Steve Mason tried to put on a happy face in front of the cameras Tuesday. But while the Winnipeg Jets managed to reach new heights, there was no denying what a miserable season this was for the veteran netminder on a personal level.
And how much it’s clouded his future.
Mason, 29, signed a lucrative two-year deal worth US$8.2 million last summer and was essentially handed the starting job out of training camp. What followed next was basically a lost season.
He played in just 14 of his team’s 99 games, winning just five. And he was repeatedly sidelined with a variety of ailments, including two concussions, a knee injury and an ongoing back issue that required cortisone injections. All of this while the backup to start the year, Connor Hellebuyck, essentially stole his job and became a Vezina Trophy finalist.
“It was a very frustrating season. You know, it was a totally new experience not playing a lot, being hurt so much. So that was difficult to adjust to, especially early on. It was a new situation being a backup. Trying to learn how to handle a lighter workload and playing once every 10 days. That was difficult to get used to,” Mason said.
The Jets certainly weren’t expecting to pay Mason that much money to play just over a dozen games. Yet, with Hellebuyck’s emergence, is it realistic to expect Mason’s role to increase much next year? If not, would he potentially be a candidate for a buyout that could clear some much-needed salary-cap space?
According to the man who signed Mason to the deal, there’s no chance of that happening. “I don’t sit here and anticipate that a buyout is a course of action I’d take with Steve Mason. Steve Mason’s a capable No. 1 goaltender in the NHL. He signed with us knowing, and we were very upfront with him, that this was going to be about winning, whether it was him or whoever and there was going to be competition to win,” Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff said on Tuesday.
“We have the Finland trip next year that basically takes probably eight or nine days out of your schedule where you’re not playing any games, so there’s going to be a payback at some point in time, somewhere during the season,” Cheveldayoff said. “Steve is a real pro and there’s a lot left for him with respect to being a No. 1 goaltender in the NHL.”
As far as Mason is concerned, he’s coming to training camp ready to fight for increased work. “I’d like to just take a pill and have my body go back to what it was when I was 15 years old,” Mason said. “Yeah, definitely have to take care of it this summer. Because I wouldn’t want to go through another season like this, missing so much time with all the injuries. So definitely a big summer to kind of revamp the body a little bit and come in next year healthy.”
Mason has had at least three concussions in his NHL career but believes a mask change late in the season will help prevent a fourth. Both concussions this season came as a result of taking pucks to the head.
“Hopefully I don’t have to deal with those in the future,” he said. “I’d like to come in next year and not have to deal with being on the IR so many times. I’d love to be healthy and I’d like to play a lot more hockey than I did this year.”
Despite playing such a limited role, Mason said he has no regrets about signing in Winnipeg. “I tried to make the most of it, to be a good guy around the locker room. As hard as it was this season, I had a lot of fun,” he said.
Mason was also quick to sing the praises of Hellebuyck, who had a terrific regular season and two strong playoff rounds before fading a bit in the five-game loss to Vegas. He was asked whether fatigue may have played a role, considering Hellebuyck played in 84 games. “I’m sure at that stage of the game everybody’s tired, but I couldn’t have been more impressed with him all season long. Just the overall consistency that he had. He played well in the playoffs, gave the team a chance to win, but Vegas found a way to capitalize on their chances,” Mason said. “I don’t think anybody’s going to look back on playoffs and say Connor didn’t play well. He played extremely well, especially his first go at it. “
Now the burning question is what role Mason might play in it. “The season didn’t pan out the way I had personally hoped for, but I thoroughly enjoyed my time here this year. It was such a fun group to be part of,” he said. “A lot to be proud of. It can also be a good learning curve for us understanding how difficult playoffs (are) and how hard it is to get to that next step. The group should have a lot of confidence going into next year, and there should be good things to come, as well.”
Read more by Mike McIntyre.