The joke used to be that Philadelphia was where goaltenders went to lose their way. Year after year, some new hope would enter and before the season was through, he was gone and forgotten. No one would have been surprised had that been the case for Steve Mason.
In two seasons, Mason, now 26, has recovered from what looked like potential for a miserable end to a once very promising career. When the Flyers acquired him from the Columbus Blue Jackets for Michael Leighton and a third-round pick, he was coming off three straight seasons with a goals-against average above 3.00 and had posted save percentages of .901, .901 and .894 over his past three campaigns.
To say the move was questioned would be an understatement. No one knew what the Flyers were doing trying to recover the game of the 2008-09 Calder Trophy winning goaltender who had seemingly lost his way. But now, as the second anniversary of the trade approaches, maybe the Flyers saw something in Mason no one else did.
First, a bit of background: before Mason came along, the Flyers had started 14 different goaltenders in 11 years since the lockout. Only one netminder, Bryan Boucher, had played with the team for more than six seasons and he did it in three stints. The list of goaltenders also includes the aforementioned Leighton, Robert Esche, Antero Niittymaki, Martin Biron, Sergei Bobrovsky and Ilya Bryzgalov.
So, you may be able to see why people doubted bringing a struggling young goaltender into the mix – especially one whose best season came in his rookie year when he managed a .916 SP, 2.29 GAA and 10 shutouts. But something in Mason’s game has changed in Philadelphia.
"The biggest thing was for him to get out of Columbus," former Flyers goaltending coach Jeff Reese told NHL.com in 2014. "This guy always had the talent, he always had skill, he can move well for a big guy, very athletic, handles the puck, has a great glove hand. You knew there was something there. That's the biggest difference, him getting out of there and getting to a new place where people believed in him again."
It’s possible Reese is right, too. Maybe a new home was all Mason needed.
Because goaltenders play most of their time at 5-on-5, often times the most accurate way to measure how well they’ve played is by looking at their SP when teams are playing five a side. In his rookie season, Mason’s 5-on-5 SP was .926. In the subsequent years – the dark period of Mason’s career, if you will – he fell well below league average, with SPs of .912, .913, .912 and an abysmal .909 in his final year in Columbus.
Of goaltenders that played 1,500 minutes at 5-on-5, Mason finished near the bottom in 5-on-5 SP in each season after his rookie year.
In 2009-10, he finished 29th of 34 goaltenders, barely ahead of Ondrej Pavelec, Jeff Deslauriers and Cristobal Huet. The next year, 2010-11, he finished 29th out of 32 netminders, ahead of only Dan Ellis, an aging Nikolai Khabibulin and Brian Elliott. And 2011-12 was no better, as Mason finished 31st out of 35 puck stoppers. In the lockout-shortened season, he again toiled in the bottom of the rankings.
Incredibly, however, he wound up in the middle of the pack last season. Playing the 12th most minutes of any goaltender in the league, Mason’s .926 SP was the 17th best at 5-on-5. Some thought it might just be an aberration – another good season from a kid who had done it before. If that was the thought, though, he’s turning heads this year.
Of the 32 goaltenders that have played 1,500 minutes at 5-on-5 this season, where would you guess Mason ranks? The safest bet would be somewhere in the middle, right? Maybe he’s shown steady growth and improved to 14th place or so. The reality is, however, Mason ranks second in the league among starting goaltenders with a 5-on-5 SP of .941. That’s .005 less than Carey Price, who is a near lock to win this season’s Vezina Trophy.
Not only is Mason having a career year when it comes to stopping pucks at even strength, he’s on pace to post the lowest GAA of his career, too. Currently sitting at 2.25, he holds the 10th best mark in the league.
In Philadelphia’s win over Chicago Wednesday night, he was calm and collected en route to stopping more than 30 shots, something he has done on 20 different occasions this season. He doesn’t look like the frazzled goaltender from his younger years in Columbus and he doesn’t draw near the ire he had when he was struggling to find his game with the Blue Jackets. Even if this season, and not last, is the deviation from his normal ability, it all but proves that something has clicked for the goaltender. He has found his game again.
Once known as a nightmare destination for goaltenders, it looks like Philadelphia has become the place for Mason to recapture his dreams. If he keeps improving, maybe the trade will look like one of the better moves former Flyers GM Paul Holmgren made during his tenure. For Mason, maybe it’s a sign that a change of scenery was all he needed to become the goaltender he looked like he could be.