Has the ghost of Jim Carey come to haunt last year’s Calder Trophy winner?
Say it isn’t so!
For those unfamiliar, Carey was a star NHL netminder in Washington for two brilliant seasons in the mid-90s, before being traded and subsequently fading into hockey obscurity faster than you can say….uh…er…Jim Carey.
Speaking for Canadian hockey fans everywhere, there were visions of greatness for the lad from Oakville, Ontario as he ascended the stage last June at the NHL awards ceremony to accept his trophy. With a humbling level of modesty and graciousness, he bowed to Tim Thomas in the Vezina race but we all believed that one day his day would come.
Could the script have been written more perfectly?
As a Canadian kid with a stellar hockey pedigree he dominated and won gold at the 2008 WJC. He started last season in Syracuse recovering from off-season knee surgery, logically it would take a year in the minors for development and tuning. However, a month into the season and after only a few minor league starts, he got the call to Columbus due to Pascal Leclaire injuring his ankle.
After winning his first NHL game, he went on to get his first NHL shutout several games later. Through November and December Mason played brilliantly, winning Rookie-of-the Month honour for both months. The wins and shutouts began piling up and Leclaire, having returned from injury, had a front row seat from the bench. Coach Ken Hitchcock rode the hot hand through the season and Mason’s hand never cooled down. In March ’09 GM Scott Howson traded the injury prone Leclaire to Ottawa, confident that their goalie of the future was in fact their goalie of the present.
How could this fine specimen of a goaltender NOT be the real deal?
At 6’4” and 212 lbs, with nearly unrivalled athleticism, focus and competitiveness, he seemed destined to lead Columbus into never before seen territory…..the playoffs. Still in the first year of his entry level contract, Howson and staff knew that they had a stud goalie with a bargain basement cap hit. Columbus played in four playoff games in the spring before mercilessly being dispatched by the cup bound Detroit Red Wings. However, most importantly, 20 yr.old Mason had delivered the goods. The hockey world was waiting to see what could be done for an encore. Was it next stop Vezina?…or Hart?….or even a starting position with Team Canada in Vancouver 2010? We all expected big things.
At the beginning of the season Steve Yzerman and the rest of the collective Canadian hockey universe began the search for an Olympic number one goaltender. Mason’s name was mentioned alongside others such as Martin Brodeur, Roberto Luongo and Marc Andre Fleury.
Brodeur is still playing ridiculously well and has become the odds-on favourite for the job in Vancouver. Nevertheless, we all know that he’s quietly looking over his shoulder for someone to pass the proverbial torch to. Sadly, Mason has been reduced to trying to get his head back into the game while Fleury and Luongo clamber at the gate with resumes in hand. The 21-year-old is no longer a realistic consideration for the job. Not now. Maybe never…..but maybe.
Through the months of October/November and now into December, Mason’s performance has been underwhelming at best. (.886 Sv% and 3.44 GGA). Hitchcock has been providing opportunity after frustrating opportunity for him to get his collective self together with no definitive joy. Mason’s efforts have not been able to win games for his team consistently enough, in fact, it has become the elephant-in-the-dressing room, so to speak.
An argument can be made that the team is not scoring like they were a year ago, and the defense lately looks porous at best. A more resounding argument can be made that a star goalie should still look like a star even when playing for a mediocre team. One needs look no further than Niklas Backstrom and Henrik Lunqvist for illustration of this. Mason has not looked like a star often enough. He appears to have reached a level of frustration with himself and his teammates that will hurt his game rather than bouy it. It might be a logical time for Columbus staff to take a step backward with this precious resource and allow him to sit and observe for a stretch of time.
Being an elite NHL netminder requires being able to get into a unique, elevated type of head space on demand. It’s very apparent Mason is somewhere outside that head space and his confidence level has been shaken. Opposing players see this and have been feeding like vultures.
I’m still of the belief that at the tender age of 21, this kid is the complete package. After a few more years of seasoning he will be regarded as an elite goaltender for many more years to come . He possesses the tools for a long and promising career and should not be judged on the struggles he’s experiencing today. Rather let him be judged on how he is able to overcome this shaky start and make us forget by season’s end about the first third of the season.
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