Like every other Columbus Blue Jackets fan, I’m waiting (OK, not so patiently) for the conclusion of the Rick Nash Trade Saga. You know, the one that was supposed to end with the February trade deadline. And then last month’s NHL draft. And then after Zack Parise and Ryan Suter signed with Minnesota.
But it’s not ending, and informed parties are suggesting that you might want to bring a pillow because it’s going to take a while, so let’s talk about another perplexing piece of the Blue Jackets puzzle for 2012-13: Goaltender Steve Mason.
As a little background on my perspective on Mase: My first job out of college was a continuation of my pre-senior year summer internship. The person I succeeded went and married the office director, so a seat magically emptied in the bullpen (no nepotism, please!). I was an easy and quick hire, so they slotted me in.
It was a decent job, one that paid peanuts but allowed me to continue the transformation from the amusement park feel of university life into the cold, cruel world of work. By that, I means that I learned how to work. I then learned how to work hard. Over time, I figured out how to work with other people in an employment environment. I had some successes and screwed up on occasion. I made mistakes. At first, I refused to admit the mistakes. I grew over time, and my co-workers watched me grow. Sometimes, I shudder to think what they thought of me.
It was during my second job’s interview process where I heard the most profound management perspective of my young professional life. The man who hired me admitted that he preferred to hire young adults who were a few years out of school because they had probably been forced to understand what the world is really about and developed a work ethic and attitude commensurate with their fast-developing professional maturity. College grads…their heads were still in the clouds, he said. They expected the world to be handed to them on a silver platter. Almost to a man/woman, they had to fall down. Hard. They had to make mistakes and realize that they made them. This is tough stuff, and the man who hired me admitted he had neither the time nor patience for coddling his workers. He wanted workers.
I tell you that to remind you of this:
1. Steve Mason played only three seasons in junior hockey – yet only one full season.
2. Steve Mason played only 3 games in the AHL before being called up to Columbus.
3. Steve Mason, at 20 years old, was thrown into the fire perhaps as harshly as any young goaltender in recent memory – playing in 61 of the team’s 82 games as Ken Hitchcock and Scott Howson beat him like a rented mule in the drive to the Blue Jackets’ only playoff appearance.
4. At the conclusion of his fourth NHL season in 2011-12, Steve Mason was only 23 years old.
I think you get my point: Mason is still young. He has a terrific frame, built perhaps like the prototypical NHL goaltender. He has some technical skill. If Ian Clark’s work with him over the past season showed me anything, it’s that he’s teachable. And I’ll repeat it for effect: He’s young.
Seriously, what were you doing at 23 years old? At 23 years old, I barely was figuring out the game of life. I was looking for my second job, hoping that this man with whom I was interviewing thought I had the stuff to help him succeed…and that he wouldn’t stop by the office at my first job to get a feel for me, because I had no idea what they would say.
Even if Mason can get his mind to the level that resembles what my second job interviewer was looking for (a maturing young professional and not a kid filled with unrealistic expectations), I’m not sure that his compadres in the locker room will acknowledge that by now. They’ve gone through his growing pains right along with him, and both his on-ice record and demeanor suggests that “pains” might be an understatement.
Sure, Mason was saddled with Scott Arniel’s “single pylon” defensive scheme for a season and a half, effectively shredding his confidence. Sure, Mason’s blue line resembled the Maginot Line more often than not over the past three seasons, leaving him out on an island feeling something like Tom Hanks and his pal Wilson. And sure, Mason probably didn’t shoulder enough of the blame for his poor performances, which can’t go over well in the locker room. Add all that together, and you tell me how he can regain the trust of his teammates, the fans and the Blue Jackets management, which has been patient to a fault with him. Simply put, Mason spent his AHL learning years at the NHL level in Columbus.
No, Mason’s got to go get that second job. He needs to put all the baggage behind him and move on. Hopefully he can find a team with a functional defense and a goalie coach who can deprogram bad habits and defeated attitudes in addition to teaching proper technique. (Like figuring out how to defend glove side high.)
More than any other hockey player I can think of, Steve Mason desperately needs a fresh start. I honestly believe that Steve Mason will be a good NHL goaltender someday, perhaps soon if the stars align. As much as I’d like it to be here, I just don’t think that Mason will reach his potential in Columbus. Even if he gets his game turned around here, many of his teammates will continue to look at him as the less mature version of what he hopefully is now.
Let’s just hope some optimistic NHL team can overlook the $3 million salary and see the talent that lies inside. Because I’m a huge sucker for redemption stories.