He's been a revelation, providing the Columbus Blue Jackets with stellar goaltending numbers as the team tries to make the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time. Suddenly, there's a new caged-face challenging the field for a postseason trophy of personal achievement ...
The assessment above could describe rookie goalie Steve Mason's first 22 games in the NHL with the Jackets. Then again, it could describe the first 22 games of Pascal Leclaire's remarkable start for Columbus in the 2007-08 season.
Mason's rise to Calder Trophy candidacy mirrors Leclaire's rise to Vezina contender last season, and not just because both were meteoric and unexpected. An analysis of their respective first 22 starts reveals strikingly similar numbers; which, considering the style of play the Jackets employ under Coach Ken Hitchcock, begs the eternal question for modern day goaltenders: Is it the goalie, or is it the system in which he plays, that produces such amazing success?
For years, critics took issue with Brodeur's record-breaking seasons because the New Jersey Devils played the trap. Advocates said that his skills set and natural talent were the reasons why the system worked; detractors said the system and the defensive talent in front of him "made" Brodeur, and that any quality goalie could have excelled in net for the Devils. (The fact that career backup Scott Clemmensen is playing to a 2.21 GAA and a .924 save percentage in relief of Brodeur this season has no doubt muddled the debate.)
Last season on FanHouse, JP compared Leclaire to Brodeur as goalies that benefitted from the system in front of them:
According to the brilliant Allan Ryder of HockeyAnalytics.com, the Blue Jackets had the lowest quality of shots faced of any team in the League (here's the PDF containing the source for that stat). What this means is that the Jackets had the highest percentage of shots against coming from low-risk areas (say, the half-boards) versus high-risk areas (the top of the crease, for example) of any team in the League. Combine that with the fact that C'bus faced the sixth-fewest shots per game in the League and Columbus, concludes Ryder, was the third-best defensive team in the NHL last season (San Jose and Detroit were first and second, respectively).
Hitchcock is still the Jackets' coach, but Leclaire is no longer the primary goalie. Injuries derailed Leclaire's season in 2007-08 (even if he still earned a spiffy contract extension the Jackets no doubt now regret). They also allowed Mason to basically steal Leclaire's job this season.
Who was better in his first 22 games? Here's Leclaire last season vs. Mason this year:
Pascal Leclaire, 2007-08
Steve Mason, 2008-09
Beyond that, the numbers aren't that far off from each other; especially when you add in the fact that both Leclaire and Mason had exactly 12 games into which they posted a GAA under 2.00.
Having seen Mason play a few times this season, I can say that the defense in front of him has been solid to the point of limiting great chances; at the same time, the offense hasn't been what Leclaire was given last season, as Pascal was the beneficiary of 13 starts in which the Jackets scored three or more goals while Mason's had just eight.
But there's no denying the stellar play of a kid leading the league in GAA (1.81) and save percentage (.933). According to the Columbus Post Dispatch, there's also more observational praise for Mason from around the League:
Said one NHL Central Division coach: "Even as a 5-foot-10 guy, with the way he moves, he would have been an excellent goaltender. Now add five inches to him. He moves the puck with hockey sense. He has an idea of where the puck should go, and a lot of goaltenders don't have that."
Kelly Hrudey, a 14-year NHL goaltender who now works as a commentator for Hockey Night in Canada, sees something special. "Mason is one of these goaltenders who is all about technique, but only to a certain point," Hrudey said. "Like (Roberto) Luongo and (Miikka) Kiprusoff, at some point he's totally willing to abandon his technique and make a save in any way possible. ... He doesn't just rely on being in the right position. He's athletic enough to make a special save, too. We've seen that already from him."
Kris Versteeg's Derick Brassard's injury, Steven Stamkos's flop and the inherent difficulty for a defenseman to win the hardware, Mason is leading the Calder race by default. (Kris Versteeg being his best competition right now.)
That said, it's more than fair for Calder Trophy voters to take into account that Mason is playing in a system that doesn't exactly leave its goalies out to dry -- the Jackets are currently sixth in the League for least shots allowed.
But if playing in a defensive system mattered to Calder voters, then Brodeur wouldn't have won one.