One of the cardinal rules of playing the stock market is to maximize profit and minimize loss. Well, drafting 18-year-olds to play a man's game five years down the road is inherently a crap shoot of the highest degree, not unlike playing the stock market in some ways. Think of how many players get selected in the draft, including how many guys go in the first round, versus how many make and contribute in the NHL.
We all know some teams have better luck than others in this endeavor; our team's struggles are well known and often-lamented.
However, this season we've seen the two possible outcomes when you've made a bad investment play out for the Jackets in the form of two players: Steve Mason and Nikita Filatov. A lot of players flame out, and one of the best qualities in a GM, front office, and coaching staff is to be able to recognize that fact. The trick, then, is to cut bait on them before they completely crater their trade value; when another team's GM and coaches might still see something worth taking a chance on.
Too Much Too Soon: 2008-2009
In many ways, though we like to do so, you can't entirely blame Steve Mason's play on Mason himself. The Jackets forced him into action at age 20 during the 2008-2009 season due to injury. Mason got hot, and carried the team to its only playoff appearance. It was apparent, however, at the end of the year that Mason was spent. He withered in the playoffs, and the effects of mononucleosis, not having a viable backup (Wade Dubielewicz, anyone?), and having been only roughly a year removed from knee surgery were evident.
At any rate, the future looked bright. A Calder Trophy. A full off-season of rest, NHL-level conditioning, and the signing of Mathieu Garon. Mason was primed to be the backbone of subsequent playoff teams for years to come.
For Filatov, things started out a bit differently, but with no less inkling of future success. There was the expectation that Filatov would not play the 10 games necessary to kick his ELC in, but he scored his first NHL goal in his first NHL game, scoring against Nashville in the 2008 home opener. His minutes decreased over the four games, and he went to Syracuse to continue his season.
Yet, the spark was there. When he came back for four more games in January of 2009, his second game in that stint was a night for the ages for him: a hat trick in just his sixth NHL game. In the 39 games in Syracuse surrounding his two stints in the NHL, he put up 32 points (16G, 16A). He spent the balance of that season "in the room" to soak up the atmosphere of a club making its first ever playoff push.
Filatov had shown flashes of being a true scorer in that first season, with 20 goals in 47 games combined between Syracuse and Columbus, and the sky was the limit.
Sophomore Struggles: Expectations and Entitlement
In the fall of 2009, the Blue Jackets were ready to make The Leap. They were coming off a season in which they'd learned how to win; they'd made the playoffs for the first time in team history, and had made some moves in the summer that appeared solid. They'd gotten a backup for Mason, they'd brought in a Cup-winning third-line center in Samuel Pahlsson, and were going to have both Mason and deadline acquisition Antoine Vermette for the entire season. Derick Brassard was coming back for the entire season from his shoulder injury.
There was no real reason to think the Jackets couldn't pick up where they left off. A lot of that hinged on Mason. The expectations were high.
To say that Mason didn't meet those expectations would be an understatement. He started out by winning four of his first five starts, and in those four wins he allowed just six goals while stopping 121 of 127 shots (95.3% save percentage). Good, right? Well, sandwiched in there was a loss to San Jose involving five goals allowed on 20 shots. Everybody has bad nights, of course. Sadly, the trend continued throughout October, as Mason would finish the month on a down note. Twice more he allowed more than five goals en route to finishing the month with a 5-4-1 record, 3.48 gaa, and 88.1% save percentage.
As the season quickly derailed around Thanksgiving, the team could never recover. Mason just wasn't the same player, though it could be debated how much was Mason and how much was the decreased play of the team in front of him. Injuries to Jan Hejda and Rostislav Klesla hurt the defense, but overall Mason's numbers plummeted. He finished his sophomore season with a 3.05 gaa and a 90.5% save percentage.
For Filatov, the beginning of the 09-10 season looked to be his chance to explode onto the scene. His rookie season in North America certainly showed the potential, but perhaps it planted another seed: the seed of entitlement. Filatov clashed with coach Ken Hitchcock, constantly assuming he deserved top-six minutes while not committing to Hitch's program of two-way play. For their part, many fans couldn't understand why Filatov got stapled to the bench at each misstep, but as his ice time continued to dwindle it was clear something wasn't working.
After being scratched in six of the first 18 games, and after playing just 13 games with only two goals and no assists, his sophomore season came to an end when he effectively took his puck and went home; the Jackets "loaned" him back to the KHL and his CSKA Moscow club, where he finished the season. In 26 games there, he managed 22 points (9G, 13A).
Further fueling the fire about his sense of entitlement, after being the Captain of Team Russia in the World Juniors in 2009, and starting the tournament as such in 2010, he was later stripped of captaincy after bad-mouthing some of his team's coaching personnel to a media gathering. Yet another attitude red flag against Filatov.
Decision Time Approaches: A New Coach, Same Results
After the disastrous finish to the 2009-2010 season, the Jackets hired an entirely new coaching staff. It was a chance for a fresh start for Filatov, and a chance to rebuild a reputation for Mason. Scott Arniel's new proposed up-tempo system looked to benefit a player like Filatov, and the idea of additional offense would then take pressure off of Mason to be "perfect".
For Mason, well, I won't spend a ton of time dwelling on 2010-2011. It's fresh enough in our minds, and I actually wrote pretty extensively about it during this past offseason. An excerpt:
So, what this says is that Steve Mason played in 54 games, and in 12 of them he was really, really bad. That also means that in the other 42 games, he was actually really, really good: a 2.32 GAA, and a .922 SV%. So, basically, 78% of the time this past season, Mason was as good or better than his rookie season.
