The lowest ranked goalie for this season based on Hockey Prospectus' VUKOTA projection system is Brian Elliott, which shouldn't be too much of a surprise given the awful .893 save percentage he put up in a season split between Ottawa and Colorado. The second-lowest ranked goalie may be slightly more surprising, especially to fans who don't often get to watch the Columbus Blue Jackets: Steve Mason.
Because of selection bias, it is rare for goalies having bad years to play a lot of minutes. If the netminder is not getting the job done, the coach will usually turn to the backup or ask the GM for help via trade. Sometimes, however, a team has few other options or is willing to gamble on a young goaltender, resulting in poor results over a large number of games.
There were 24 goaltenders in the league last season that faced at least 1,500 shots against (SOGA), and as might be expected, most of them were pretty good goalies. Nineteen of the 24 had a save percentage at league average (.913) or better. Here are the only five that did not:
Only five goaltenders with over 1,500 shots against and a below average save percentage
Rank Name SOGA Save%
20 Jaroslav Halak, STL 1518 .910
21 Jimmy Howard, DET 1830 .908
22 Miikka Kiprusoff, CGY 1935 .906
23 Steve Mason, CBJ 1541 .901
24 Brian Elliott, OTT/COL 1551 .893
Halak is a solid veteran who had a down season on a new team, while Kiprusoff is a formerly great netminder on the decline. Howard is a goalie, who like Mason, was not able to match the heroics of his first full year at the NHL level, but his results were still well above his counterpart in Detroit. Mason and Elliott are noticeably clear of the rest of the field, suggesting that they both received a lot more minutes than they deserved last season.
Mason is projected to put up a GVT of -3.9 in 2011-12, despite the system expecting his games played to go down to just 33.8 games played (again, since goalies who play poorly typically play fewer minutes). In reality, given Columbus' backup tandem of Mark Dekanich and Curtis Sanford, as well as Mason's average of 58 starts per season over his three-year career, he is likely to get much more playing time than that. Elliott, on the other hand, is not expected to play much as Jaroslav Halak's new backup in St. Louis. After adjusting the projected games played numbers to reflect the individual team situations, it seems clear that the projected worst goalie in the league this season by GVT is most likely to be Steve Mason.
It has been quite a fall from grace over the past two seasons for the 2009 Calder Trophy winner. However, the real problem with Mason is not that he had a bad year to follow his terrific rookie campaign. Plenty of goalies have struggled through a down season or perhaps even two before bouncing back to establish themselves as quality starting goalies. Carey Price is probably the best recent example of that. Many observers second-guessed Montreal's decision to anoint Price as their starting goalie last year based on his second- and third-year struggles, but it turned out to be a choice that so far has paid off handsomely for the Habs. The problem is that for every Price, there has been a Jim Carey or Andrew Raycroft who never regained the form of their early career, which is why evaluating young goaltenders is such a difficult task.
The concern with Mason is that he has two and a half seasons' worth of consecutive mediocre play on his track record. After bursting onto the scene with a .938 save percentage in his first two months in November and December 2008, Mason finished the rest of the 2009 season and playoffs at a combined save rate of .902. In the 2009-10 season, he put up a .901 save percentage, and then matched that .901 mark last year. As a result, Mason has been a .901 goalie over his last 4,443 shots. It usually takes a relatively long period of time to know with some degree of confidence what you have in an NHL goalie, but 5,000 shots is generally considered to be a sample size that starts to attain some significance. The uncomfortable implication for Columbus team management is that Steve Mason may actually be a .901 goaltender.
The stats show that it is rare for 20 and 21-year olds to take the league by storm, but once goalies get to age 23 or 24, many of them are already at or near their true talent level. The stats by age since 1995-96 show this effect:
Goaltender save percentages by age (since 1995-96)
Age SOGA Save%
20 6,723 .907
21 18,012 .902
22 38,431 .907
23 49,507 .907
24 60,562 .907
25 76,119 .907
26 85,105 .908
Steve Mason made up a quarter of the age 20 sample himself, and was largely responsible for boosting the average with his .916 seasonal rate in 2008-09. Excluding Mason, the other 20-year olds combined for a .904 save percentage.
There is again a survivorship bias and selection effect at work here, as weak goalies get weeded out over time. The career curve of an individual goalie will tend to have more of a peak, but goalie development is often idiosyncratic. It certainly cannot be assumed, however, that goalies will always continue to improve into their thirties. Many are already in their prime in their mid-twenties.
It seems easy in hindsight to question Columbus' handling of Mason's development. He only played two seasons as a starter at the OHL level, and a grand total of just three games in minor professional leagues. Mason went from playing 12 games as a backup in his draft year to the bright lights of the World Junior Hockey Championships to the even brighter lights of the NHL in just three seasons. Most goalies have to go through a long process of working out the holes in their games and climbing the ladder. To pull off a successful meteoric rise to NHL stardom usually requires both outstanding athleticism and a solid technical base. Mason was drafted and rushed to the NHL on the basis of the former, but observers seem to agree that he has a lot of issues he still needs to work out in his game, particularly with his positioning and how he deals with high shots. Others have focused their criticisms on Mason's preparation and work habits. His mental game has also been questioned, particularly with his high rate of being pulled from games (13 times in the last two seasons). Mason's physical tools and potential still give reason for optimism, but a lot of hard work is still needed in practice to plug the holes in his game.
The best case scenario for Mason is that his career follows the pattern of Cam Ward. Ward's first three seasons in the league at the ages of 21-23 were also pretty mediocre as a whole (.897 save percentage on his first 4,268 regular season shots in the NHL), but like Mason, Ward had a two month stretch where he gained league-wide attention for his excellent play, winning the Conn Smythe Trophy for his stellar performance in the 2006 playoffs. In hindsight, it could easily be argued that Ward's team was also too quick to hand him the starting job based on a short period of success, and that Ward played more minutes than he deserved as a young netminder. However, it didn't seem to hurt him too much in the long run. In season four, Ward took a major step (.916 in 68 games played) and is now one of the better goalies in the league.
The difference in terms of development is that Ward was a three-year junior starter and former CHL goaltender of the year who also dominated the AHL during the 2004-05 Lockout season. In addition, Ward showed clear progress from year to year throughout his career, raising his save percentage each season. In contrast, Mason's progression appears to have been stalled since 2009. If Mason's career path is to follow Ward's, he will need to raise his game substantially in 2011-12.
The Columbus Blue Jackets narrowly outshot their opposition last season, and with league average goaltending would have likely scored nearly the same number of goals as they allowed. While that probably wouldn't have put them into the playoffs in the tough Western Conference (although Dallas missed out by two points despite a -6 goal differential), it certainly would have improved the team's ranking. With the offseason acquisitions of Jeff Carter and James Wisniewski, the Blue Jackets could be in a position where strong goaltending would give them a good shot at sneaking into the playoffs, as they did in 2009. Yet without much proven depth in net behind his starter, GM Scott Howson appears to have bet all his chips on Steve Mason, putting his young goaltender on the hot seat heading into a decisive season that will do much to show whether he is an NHL-caliber talent or whether he merely caught lightning in a bottle as a rookie.
Philip Myrland is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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