Steve Mason has had himself a difficult summer. On June 30, one day shy of the one-year anniversary of the veteran netminder putting pen to paper on a two-year, $8.2-million contract with the Jets, Winnipeg shipped Mason to Montreal. That same day, the Canadiens placed him on buyout waivers. And by the time the silliness of signing season's opening day was over, Mason, who had seemingly vaulted up the list of available free-agent keepers, remained out of work.
As the off-season has worn on, not a thing has changed for Mason, either. July came and went without the 30-year-old signing a new deal. August brought the same. And now, days into September and with NHL training camps on the horizon, Mason is still looking for work, left without a place to play with opening night of the new campaign one month away.
It’s awfully puzzling, too, that Mason remains without a home for this season. Since July 1, nearly 30 free-agent goaltenders have signed a contract, ranging from short-term deals for potential starting netminders like Jonathan Bernier and Carter Hutton to two-way, depth contracts signed by on-the-cusp NHLers such as Michael Hutchinson. Yet not one team has made the move to bring Mason aboard, and one can't help but wonder why that's the case for a netminder who's not all that far removed from three seasons of above-average save percentages and a top-10 Vezina finish.
One explanation might be that there’s an issue of health and readiness. Last season, Mason was only able to suit up in 13 games for the Jets. There is, to be sure, an aspect of his place on the depth chart in that. Mason was brought in as the 1A to Connor Hellebuyck’s 1B in Winnipeg, but the roles were quickly reversed as the younger netminder played his way into a top-three spot in Vezina voting last season. But beyond losing work to Hellebuyck, Mason also missed 28 games due to a concussion and was sidelined by a knee injury for 13 games. And with half of his past season washed away, it might make sense why some teams chose to go with keepers who had seen more action last season, be it in either the big league or minor league circuits.
In the business of winning, though, the better explanation might be Mason’s dwindling performance. On a base statistical level, there’s some merit to that argument, too. Over the past two seasons, across 71 games and 66 starts, Mason has struggled mightily. His .908 SP and 2.76 GAA rank 44th and 36th, respectively, among the 54 netminders with 41 games played over the past two seasons, though he has managed a winning 31-27-9 record since the start of the 2016-17 campaign. However, what should be noted is that Mason’s numbers are still better than those of Petr Mrazek, Chad Johnson and Cam Ward over the past two seasons — and better than those of June signings Louis Domingue, Antti Niemi and Calvin Pickard — yet each of those netminders managed to ink pacts for at least the upcoming season, if not beyond.
But it’s because we’re in the era of advanced statistics that Mason’s continued unemployment is all the more bizarre. While his base numbers leave much to be desired over the past two seasons, his standing among netminders at even strength over the past several seasons is remarkable. With a .927 SP at even strength, Mason is only narrowly outside the top five goaltenders since the beginning of the 2013-14 campaign and the company he keeps is impressive, to say the least. Among his counterparts at evens are Tuukka Rask, Braden Holtby, Jonathan Quick and Roberto Luongo.
And even if his play at evens is limited to the past two seasons, years that Mason assuredly wants to put behind him, he still finds himself among a decent class of starting netminders. He ranks 40th among the 54 netminders with at least 41 games played, but his .918 SP at evens is the same as that of Cory Schneider, Henrik Lundqvist and Craig Anderson and better than that of Semyon Varlamov, Martin Jones and Jaroslav Halak.
The specifics of a pact for Mason could be part of the issue when it comes to finding work. It’s unlikely that Mason, who will be paid out just shy of $1.4 million in each of the next two seasons as the result of his buyout, would willingly take a pittance to sign on with a club next season, particularly when the likes of Ward ($3 million) and Mrazek ($1.5 million) signed for well clear of league minimum despite coming off of difficult campaigns. The reality, however, is that Mason’s bargaining power is likely declining with crease work limited and depth charts filling up as the summer has worn on. And maybe that’s why Mason has been forced to wait and wait patiently.
The good news for Mason, though, is that it’s almost impossible to fathom a scenario in which he remains out of work deep into the campaign. If he’s not scooped up in the coming weeks on a professional tryout agreement or if he’s not signed by late pre-season, Mason is going to get the call the moment a starting netminder or sturdy backup falls injured. He’s the most qualified keeper still on the market, arguably the remaining UFA who could make the greatest impact, and it’s only a matter of time before Mason finds a home for next season.