Monday, November 21, 2011

Columbus Players Look to Goalie for Confidence

This will not be an admission of being wrong.  In fact, I long discussed this fact last year while Mason and Garon shared time in net for the Jackets, but it is getting impressively accurate at this point.  The team flat out plays better when Mason is not in net.  I have read a lot of discussion regarding Mason's time being done in Columbus, and I feel like I have been looking at it entirely the wrong way.  Where I looked at it as an inability for him to simply take over games the way he did in his Calder year, I really needed to start considering the simple mentality of the team in front of him.

I think this team can function with a mid level goaltender behind them.  When they are structurally sound in the defensive end, and the back checkers do their jobs by not allowing trailers to take free shots from the high slot, it seems that the system (when played correctly) allows for even a goalie like Sanford to come in and be competitive.  I've seen this before, with some of the goalies that have passed through the Philadelphia system over the last couple of years.  While they are in need of making quality saves, rarely is the focus solely on them to win games, at least until the playoffs arrive.

If that is the case in Columbus, where a thirty plus goalie who has never really been that significant in his NHL career can come in and create the type of effort in his teammates that Curtis Sanford has, I can't help but wonder whether it's worth making any significant change to the back end right now.  With Dekanich hurt, and Mason recovering from a concussion, the Jackets have the time to wait it out and see if Sanford can continue producing sound goaltending through solid positional hockey, while the players in front of him continue to step up.

That said, there are options. While Mason isn't performing with Columbus this year, he remains around five years below the league wide goaltender average age, and has shown signs of the Mason of old this year.  At 2.9 million for this year and next year, it would not be the worst contract for a team to eat in order to obtain a Calder winning netminder with plenty of potential.  Include the flexibility to deal players like Pahlsson, Brassard, Clitsome, and Huselius, and it becomes reasonably clear that Columbus has the ability to be a viable trading partner to a team with a top tier goaltender, whether it is Backstrom out of Minnesota (with Harding playing well) or Luongo out of Vancouver (with Schneider playing well).

While my optimism for Mason remains consistent in that he can and most likely will become a top tier goaltender within the next few years, he probably needs a change of scenery to do so.  This team has shown their inability to work hard or play sound defensive hockey with him between the pipes (unless that was just them slumping hard) and I certainly wouldn't blame management if they could swing a deal, but I do have expectations.  Sanford is not a number one goaltender and should not be relied on by this team for long stretches of hockey. I can appreciate what he has accomplished over the last couple of weeks, but he has been able to utilize quality positioning over acrobatics to make saves.  Should a team come in and begin moving the puck through the Columbus defense like they were a month ago, Sanford will suffer the same fate Mason did.

Again, this is not an attempt to downplay his success, but he is riding the solid play of Marc Methot, Nikita Nikitin, and a number of other Jackets defensemen who have made a big difference in the way they play the game in their current stretch of success.  In fact, it was Methot who made a number of tremendous plays to block shots that appeared to have Sanford beat.  Shots that we are used to seeing go uncovered and uncontested by the Jackets defense.  Were it not for swift clears, strong positional hockey, and limited blown assignments, I believe a lot of the same experience would be seen with the Sandman in net.  Plays like St Louis' second goal on Sunday are a prime example. Oshie makes a tremendous play to pass it through his legs, however Sanford is overcommitted to a poor percentage angle, and does not have the ability to come back across to make the save on Backes.  I will also fault over commits by Nikitin (he was covering for Clitsome who apparently just wanted to watch the play) and Dorsett for not adjusting to the pinch (although I think this was more of a defensive breakdown).  While I would like to see that save made, I see this as a prime example of a save that hasn't been asked for in the last 5-6 games.

What I do believe, is that age, or background, or whatever statistical feature it is, this team relies on reliability.  That sounds ridiculous, I know, but I think it makes a ton of sense.  They simply cannot function with Mason in net, regardless of what kind of quality he can bring to the ice.  He has folded on them before (for good reason - see: Dallas game) and it would seem that they cannot overcome that.  As much as I think he will succeed, I am finally ready to see a trade involving him, in order to bring in someone who has had strong success and provide the crutch the team needs to play quality hockey.  I think it's an assessment of a fragile team, but I would much rather see them find some success and grow out of it than watch Mason get quit on 60 more times before his current contract expires.

Carry the Flag.

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