Crashing the Crease: Steve Mason and the Case for Temperance

Image c/o Amy Irvin

Steve Mason, traded to the Flyers a little over six months ago, has quickly become the talk of the town when it comes to goaltending. His 0.944 save percentage in the seven games he played last season caught the attention of fans and Flyers management alike. Given Mason’s struggles in Columbus and the Flyers well-documented sojourn with Ilya Bryzgalov, it was a pleasant relief for both parties to find such a seemingly good fit.

Flyers GM Paul Holmgren, who had just watched former Flyer Sergei Bobrovsky set the league alight with game after game of spectacular goaltending in Columbus, saw this opportunity and struck, signing Mason to a one-year extension. The pieces were in place for Mason to pick up where he left off at the end of the shortened 2013 season and earn the number one spot.

Here we stand, three Mason starts into the season, and the results thus far have been good. Mason, who largely stole Tuesday’s 2-1 win against the hapless Panthers, has not cost the Flyers any games while posting a sparkling 0.936 save percentage. His play has continued at the stellar level he displayed upon arrival last season, prompting many in Flyers Country to cautiously sigh in relief, as it appears our goaltending woes may be solved.

Along the way, though, there have been vocal naysayers, arguing that Mason is not the goalie he’s made himself out to be thus far. Pointing to his performance in Columbus, they’ve argued that he will regress to the goalie who struggled and failed to keep his job, who won the Calder and then fell on hard times over the next few seasons. They seem vitriolic, pessimistic, and basically no fun to be around at all. Probably a group you wouldn’t invite to the bar to watch Friday’s game.

The thing is, though, that they’re not entirely wrong: Steve Mason has not proven that he can consistently be the goalie you see in front of you.

Looking back over his time in Columbus (which happens to represent nearly 24 times the game appearances he’s had in Philly), he’s shown flashes of brilliance near this level over ten-game spans. Not just in his stellar rookie season, either. Similar peaks in performance over a span of equal duration (ten games) were seen in 2009-10 and 2010-11. What’s important to note is that, while he provided some dizzying highs, he also suffered some harrowing lows. Looking at his average save percentage for each season while in Columbus, not even his hot streaks were capable of pulling him north of 0.900 by the end.

Steve Mason – Columbus Performance
Season 2008-09 2009-10 2010-11 2011-12 2012-13
Sv% 0.914 0.900 0.901 0.894 0.899
Max 10-gm Sv% 0.962 0.926 0.936 0.925 0.909

For those who are visual learners, here’s a graph showing his rolling 10-game average for Columbus and Philly (including previous season starts for the first nine games of each season), as well as his season average (blue [CBJ] / red [PHL] horizontal line).

This performance trend in Columbus, at the least, supports the notion that opposing teams had figured him out. Even about halfway through his Calder-winning rookie season, the stats bear out that teams were getting more successful against him as they got more looks at him. It took about 30 games for this to start to manifest. Had you judged him solely up until that point, you would’ve had him pegged as a surefire Hall of Famer, but as teams got second and third looks at him, things rapidly unraveled.

What happened, according to many who reported on the Blue Jackets, was that Mason’s attitude got in the way of his progress. Ian Clark, who coached him towards the end of his tenure in Ohio, was often at odds with Mason due to issues with his work ethic and drive to improve. Mason is a naturally talented goalie who needed to adapt to thrive, but wasn’t necessarily seeing it that way. The stats revealed the truth.

Since coming to Philadelphia, however, Mason appears to have had something of a personal renaissance. Dropping some extra weight prior to the 2013-14 season and showing a renewed drive to improve and succeed, he’s clicked with Jeff Reese and looks like he’s started to turn his career around. Still, the sample size is exceedingly small.

I’m not saying that Mason will fall right back to a 0.900 save percentage and be out of Philly next year. I like to think that he can be better than that given his natural talents and gifts. What I am saying is that the above is largely why people have been cynical or derisive. He’s yet to prove that he can finish a season as strong as he starts or even carry consistently strong performance from start to finish. He needs to hit the 40-game appearance mark without a significant drop off to at least make me (as inconsequential as I am) believe he’s turned the corner.

As teams get more looks at him, it will be crucial for him to improve his rebound control, which has been less than great at times, and to ensure he’s keeping enough tricks in the bag to stifle the best of the best. I’ve argued this numerous times, but an NHL game can definitely be decided by one shot that should’ve been saved. A season can be defined by a missed point in November. Excellent in October doesn’t ensure excellent in April, May or June. It takes non-stop work.

I just hope that Mason understands things won’t stay this way without self evaluation and a sharp focus on the things he’s not executing at a near-perfect level on a regular basis in game situations. If he can get that, he will continue to be a delight to watch. If he can’t, however, historical norms may reappear.

  • HC Steen

    Having these kinds of ups and downs, as the graph shows, is pretty much the definition of being a young goalie learning the trade. Being consistent is what usually differentiates a young talent and a seasoned older veteran. Hopefully he understands (or have already understood) that it takes a lot of work to be consistent, even if you are a great talent.

    • Justin Brennan

      A great point. He was thrown to the wolves early after nothing but early career success. Without the tribulations, young guys sometimes never learn that the ups come with downs and that there’s work involved to get back to the ups.

      I’m with you in hoping that he can put it all together and stay at the top of his game, as it’d be great for him and the Flyers.

  • wheineman

    I also think that he was allowed to get comfortable in Columbus. Who else on the bench was better? The trade to Philadelphia was just what he needed. An opportunity to be tested, and compete for his job. I think that the constant reminder that Emery could take his job any given day will keep him on top of his game.

    I also think that the opportunity to practice with Emery will help evolve his mental game. Something he was never given a chance to improve in Columbus. He saw what NOT to do with Bryz last year!

    All in all, I really do have high hopes that Mason will be an above average goaltender for years to come. And the environment in Philadelphia is the perfect one to keep him honest the entire way!