Continuing the Players to Watch series, next up is Steve Mason, who will be beginning his 3rd year in the league this season.
His struggles last season have been well documented. And although there was marginal improvement -- probably mostly between the ears -- after Claude Noel took over, we didn't see a strong case that he was back on track like Jake Voracek or Kris Russell. He collected back-to-back shut outs in February against Buffalo and San Jose, but as late as March 23, with only eight games left, Mason gave up six goals in a game to New Jersey. Finally, he finished the season with four straight losses, sealing the fate of our fourth overall draft pick (hello Ryan Johansen).
Feeling bad enough with our franchise goalie yet? Don't worry, better days are ahead.
Goalies take the longest of any position to develop. Meanwhile, Mase just turned 22. Many goalies, including Tomas Vokoun, Evgeni Nabokov, and yes, even Martin Brodeur didn't truly hit their stride until they spent a few years in the league.
In the OHL, playing for the London Knights, Mason was not good his first season. He saw only a handful of games and finished with a 5-3-0 record. It was his second season under coach Dave Rook that he blossomed, securing 45 wins in 62 starts. This will be his second season reunited with Dave Rook as the Blue Jackets goaltending coach, and he knows just how to elevate Mason's game.
He had a great rookie campaign, like many do, but when the realities of professional hockey catch up to these players that are so gifted at lower levels, it becomes a question of how they respond. 33 wins in 61 games played in his rookie season proves he can put up great numbers in the NHL. Soon, we'll see if his conditioning, mental toughness, and ability to improve is up to par this season. Personally, I believe he will be ready.
I'm not going to predict actual numbers, but I see Mason having a very strong year. I believe he can return to his first-year form and put up numbers that ranks him among the top 5-8 goaltenders in the NHL.