“It’s crazy, it’s funny how things work out,” he said Monday. The 30-year-old goaltender from Red Deer, Alta., is shouldering the load once again for the Predators after the injury to star Tomas Vokoun – who had surgery Monday to repair ligament damage to his left thumb.
When the season ended last spring Mason told GM David Poile he had likely played his last game in a Predators uniform. Unrestricted free agency beckoned and Mason wanted to find a team where he could play a little more, if not challenge for a No. 1 job.
“I thought for sure I was gone,” Mason said from Nashville. “I met with David after the season. I definitely wanted to go somewhere else at that point. But then I started thinking about it. Tomas will be free after next season, if they don’t get him signed to a long-term deal then it might be a good situation to be in.”
Poile had accepted that Mason was going to move on but then also decided to make a pitch at the 11th hour. He re-signed Mason to a US$2.5-million, two-year deal just minutes before the free-agent market opened July 1.
“Tomas at the time wasn’t cleared medically,” Poile recalled Monday. “We raised Chris’ pay significantly, and we were happy with him and he was happy with us.”
So Mason stayed in the Music City after all and went from making the NHL minimum $450,000 last season to $1.25 million a year.
“When we were doing the deal, I was in the hospital, my wife had just given birth to my daughter on June 30,” Mason recalled. “Those were two of the happiest days of my life. To get over $1 million a year to play hockey, I just couldn’t believe it.”
He’ll get to play a good chunk of games over the next few weeks as Vokoun recovers.
“That’s kind of why they brought me back here, just in case something happened,” said Mason. “And I think more teams are starting to realize that’s an important player to have in case something happens to your big dog.
“It’ll be good to get a chance to play and hopefully help everybody out.”
Mason won his first start after Vokoun went down, stopping 32 shots in a 6-2 win over rival Detroit on Saturday night to improve his season record to 4-1-0 with a 2.47 goals-against average and .928 save percentage.
The Preds are in good hands with Mason, who went 12-5-0 last season with a 2.54 GAA and .913 save percentage.
“He’s been terrific,” said Poile. “There’s no question that he’s been one of those guys, a late bloomer if you will, he just kept working and working and kept getting better and better. . . .
“With the new CBA and the salary cap, where it appears most teams are putting a lot of money towards one goaltender, not everyone has two good goaltenders. So we feel fortunate.”
It’s not clear just how long Mason will be the No. 1 man. Vokoun’s time frame for recovery is two to six weeks.
“It’s six weeks unless he can play with a playing cast on (the thumb),” explained Poile. “I saw what they would do and I think there’s a good chance, as long as the thumb heals and there’s no pain, that the time table should be short. But that’s conjecture right now.”
In the meantime, the Preds claimed goalie Michael Leighton off re-entry waivers Monday. Anaheim was trying to get him back up with starter J.S. Giguere banged up (although he’ll likely play Tuesday in Edmonton) and Ilya Bryzgalov injured. The Ducks will be paying half of Leighton’s $450,000 salary as stipulated in the CBA for all players claimed on re-entry waivers.
Normally the Predators would have called up Pekka Rinne from AHL Milwaukee but he’s out until January with a dislocated shoulder. So Poile went looking for a more experienced backup for Mason and as luck would have it the Ducks were trying to sneak Leighton through waivers.
“With Pekka Rinne out, we were short on experience,” said Poile. “Now we’ve got another guy who’s played 42 games in the NHL and has been playing a high level in the AHL.”
For Mason, it’s Take 2 filling in for Vokoun. He got the chance late last season and in the playoffs when Vokoun was knocked out by a serious blood clot problem.
The Predators were ousted in five games by the San Jose Sharks in the first round of the playoffs and the easy scapegoat was Mason. And while a 3.45 GAA and .901 save percentage were nothing to write home about, there was more at play there than the backup goalie not being able to fill Vokoun’s shoes.
“There was a lot of things,” said Poile. “Steve Sullivan had a groin problem at that time, Marek Zidlicky only played a few games, Scott Walker never fully recovered from his arm injury, and more importantly San Jose was better.”
Mason admits he’s a little sore at having been singled out by some for the playoff loss.
“Because I don’t think that was the difference in the series,” said Mason. “I think the difference was that we gave them so many penalties, we gave them like 10 power plays a game and a whole bunch of 5-on-3s . . .
“I understand that that’s the first thing people will say when a team loses out, ‘Well, they didn’t have Vokoun.’ It’s not a surprise to me.”