On the Steve Mason Contract

Scott Lewis recently posted a link to a Puck Daddy article commending the recent Steve Mason re-signing by Columbus GM Scott Howson. I am personally a lot more skeptical about the deal for a number of reasons.

First of all, the player’s reputation as a legitimate starter is likely built on an aberrant chunk of performances near the beginning of his career. This was revealed by the Contrarian Goaltender as early as April 2009:

Rookie Steve Mason has been getting a lot of awards attention this year. He is very likely to win the Calder Trophy, but there has also been some buzz about him being in the Vezina race as well, and I have even seen his name getting brought up in connection with the Hart Trophy.

Mason has some interesting splits stats that I think should be highlighted, and that may lead to some further discussion over whether he really deserves those accolades or not. For one thing, Mason has not been very consistent at all. The main reason for his excellent season is that he was absolutely lights-out in December (7-5-0, 1.41, .950, 3 SO). Since January 1, however, he has slowed considerably. The team has still been winning with him in net (20-11-6), but Mason’s other numbers have been fairly ordinary in the New Year: .908 and 2.51.

The criticism turned out to be a prescient one. Indeed, outside of that one month, Mason has thus far been consistently mediocre. To better illustrate, here’s a plotting of Mason’s save percentage in each of the 127 games he’s appeared in thus far:

The trend line is a rolling average of Mason’s save percentage. The spike from about games 10-25 is the obvious aberration – it’s also obviously the month of December noted above. Aside from that outburst, Mason has hovered around a .900 SV% for a majority of his time in the NHL. It should go without saying that .900 is not a save percentage worth keeping on an NHL roster, let alone worth paying for. One therefore has to reason that the first 30 games of Mason’s career are more indicative of his true ability than the following 97. Goalie’s results tend to bounce around a lot, so it’s certainly possible. Still, that’s not what I would call a sound bet: the majority of information we have on Mason indicates his Calder trophy was more fluke than actual ability.

In addition, while the contract at a cap hit of $2.9 million isn’t prohibitively expensive, it seems unnecessarily pricey in light of the soft recent goaltender market. For example, here is a list of goalies that were signed this summer, including their resultant cap hits and their even strength save percentage over the last two seasons:

Marty Turco – ($1.30M) – .908, .926

Dan Ellis – ($1.50M) – .919, .921

Chris Mason – ($1.85M) – .927, .917

Antero Niittymaki – ($2.00M) -.927, .919

Carey Price – ($2.75M) – .920, .921

Steve Mason – ($2.90M) – .925, .911

Masons’ rookie rate of .925 is near the upper bounds of this sample, although keep in mind it was on the back .950 SV% December which he has never repeated. Aside from that, his contract is the most expensive and he doesn’t appear to be a superior option to any of the guys listed. Because of the accolades he won as a rookie (which remain fresh in the psyche of hockey fans and general managers everywhere), Howson nevertheless ended up paying at the top end of the market despite Mason’s giant step backwards as a sophomore.

The primary rationale behind signing Mason now must be betting on potential, a gamble a lot of GM’s have started taking in the post lock-out NHL in an effort to squeeze some value years out a youngsters contract before he experiences enough success to demand the moon in negotiations. It’s entirely possible Howson wanted to ink Mason coming off a bad season in order to avoid the youngster bouncing back and having the hammer when they returned to the bargaining table. That’s a fair bet if one grants that Mason is set to experience a significant rebound (which I don’t).

If Mason isn’t significantly better this year, the Blue Jackets have needlessly overpaid for what was a rather plentiful commodity this off-season. A more sensible strategy would have been to sign an insurance policy in the form of, say, a Chris Mason or Dan Ellis and then use Steve Mason’s performance this coming season as a gauge of his abilities and value going forward. That plan would have built some redundancy in net in case Mason falls on his face again (a not trivial consideration for a team desperate for some success) and would have added another important data point in the youngsters career. The only way the team loses is Steve completely knocks it out the park and establishes himself as a truly better than average goaltender. Again, possible…but not necessarily probable.

In the end, a two year, $2.9 million per year deal isn’t going to sink or save the club one way or the other. It strikes me as an inefficient use of funds for an organization like Columbus that no doubt has a firm eye on the bottom line though.