2010-11 Columbus Blue Jackets Preview: Waiting On Youth
Heading into the 2010-11 season, he's more of a question mark than anything else. For whatever reason, the success just wasn't there for him last season, as he, and the Blue Jackets, stumbled to a last place finish in the Central Division with 79 points, which was also tied for the fourth-worst mark in the NHL.
Mason's save percentage of .901 was 37th out of 44 qualified goaltenders, while his goals against average of 3.08 was 38th. Of course, it wasn't all his doing. The current trend in the NHL is to load up on defense to help negate some of the chances a goaltender has to face; that mindset, of course, is a two-way street, and if a team has a weaker defense that's giving up a lot of shots ... well, that's certainly not going to help the man in the crease.
Working against him last season was the fact Columbus allowed more shots per game, and didn't appear to be anywhere near as sound defensively as it was during its playoff season the previous year. During that rookie campaign, there was some talk/concern as to how much of his success was due to his own ability, or the fact that he was playing in a Ken Hitchcock system that limited the number of quality chances he had to stop.
(For what it's worth, I had a chance to ask Mason about that following his rookie season, and he acknowledged it certainly helped him, but, in the end, you still have to stop the puck).
Whatever the reason, it was a disappointing season for the 21-year-old goaltender. Still, the key there is "21-year-old," and it's important to keep in mind that it's not uncommon for youngsters to struggle at that age when counted on to be their teams unquestioned starting goalie (many of the best goalies in the NHL right now weren't even playing in the league at that age). The only other alternative between the pipes for the Jackets is veteran journeyman Mathieu Garon, so it's obviously a sink-or-swim situation for the club with Mason.
Of course, he's not the only young player on the team that needs to come up big...
STILL WAITING FOR IMPACT FROM TOP-10 PICKS
If there's anything to gain from losing every season, it's the fact it gives you an opportunity to load up on young talent at the top of the draft. Some teams, like Pittsburgh, Chicago and even Washington, were fortunate enough to land franchise-changing players with top picks in recent years, quickly transforming them from bottom-feeders to the cream of the NHL's crop. Others, like the Blue Jackets, haven't been quite as lucky. At least not yet.
In 11 drafts, the Blue Jackets have had 10 picks in the top-10, including this year's selection of Ryan Johansen at No. 4 overall. The others: Rostislav Klesla, Pascal Leclaire, Rick Nash, Nik Zherdev, Alexandre Picard, Gilbert Brule, Derick Brassard, Jakub Voracek and Nikita Filatov.
Leclaire, Brule and Zherdev are no longer with the organization. Nash has established himself as one of the game's best power forwards, and Klesla would be a very solid addition to most team's top-four on the blue line. Other than that, there's a lot of talented players waiting to break out. Hopefully.
The most intriguing name has to be Filatov, the sixth overall pick in 2008. He didn't fit in with Hitchcock's system at all, and doesn't seem to be all that interested (at least not yet) in the defensive aspects of hockey; but his skill level is unquestioned and his offensive potential is seemingly limitless.
After playing in just 13 of the first 19 games last season, the Blue Jackets allowed Filatov to play the remainder of the season in Russia with CSKA Moscow of the KHL, where he scored 13 goals in 22 games ... which is no small feat for a 20-year-old in Russia. General manager Scott Howson told our Susan Slusser back in August that he still has to earn a spot on the team, but if he does make it and is able to tap into his ridiculous talent, he's the type of (potential) offensive force that can be a huge difference maker.
BRUTAL CENTRAL DIVISION
Best division in hockey? If not, it's certainly in the discussion. Columbus' divisional rivals include the past three Western Conference representatives in the Stanley Cup Finals (Detroit twice and Chicago ... they've combined to win two of the past three Cups), a consistently competitive Nashville team, and a St. Louis club that finished last season with 90 points (after a dreadful start) and added goaltender Jaroslav Halak in the offseason.
Twenty-four games against these teams will not be fun.
ANTOINE VERMETTE: NO. 1 CENTER?
For years now, people (myself included) have been waiting for the Blue Jackets to find a "No. 1 center." Derick Brassard was thought to be that guy for a while (and, hey, he still could be) but it hasn't really worked out. In late August, the folks at Blue Jackets blog The Cannon made a compelling argument that the top-line center may already be on the roster in the form of Antoine Vermette, who was acquired two years ago at the trade deadline for goaltender Pascal Leclaire.
The 28-year-old is coming off a career year (his first full season with Columbus) that saw him score 27 goals to go with 38 assists. His 65 points were 21st among all NHL centers, while he was even more impressive at even strength, tallying 51 of his points, good enough for seventh among all centers. Not bad. He's also responsible defensively and a stellar faceoff man (in March, Behind The Net found that he was one of the best faceoff takers in the NHL since 1997).
An elite center? No way, but still a very solid all-around player that's not completely out of place as a top-line pivot. It's also a trade that definitely worked out in Columbus' favor.