We've talked at length about all of the new faces on the Blue Jackets' roster, but the most important player might yet be a guy who's been here for three years. Goaltender Steve Mason is the de facto starter, and is coming off of two subpar years. So, the old adage of "more goals are great, but can we stop anyone?" still carries some weight.
But, in the next installment of my "let's look at some numbers and mess around with them!" series, I took a look at Mason's game-by-game numbers from 2010-2011, and found some interesting things. Mason clearly needs to take a step forward this season, but how much of one? In other words, how "bad" was he last year? Let's take a look.
First, the numbers. Mason's career numbers are: 173 games (169 starts), 77-67-23 (177 team points); 2.77 GAA; .906 SV%. Obviously, his rookie year is the driver of the positive aspects of those numbers, so the question is: can Mason get back to that form? Let's break it down by season:
One could argue that Mason improved--albeit only slightly--from '09-'10 to '10-'11. However, it doesn't erase the fact that his Calder Trophy winning season in '08-'09 set the bar pretty high. This obviously isn't ALL on Mason; the defense in front of him was noticeably worse the past two seasons. And, while some new faces are now patrolling the blue line, it remains to be seen whether that shift in personnel will result in fewer golden chances for the opposition.
But, let's get back to Mason for a second. We're going to look at this purely from a numbers standpoint, but the path I'm choosing may also reflect a certain mental aspect of his game that cannot be overlooked: namely, the idea that, for Mase, when it rains, it pours. Consider:
In his 54 appearances this past season, Mason allowed more than four goals seven times. Let's look at those games one-by-one:
I don't have to tell you how bad that is. But I'm going to anyway. If you subtract those seven games from Mason's season, you're left with a completely different year by the numbers:
So, what does this prove? To me, it proves that for the majority of the time, Mason's frankly just not that bad. Can he be better? Absolutely! Does he need to be? Again, absolutely! My contention, however, is that if Mason can limit those stretches where it's clear that he is mentally letting a bad night affect him--in other words, the snowball effect--his numbers, and therefore those of his team, might just improve in a noticeable way. The talent is there. We saw it again in January and February. Can anyone else tell me what happened during that stretch?
Dave Rook was with the team. A ha!
I contend--with absolutely no evidence to back this up--that a huge part of the problem is between Mason's ears. One of the things that outgoing coach Dave Rook said is that Mason just doesn't have a lot of non-NHL, *negative* pro experience from which to draw, which is absolutely correct. Mason has played exactly THREE non-NHL, non-OHL games in his career. Mason, frankly, was a stud most of the way through juniors, and in his three games in Syracuse in '08-'09 he was stellar. And then, of course, he was awesome the rest of '08-'09 in the NHL as well. So, where is the failure from which to draw experience? It's just not there.
Well, it is, now. Mason's now 23 years old, and is starting to get to the age where he needs to mature and iron out some of these mental issues. The hope is that Ian Clark being there full time will help speed that development process up. Ditto the addition of Mark Dekanich, who has had to work just to get to this level at age 25 as an original 5th round pick of the Predators.
But, let's get back to the numbers.
First of all, the "adjusted" numbers for Mason above (when you take out those seven clunkers) don't even include some other clunkers:
10/30/10 @Colorado: 30:44, 4 goals on 19 shots
12/04/10 vs. Pittsburgh: 15:49, 4 goals on 13 shots
12/13/10 @Calgary: 4:25, 2 goals on 4 shots
01/07/11 @Anaheim: 47:00, 4 goals on 24 shots
03/03/11 @Edmonton: 20:14, 3 goals on 14 shots
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. How do we get that back up closer to 90%?
First of all, why 90%? Well, it's unrealistic to expect a goalie *never* to have a bad game during a season. Mason was pulled in seven of the 12 games I've cited here. It happens. That's a pretty high number, though: over 13% of his starts. So, first and foremost, that has to come down. By comparison, Vezina-winner Tim Thomas started 55 games, and was pulled just twice (3.6%). So, let's split the difference and say Mason probably should work to get his "pulled" games down to around 8% of the time. If Mason makes 57 starts (an estimate, based on the backup playing 25 times), that would mean he'd only get pulled four or five times. Still not great, but at least improved. And, the 90% number allows for six or seven really bad games. I think that's being forgiving enough, no?
To do that, Mason obviously needs to solve the one issue that's plagued him, that we've already touched on: how to keep the floodgates from bursting open when he gives up a bad goal or two. And this goes back to the notion that Mason was at his best when Dave Rook was with the team last season. With Ian Clark being there full-time, we can hope that his influence will help to keep Mason's emotions in check, and to keep that number of just snowballing horrendous games down.
Let's manipulate some numbers to show how keeping those games in check could affect both Mason's numbers as well as the team's numbers. For the purposes of the above discussion of times-pulled, let's only focus on those seven super-clunkers we started with, or in other words, the times Mason gave up 5+ goals.
Here's how Mason's season numbers would change if we make some assumptions about the average amount of goals allowed in those seven starts.
4 GAPG: 2.83 GAA, .907 SV%
3 GAPG: 2.70 GAA, .912 SV%
Wow! It's crazy how just one or two more saves in those seven measly games could have largely affect Mason's numbers.
Just for fun, let's look at the team's overall defensive numbers with these adjusted numbers. We'll do it this way; we'll use the "x goals allowed per game" numbers above for those seven stinkers, like we just did to show how Mason's numbers could have been different. We'll figure out how many fewer goals allowed that would have been for the club, and we'll adjust their overall goals-allowed-per-game accordingly. Here goes:
Jackets Actual Numbers: 250 goals allowed, 3.05 GAPG, (26th)
4GAPG = 10 fewer goals; 240 goals allowed, 2.93 GAPG (23rd)
3 GAPG = 17 fewer goals; 233 goals allowed, 2.84 GAPG (t20th)
I know, I know, woulda-coulda-shoulda. And, yeah, it doesn't immediately rocket Columbus to the top of the charts. BUT, if you anticipate an uptick in offense both 5-on-5 and on the Power Play, would even that slight trim make a HUGE difference overall? I think so. And that, if nothing else, gets the Jackets certainly headed in the right direction.
To me, what these numbers show is that if Ian Clark and Steve Mason can somehow combine to limit his bad games, Mason might just be a pretty good looking goaltender. I'm not even saying he has to be light-years better at this point. He just needs to keep opposing teams from dropping five and six goals on him. Part of that is defense, but I think a bigger part is Mason not folding up shop when times get tough.
In short, to answer the question: how much better does Steve Mason need to be? It's not as stark an improvement as one might think. And, I don't think the hill is that huge to climb for Mason, honestly. Finally, if Clark can be successful, that may just have been Scott Howson's best move of the summer.