Total Pro Sports – With the playoff lives of so many teams hanging in the balance and the never-ending debate of who’s the best player in the league still ongoing, there’s one thing we can all be certain of. Steve Mason is a lock for the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie. He was a lock a month ago. He’s a lock today. And he’ll be a lock at the NHL awards ceremony on June 18.
Yes there’s still nearly a month of the regular season remaining and the Columbus Blue Jackets remain a playoff bubble team, but can there really be any debate that Mason has been the NHL’s best first-year player this season? The tried and true method of statistics-based analysis certainly backs his case.
Entering Friday’s action, Mason was 2nd among all NHL netminders in goals-against average (2.19) and 7th in the league in save percentage (.920). His 27 wins this season rank 10th among all goalkeepers while his 9 shutouts are far and away the most in the league. (Four separate goalies are tied for 2nd with 6 blankings).
But Mason’s contributions go far beyond the numbers and rankings. With just 15 regular season games remaining, the Oakville, Ontario native has helped put Columbus in a position to make the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. The Blue Jackets are currently 6th in the Western Conference with an overall record of 34-27-6 and remain 4 standings points up on current postseason outsiders Minnesota, Dallas and Anaheim.
Columbus has allowed the 9th fewest goals-against in the NHL this season (186) and Mason has been the rock in the season-long defensive effort. And when the going gets tough? Mason gets going. The former 3rd round pick back in 2006 is 9-4-2 this season when the Jackets surrender 30 or more shots against and is an astounding 3-1 when Columbus gives up 40 or more shots.
Mason has also saved some of his best hockey this season for some of the league’s stiffest competition. Playing in the Central Division, the Jackets face the defending Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings 6 times this season. With the final regular season meeting still remaining, Mason is already 3-1 against the Wings having allowed just 8 goals against while posting a .944 save percentage. Most recently, the Calder hopeful out dueled the leading candidate for the Vezina trophy as the league’s top goaltender in Tim Thomas in turning aside all 35 Boston shots he faced in a 2-0 blanking of the B’s this past Tuesday.
There are of course several other legitimate Calder candidates this season, such as Chicago’s Kris Versteeg, Anaheim’s Bobby Ryan and fellow netminder, Pekka Rinne in Nashville. But none have had the kind of impact that Mason has delivered. Versteeg and Ryan both have plenty of offensive support in Chicago and Anaheim respectively while Nashville remains the little engine that could year after year. Meanwhile, in Columbus, the Blue Jackets are on the verge of postseason play for the first time in franchise history and while it’s been a team effort, it’s hard to argue they’d be where they are today without Mason.
The Blue Jackets expected 2007-08 standout netminder Pascal Leclaire to pick up right where he left off last season. Unfortunately, his 3.83 GAA and .867 save % were a far cry from the dazzling 2.25 and .919 marks he produced a season ago. And so the job fell to Mason. And he’s been so razor sharp in the role that Columbus moved Leclaire to the Ottawa Senators at the trade deadline for scoring support up front in the form of Antoine Vermette.
There’s still obviously plenty of time left for Columbus’ playoff hopes to give way to more perennial postseason participants like Dallas or Anaheim. Yet it seems unlikely with Mason between the pipes. And so it’s only fitting that as Columbus sits on the verge of team history, Mason sits at the doorstep of doing something only 4 other goaltenders have accomplished in the last 25 years – win the Calder Memorial Trophy.