Thursday, July 28, 2011

Mason is Key to Blue Jackets’ Fortunes

By Mike Chen

There's hope again in Columbus, as the Blue Jackets have addressed a problem that's plagued the franchise since its inception. By acquiring Jeff Carter and Vaclav Prospal up front and James Wisniewski to be a blueline power play specialist, the Blue Jackets will certainly score more goals than previous campaigns. In fact, the addition of Carter and Prospal, alongside Rick Nash, R.J. Umberger, Derick Brassard, and the injured Kristian Huselius, the Blue Jackets have a strong top-six forward group.

Assuming the forwards gel and the power play lifts out of its basement-dwelling doldrums, is all well and good for Blue Jackets fans?

Unfortunately, it's not that easy. Goals have consistently been a big problem for Columbus, but preventing goals was a much bigger problem over the past two years. And that lands squarely on one man — the man who almost single-handedly lifted the team into the playoffs in 2009: Steve Mason.

Consider these stats:

2010-11 218 GF, 258 GA
2009-10 216 GF, 259 GA
2008-09 226 GF, 230 GA

There's not much difference in the goals-for from the two non-playoff seasons and the playoff year of 08-09. However, the goals-against is markedly different. 2008-09 was Steve Mason's rookie year, a season that saw him put up an astonishing 10 shutouts with a .916 save percentage and 2.29 GAA. The past two years have had nearly identical — and not good — stats: .901 save percentage with a 3.05 GAA ('09-'10) and a 3.03 GAA ('08-'09).

In many instances, numbers like save percentage and GAA aren't accurate because it really depends on the system the team plays, including the number of shots-against the team gave up. For example, when Roberto Luongo was on the Florida Panthers, his GAA numbers were never fantastic, but his save percentages were out of this world because he was under constant barrage.

Is that the case with Mason? The numbers say otherwise. Last year, Columbus finished averaging 29.8 shots against per game — 11th best overall, ahead of the Vancouver Canucks, Nashville Predators, and Detroit Red Wings. If we project some numbers out using Mason's rookie save percentage of .916, then his goals-against would be 2.50 — or about half a goal less per game.

There's no doubt that Mason is talented. Even during his last two rough campaigns, he had stretches where he performed brilliantly and carried the Blue Jackets. Not surprisingly, when he did that, Columbus surged in the standings, often temporarily holding or contending for a playoff spot. It's when Mason fell apart that Columbus plummeted.

A stronger forward group will mean that Mason will have greater goal support, and that will certainly turn the tide in a number of situations. But without a steady, consistent Mason, Columbus' big moves might all be for naught.

The good news is that Mason's talent is obviously there and he's still young. With greater goal support, there's a little more margin for error; perhaps with a less pressure to be perfect every night, Mason will re-discover his groove from his rookie campaign.

In any case, GM Scott Howson might consider adding one more free agent to the staff before the season starts: a sports psychologist for Mason.

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