It is a sign of what the Blue Jackets fanbase feels about their current netminding situation that the news that goaltender Steve Mason had been concussed in practice by a Rick Nash slot was regarded as a positive note and worthy of celebration.
An athlete being injured, particularly with such a risky ailment as a concussion, should never be good news, but Mason's star has dipped further and further since his 2009 Calder Trophy and the team's lone playoff appearance, leading many inside and out of the fanbase to feel that he is the weak link on a team that should have become a regular postseason contender.
The Jackets announced on Friday that Mason was expected to be cleared for play today or tomorrow, making him eligible for the game vs. St. Louis (though it seems almost certain that Curtis Sanford will act as the starter, and Mason to play in the backup role). Most fans were nervous about this news, at best.
It seems that the fanbase is ready to jump ship if Steve Mason continues his erratic play in net. Is there a way back for him to fix this?
Option 1: Back To School
One option that Scott Howson could consider is to send Mason down to the AHL on a brief conditioning assignment, though that option would require Mason's consent.
Under the CBA, Howson could send him to Springfield for up to 14 consecutive days without requiring waivers, and the Falcons do have a stretch coming up that would allow the young netminder ample time to knock the rust off of his game and perhaps put up some good efforts to boost the confidence of both the team and the fanbase. If Mason was kept in the backup role on Sunday, for example, he could be sent down on December 1st and given the chance to play in parts of a three game run from 12/2-12/4 (including two home games) and perhaps even leave him in place for the homestand from the 10th-13th before returning him to the Jackets.
Mason would miss a trip through Canada for that stretch, and part of a mid-December home stand, but there's only one back to back set in that scenario (Dec. 1st vs. Calgary and Dec. 2nd vs. Edmonton), so it seems likely the team would feel comfortable giving Sanford the majority of the work, and that Mason wouldn't be getting starts for much of that run regardless.Far better to have him actively working out during that time, and Allen York can keep the bench warm as well as anyone else.
Option 2: Frying Pan, Meet Fire
If Scott Arniel, Ian Clark, and Scott Howson are convinced that Mason's season is salvageable, the onus is on him to prove it. While I would give Sanford the starts on the Canadian road trip (Mason's experiences in Western Canada as the Jackets' netminder have been memorable for exactly the wrong reasons), it might not be a terrible idea to give him a chance at a 1/1a rotation once the club starts their homestand from December 8th to 17th. Perhaps Mason could be given the home start vs. the Predators (a team he is 5-2-1 against at Nationwide over the last three seasons, including two shutouts), while Sanford faces the Bruins and his former Vancouver comrades before handing the net back to Mason gainst the Kings, and putting Sanford back in to finish the homestand vs. the Lightning.
If that experiment goes well, (quite possible, since the team's improved defensive schemes did seem to be working for Mason when they faced the Winnipeg Jets), the team could continue the rotation as they start their heavy travel schedule through the end of December and early January, re-evaluating the load placed on each netminder based on performance.
It's asking a lot of Mason, Sanford, and the team to allow him to step back into the starter's role, even with a split workload, but it might be a good option to show that the team is behind Mason and help him to rebuild some of his reputation, particularly if he can help deliver a strong winning streak on home ice. On the other hand, should Mason continue to struggle, it could be the nail in his coffin with the organization. Scott Howson has given Mason votes of confidence at every opportunity, but there is a point where you must consider that he simply isn't going to work out in this team at this time. That leads to...
Option 3: Goodbye, Farewell, Amen
Trading Steve Mason is likely to be difficult. With another year on his contract and a $2.9 million cap hit, Mason would be a bargain if he was playing with his 2009 numbers, but this deal places him in the same park as a Carey Price or Dwayne Rolosson. A team willing to deal is almost certainly going to want money coming off of their books at the same time Howson is hoping to find a long term answer in net either based on this trade or from a follow-up transaction, so he is going to want salary flexibility in return.
One team who might be an interesting partner is the New York Islanders, who still look to find a long term solution in their own goaltending (who isn't named Rick DiPietro). Though the much rumored deal for Evgeni Nabokov turned out to be smoke and mirrors, if Long Island GM Garth Snow does move the veteran goaltender, he could potentially look at taking Mason as a solution (particularly with Al Montoya leaded for free agency next season), while perhaps offering the somewhat underperforming Marty Reasoner as a salary balancing agent that the Jackets could use for bottom six depth and/or turn around and buy out in the offseason at a cost of $416,667.
Option 4: Wait and See
The last option is the most difficult - keeping Mason on the bench and eventually putting him in for spot duty to see what he does. More time with Ian Clark almost certainly is not a bad thing, and Mason could find himself in a spot similar to St. Louis netminder Brian Elliott - using a few strong performances here and there to raise what had been a fairly spotty reputation, and perhaps attracting interest from other NHL clubs as a result should he and the Jackets decide to part ways in the offseason.
The one constant in all of these scenarios is Steve Mason. The weight of this team has been on his shoulders for some time, and he's had difficulty with that pressure. His game has suffered, and many doubt his ability to get it back.
Any positive returns require that Mason use this experience to help himself. He must take the adversity and run with it, challenging to try and take the starting job back and showing that he is worthy to keep it. If he cannot succeed in that effort, it doesn't matter what scenarios we envision - his road back will not come to a satisfying conclusion in Columbus.