The Jinx

Let me begin by stating that I am a huge Steve Mason fan. In fact, I’ll even go as far to admit that I have a vanity license plate which refers to Steve Mason.

Be that as it may, as much as it pains me to say this, I have to: Steve Mason is in the throws of the dreaded sophmore jinx.

A case could have been made for his extremely high goals-against average, as well as his extremely low save percentage during those games, in which stud defender Jan Hejda was out with a knee injury.

Prior to the game against the Detroit Red Wings on November 11th, the numbers were as follows:

Prior to November 11th: 3.27 GAA and a 891 save percentage

Now, Mason’s numbers, with and without the presence of Jan Hejda:

4.00 GAA w/o Hejda; 2.45 GAA with Hejda

.861 Sv% w/o Hejda; .923 Sv% with Hejda

Seeing these numbers, and having Hejda back in the lineup, it would lead one to believe Mason would come out and deliver a stellar performance, particularly against a team in which he had great regular season success during the 2008-09 campaign.

The result? Against the Red Wings, Mason had a GAA of 10.10, with a save percentage of .704. GASP!

So much for analysis…

…But I should know better, being a nerdy CPA, you have to look beyond the numbers.

Included in the WH (with Hejda), numbers was a performance – if that’s what you’d call it – of a GAA of 7.22 and a save percentage of .750.

Now, just to call it the sophmore jinx (and leave it at that) would be lazy journalism. Then again, it didn’t prevent some mainstream journalists to use that in their pre-season analysis of the Blue Jackets prospects for this season. But, in looking even further, maybe it’s not a case of the dreaded jinx. It may be a case of the NHL’s finest snipers getting “the book” on Steve Mason – his kryptonite, so to speak.

Well, I looked at his statistics, late last season. His GAA, for the last seven games of the regular season was 3.02, and his save percentage was .883. Then, against the Red Wings in the frist round Stanley Cup Playoff series, the GAA was 4.26 and the save percentage was .878. At that time however, the reasoning was – and a valid one at that – was due to the lack of a quality backup, at least one that Ken Hitchcock could depend on. Steve Mason was overworked.

That can no longer be the case, this season. The Blue Jackets acquired a quality netminder in Mathieu Garon, the same goalie who nearly carried the Edmonton Oilers into the playoffs, two seasons ago.

In a case of irony, it appears that the roles for Steve Mason have reversed from that of last season. If you recall, Pascal LeClaire was the Blue Jackets starting netminder, coming off of a solid 2007-08 season. However, due to injuries, LeClaire’s numbers, during the 2008-09 season, were as follows:

GAA: 3.83; Sv%: .867

As a result of LeClaire’s and backup net minder Freddie Norrena’s struggles, Steve Mason was called up, after only a few games, from the Blue Jackets’ AHL affiliate in Syracuse. The rest was history a Calder Cup trophy, as well as the Vezina runner-up.

Fast forward to this season – Steve Mason’s stats, season to date?

GAA: 3.67; Sv%: .879

Let’s also look at Steve Mason’s full (first) season stats, vs. Pascal LeClaire’s 2007-08 season, when he was the starting net minder:

LeClaire: GAA: 2.25; Sv%: .919

Mason: GAA: 2.29; Sv%: .916

Let’s now look at Garon’s numbers so far this year vs. Mason’s first six games last season:

Garon (2009-10): GAA: 2.45; Sv%: .922

Mason (2008-09): GAA: 2.25; Sv%: .912

Eerie, huh?

What the point, you’re saying? Well, it’s this: Is it really the goalie, or is it Hitchcock’s checking, defense-first system? And, be it by injury or via the second time around the league syndrome, there is a significant drop off in productivity by the CBJ’s net minder, during year two as the starter. In LeClaire’s case, it was due to injury, or injuries, in his case – thus, why he was traded for Antoine Vermette, at last season’s trade deadline.

OK so, enough numbers, what’s the crux of the issue? Heck, if I knew that, I’d be the goaltending consultant, and not Dave Rook.

But, in watching Steve Mason’s performances, this year, there are several causes for concern.

As goaltending is primarily mental, the most primary, bothersome area of concern about Mason is that one of his strongest traits seems to be leaving him – his mental toughness. The mental toughness Mason exhibited last year, was that of a goaltender far beyond his years – think Marty Broudeur or Eddie Belfour, but, on a 20-year old goalie. This year, it’s a totally different story. Xase in point,

Mason’s puzzling assessment of his performance against the Red Wings, in which he said, of the eight goals he gave up, that only one was his fault; he gets rattled by the goals that he gives up – just watch his body language after giving up an early goal, that’s all you need to see. Moreover, he’s getting burned in spots that was never beat from, last season – far too many 5-hole, blocker hand low, glover hand low goals – last season, it was purely glove hand high.

To that last point, Mason’s doing things in the net that makes you wonder if having goaltending consultant, and Mason’s goaltending mentor in Junior Hockey Dave Rook around is really helping, or causing more problems, bad habits, or mechanical faults.

As a result of Mason’s funk, particularly the awful Detroit game, Hitchcock has started Mathieu Garon in net the last two games, both of which resulted in shootout victories against Anaheim and Edmonton, both by scores of 3-2.

So, do you bench Mason and ride Mathieu Garon as your starter?

In doing so, do you risk shattering Mason’s confidence, to a point of no return? The league is littered with stories of stellar rookie campaigns, only to be followed by disappointing sophomore campaigns, and damaged confidence. Former Bruins goaltender and Vezina Trophy winner Andrew Raycroft, is one name that comes to mind, when discussing sophomore slumps.

Should the Blue Jackets bench Mason altogether? At this point no. However, given Garon’s stellar play, Htichcock should keep him in net until he falters. In fact prior to last night’s game against Edmonton, Hitchcock mentioned that had he done it all over again, he would have started Garon the game following his 2-0 shutout against the Phoenix Coyotes, earlier this season.

But until Mason addresses his mental/confidence and mechanical issues, given the need to stay afloat in the brutal Western Conference, the Blue Jackets need to continue to start Garon. Mason will be back, but, now is not the time to experiment. Now is the time to continue on with their winning ways, with their hot goalie.



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