly be looking for a strong season in order to get the best possible contract before next summer arrives.
As has recently been shared by the Blue Jackets, Mason is working hard this summer, and appears to be quite a bit leaner. A welcome sign for a player who has often been criticized for his work ethic off the ice, and his inability to come to camp in the best shape possible. This could not only provide him with better tools on the ice, but offer some confidence for his teammates (and the fan base) that he is ready to compete.
Despite the level of negativity (deservedly) surrounding the Blue Jackets goaltending, I think they are uniquely poised to surprise. Both players are young and have shown flashes of brilliance in their short careers, and both can easily be the goalie we are all so desperately seeking. With that said, I think two very important things need to happen first:
1 – Columbus needs to tighten up defensively. For as bad as the goaltending has been, it would be hard to find any real evidence that the defense outplayed them. Scott Howson has done an excellent job building the defensive core of this team, with the additions of Aucoin, Murray, and Erixon (not to mention Johnson, who did play twenty games in 2012). While they parted ways with Methot, they now have nine players who can be competitive for six positions, and should not have any trouble finding the right line combinations to make sure the right amount of talent is on the ice at all times.
2 – Columbus needs a leadership group that builds up, rather than tears down. For as much good Nash brought to the team, I can’t even count how many times I have been told or heard that he gave up on Mason. As a captain, as a part of the leadership group, that player needs to build his goalies confidence as well as his teammates confidence in the goaltender. It is an extremely difficult task, but I believe the removal of Nash and Vermette allows the foundations of leadership to be reconstructed, paving the way for a fresh look on the goaltending and the attitude towards a bad goal.
As noted, Columbus is yet again in a very unique position. While the question marks are there (for good reason), the skill between the pipes can provide the Blue Jackets with a solid competition for number one. With Mason focusing on his conditioning and looking ahead to his RFA status next summer, and Bob having something to prove after a less than stellar sophomore season, we could be getting ready to witness the most competitive goalie tandem the franchise has seen. Combine that with a very strong defensive core, plenty of ‘top six guys’ looking to break out, and a new attitude, the Blue Jackets could be poised to shock people in the best way.
Carry the Flag.