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He was a fifth round draft pick in 2006 – and that wasn’t even his first year of draft eligibility.  He’s played just a single NHL game, posting an unimpressive 3.60 GAA and 0.880 SV% over 50 minutes in the major leagues.  Just the season before last, he split time between the ECHL and AHL.  He’s already 25 years old.

“He” is Mark Dekanich, and he has a unique opportunity this season to go from total unknown to NHL starter.

The Columbus Blue Jackets have had a summer of transition, as general manager Scott Howson strives to get the team into the post-season.  The additions of James Wisniewski via free agency and Jeff Carter via trade both represent major upgrades – Carter to the forward corps and Wisniewski to the blue-line.  One area where the team did not opt to make major changes was between the pipes.

Instead, Columbus has decided to roll the dice on a pair of question marks.

Steve Mason, of course, is the incumbent.  Mason’s reputation as a can’t miss prospect has taken a beating over the last few years as his performance has dropped off, but given the relatively weak foundation for that reputation to begin with, that’s not really a surprise.

Back in the summer of 2009, the blog Brodeur is a Fraud pointed to the crumbly basis for Mason’s fame:

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.

Tyler Dellow sliced the numbers differently around the same time:

Even less tangentially related to this topic: Steve Mason posted a .939 save percentage through his first 23 games and .899 thereafter. I know he had mononucleiosis and such but that number should concern Scott Howson and Ken Hitchcock. I wonder what kind of odds I could get on “Steve Mason plays at least 10 games in the AHL in 2009-10″.

Entering 2011-12, we are essentially in the same place.  For the last two seasons, Mason has split playing time with journeyman goaltender Mathieu Garon, and posted back-to-back 0.901 save percentages.  He’s been a major factor in the Blue Jackets’ inability to return to the playoffs, and though he’s still young (Mason turned 23 during last season’s playoffs) it is far from certain that he will breakout this coming year.

Most teams, faced with an uncertain starter and heavy pressure to make the playoffs, employ an experienced backup who can contend for the top job.  Columbus has pursued a different strategy: they brought in unheralded minor leaguer Mark Dekanich from the Predators’ organization.

Despite Dekanich’s lacklustre NHL game, his resume is very strong.  He spent three seasons as the starter at Colgate University, posting excellent (and remarkably consistent) save percentages each year.  Then he hit the ground running as a professional.  In 2008-09, as a first year AHL’er, Dekanich managed a very impressive 0.923 SV%.  He’s played three years in the minors, and last season managed a 0.931 SV% for Milwaukee.

Another item in Dekanich’s favour is his time in the Predators organization.  Nashville has developed a reputation as a goaltending factory, for good reason – few teams have done as good a job of grooming future NHL ‘tenders.  In just the last five seasons, Chris Mason, Dan Ellis, Pekka Rinne and Anders Lindback have emerged as full-time major league goalies in Nashville.

Naturally, there is no guarantee that Dekanich is going to emerge as a special player.  He does, however, boast an impressive resume and is entering a situation where he could get the opportunity to climb quickly.  He’s a guy to keep an eye on in 2011-12.