Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Steve Mason Dilemma

This time of the year is typically pretty thin on transactions, and there hasn't been much to write about re: player movement. That might change soon, however, given the poor start of the Columbus Blue Jackets. Off to an 0-5-1 start, the CBJ remain the NHL's only winless team and are already seven points behind first-place Detroit in the Central.

While most teams will wait slow starts out, perhaps no team can afford to do that less than Columbus. Attendance at Nationwide Arena, typically dull around this time of year anyway (it tends to pick up slightly after Ohio State football season), is only going to dwindle further with each and every loss. What makes this year especially different from other years is the financial commitment John McConnell gave to Scott Howson and the team.

The Jackets are essentially spending to the cap this year. That's a remarkable change for a team that traditionally hovers in the lower-to-mid third and hasn't gotten any significant boost in attendance, let alone a team that is experiencing all-time lows, as the CBJ have been recently. They already reportedly lose millions each year, and increasing the payroll by 50% isn't exactly a typical reponse to these types of losses.

The team looks to be close to receiving a bailout-of-sorts from the city by diverting local casino revenue, so the threat of relocation seems to be dormant. The team's financial setbacks should improve with this new deal as well. Regardless, the attendance issue is still there, and franchise player Rick Nash will only be in his prime for so long. Ignoring off-ice finances, spending to the cap for a 30th place team is obviously concerning.

So what options does Scott Howson have? Let's take a look at the Jackets from a GM's standpoint, focusing on the one area that has been scrutinized the most: the goaltending.

It's been fashionable for fans to blame Steve Mason for the CBJ's woes, and much of it is deserved. It's no secret that he has never been able to regain the form he showed in his rookie year. He posted a 19.8 GVT that season and has been unable to even crack positive numbers in the two years since. He also ranked third in the league in Goals Against/60 at even strength in 2008-09, and then dropped to 19th and 24th in the past two seasons. What are possible reasons for this decline?

For starters, Mason's teammates were great in front of him in his Calder season in 08-09, allowing the fewest shots/60 minutes at even strength (25.9). That number went up to 29.4 in 2009-10, and stayed at 28.9 in 2010-11. That extra four shots makes a lot of difference.

Let's look at another area where Columbus has been victimized: they've gotten worse at penalty killing. The Jackets' 4v5 shorthanded shots against per 60 has ballooned from 49.2 in Mason's Calder year to 52.3 and 53.4 over the past two seasons. These shots faced are also presumably of better quality than the even strength numbers.

Conclusion? The even strength and power play shots against increase over the last three seasons of Mason's career are, in my opinion, as much to blame for his "decline" as anything.

All the while, Columbus's even strength shots for/60 has remained pretty constant, indicative of the team's possession numbers getting worse solely through allowing more shots. In other words, they're still shooting the puck at the same rate as their dream playoff season. Everybody wants to know the difference between the 08-09 Jackets team and the past two iterations. Here it is: they've been allowing more shots at even strength and on the penalty kill. That's the change in performance that needs to be addressed.

I believe that the team isn't bad because of Mason, they just aren't getting any better in front of him. It's no secret that goaltenders need time to develop--more time than any other position. Mason is the same goaltender he was in 2008-09, his defense has just been much worse since that season.

It's amazing what an improvement in the team in front of him did for a goalie like Marc-Andre Fleury, a goalie who debuted strong early but went through some struggles, including being prone to the softie. Sound familiar?

I firmly believe Mason has the ability to develop much like Fleury did. The alternative development (the Andrew Raycroft route) is still a possibility, but if Howson bails and sells low on Mason, who is still just 23 years old, I believe the acquiring team could be getting a potential franchise goaltender if they give him time to develop.

In this instance, Howson doesn't necessarily have the time to wait, and rumors have him talking to many teams about a  goaltending acquisition. I believe this would be a mistake. Mason has a friendly contract at $2.9 mil this year and next, and then is an RFA, under team control until he's 27. Replacements would either be veteran short-term fixes (Evgeni Nabokov) or incredibly expensive, young backups who have potential equal to Mason's, in my opinion (Cory Schneider).

I believe it would also be incredibly rash to acquire offense, especially considering that the team's shooting percentage is currently at  6.74%. We would expect that to normalize closer to the 9% range as the season progresses, especially once James Wisniewski, Jeff Carter, and to a lesser extent, Kristian Huselius return.

Jackets fans are also well aware about the team's dismal power play, which has seemingly spilled over to this season. I don't worry too much about the power play woes because the Jackets haven't had Wisniewski or a healthy Carter in their lineup. Those major acquisitions, combined with further development of players like Grant Clitsome and Kris Russell on the other point, should improve the PP. It just hasn't had a chance to even get started.

(Also, while it's out of their control, let's point out that the CBJ have played in one of the strongest divisions in the NHL over the past few seasons. It isn't an excuse, but it's important to note.)

Despite his wonderful offensive acquisitions, Howson hasn't done much to address the possession issues this team has had for the past two seasons.  I believe that should be the primary area of focus if he desires to make a quick fix. It would also be the most cost-efficient. You pay money for the big point scorers like Jeff Carter and James Wisniewski. Howson has done that. Next step: finding secondary players on forward and defense who can suppress shots against, keep possession, and play a disciplined game.

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