Mason had some very good stretches. He also, as you can see, had some terrible, terrible stretches. The club was actually in contention in January and February, and a lot of that was due to Mason's play. To end February, he was 7-1-0 in eight starts with a 1.76 gaa and a 94.2% save percentage. Not too bad, eh? But, also just a snapshot: as the full season numbers bear out, while he slightly improved from the prior season, he was still nowhere near his Calder Trophy campaign.
As for Filatov, it was a different band, but ultimately the same tune being played. He had a decent pre-season, scored a highlight-reel goal in an exhibition game, and contributed here and there on the shootout. He opened the season with back-to-back games with an assist, but upon the club's return from Sweden he again found himself seeing his ice time diminish. He went 11 games without a point. He then did have a nice stretch with five assists in a six-game stretch, but he was just unable to put pucks into the net himself.
He started seeing healthy scratches, and was ultimately sent down to Springfield in the AHL to work things out and perhaps get his goal-scoring confidence back. However, he spent most of the rest of the season battling injury and inconsistency, notching just 20 points (9G, 11A) in 36 games for the Falcons. This left his Jackets career at a serious crossroads, having played 44 games in Union Blue with just six goals and seven assists to show for it.
A Fork In The Road: Ride or Die, Plus #FillyDon'tDoNorthAmerica
As the off-season of 2011 dawned, the Blue Jackets found themselves at a crossroads. Fan apathy was climbing. Rick Nash's prime was starting and/or being wasted. General Manager Scott Howson decided it was time for bold action. You remember the moves: Jeff Carter. James Wisniewski. Radek Martinek. Mark Dekanich. Vinny Prospal. Perhaps the biggest move in the context of Steve Mason was hiring Ian Clark as the goalies coach.
It was year one of a big, two year, $5.8 million contract extension for Steve Mason, and Howson was essentially giving him one more chance to prove himself. The hope was that better, daily coaching combined with what should have been a vastly improved offense would take even more pressure off. Dekanich was the backup with Curtis Sanford hanging out in the AHL just in case.
Conversely, that's not a lot of a safety net in the worst case scenario. And, as we now know, this season has been, if nothing else, the nightmare worst case scenario. Injuries to Dekanich and Sanford early on left the club with only one option: ride or die with Steve Mason.
In fairness, Mason looked good in the pre-season. His movements were fluid, he didn't appear to be guessing, and his rebounds were either non-existent or harmlessly kicked to the corners. And then, the games started for real. A 2-8-1 start. Mason allowed less than three goals only three times.
At this point in the season, Steve Mason is the 69th ranked goalie out of 77 in terms of goals-against average, and the 72nd ranked goalie in terms of save percentage. His contract is almost untradeable. He has next to zero value. If we're playing the stock market analogy, the Blue Jackets are in the poor house. Steve Mason is a toxic asset. He is the AIG of goalies. His contract is too big to (have) fail(ed).
Steve Mason is the marlin lashed to the side of poor old Santiago's boat being ripped to shreds by sharks as Santiago's dreams of a big pay day dwindle away.
Conversely, there's the story of Nikita Filatov's next chapter. At the draft in June, the Jackets decided it was time to cut bait. Columbus traded Filatov to Ottawa for their third round pick (#66). On its face, trading a 6th overall pick just three years later for the 66th overall pick is a failure. But, when you look at what happened with Mason and what can happen if you hang on too long, Filatov's trade in the future can be viewed a victory for Scott Howson.
The reaction in Ottawa was one of optimism: low risk, high reward. There were even some comments that this was a "steal" for Ottawa.
Well, if only. He made several trips back and forth to their AHL affiliate in Binghamton, ultimately playing in just nine games with Ottawa; he had just one assist. In Binghamton he was decent-but-not-great, notching 12 points (7G, 5A) in 15 games. However, in his last stint in Binghamton, the rumors started again that he wanted to head back to Russia unless the Senators called him back up.
Then, in a you-can't-make-this-stuff-up moment on November 17th, our own Aaron Portzline shared his story about the now-famous video session in Columbus culminating in the "Filly don't do rebounds" quote.
Fast forward to mid-December, when, yet again, Filatov was headed back to Russia. Pitched again as a "loan" to the CSKA Moscow team in the KHL, really it signals the death-knell of Filatov's NHL career. And, even worse than that, last week we learned that Filatov can't even hang on at the top level in his Russian league, having been sent down to his club's junior squad.
But, how does this signal a "victory" for Columbus?
The Silver Lining At The Golden Dome
It comes down to the player selected with that 66th pick acquired for Filatov, one T.J. Tynan. Heading into his second year at Notre Dame, Tynan finished 2010-2011 with 54 points (23G, 31A) in 44 games for the Irish. As of this writing, he is on a very similar pace, cranking out 36 points (11G, 25A) in 27 games.
True, Tynan may not ever play in the NHL. He's not a big guy, and he's still just 19 years old. He has, however, already played some of the North American style of hockey really needed; the style Filatov was reluctant to play. And, if the Jackets are lucky, Tynan can follow in the footsteps of another player who is now playing in Springfield and under a similar path: Cam Atkinson.
Atkinson will be in the NHL at some point again this season (he started the year with the Jackets). He figures into the short-term plans on offense, with his 35 points (24G, 11A) in 41 games in Springfield thus far this season. Will Tynan follow the same path? It's hard to say.
However, in this cautionary tale about the fine line between hanging on too long and cutting bait before it's too late, Scott Howson looked at the future of his team and decided that a guy like T.J. Tynan had a better chance of being on his NHL team in five years than did Nikita Filatov.
Sometimes, you have to cut your losses, minimize the damage, and move on to the next one. Sadly, for Steve Mason, the damage has been catastrophic. There are no more chances. The Jackets are in the poor house, both figuratively and literally.
But, in the case of Filatov and Tynan, the Jackets live to fight another day.