Friday, November 4, 2011

A False Narrative: Why a New Goaltender Won't Fix Everything

Steve Mason was bad against Toronto. There is no getting around that fact. This has led to the many Blue Jackets fans crying out for a new starting goaltender, be it Cory Schneider, Jonathan Bernier or even Allen York. This is seen by some as the logical starting place for the moves that need to be made. I understand how they came to this conclusion. Mason is bad, therefore the team doesn't trust him, therefore they play differently, therefore Mason is holding the team back. That string of conclusions is entirely logical. However, it does not track with how the Blue Jackets have played.

There are a number of signs that a team doesn't trust its goaltender. You will see defensemen hesitate to pinch, so they avoid giving up an odd man rush. Forwards will play deeper in the defensive zone, so they can pick up any extra men and have a better chance to get in shooting lanes to block shots. Forwards and defensemen will be quick to fire the puck off the glass and out, so they avoid costly turnovers in the defensive end. When opponents get shots on net, the whole team will collapse around the goaltender to make sure no rebound goals are scored. I have seen the Blue Jackets play this style of hockey before. They have done this when Allen York has been in net.

More notably, this is how the Blue Jackets played during the 2008-09 season. While Mason built trust over the season, the Blue Jackets were remarkably conservative defensively even after he broke out. They finished the season with the least shots on goal allowed and Mason looked brilliant behind them. The following year, the Blue Jackets appeared to trust Mason more, stopped playing the style that allowed him to succeed, and he has been faltering ever since.

Rewatch the goals from last night. On the first you see James Wisniewski attempting a risky stretch pass from deep in his own end. On the second goal you see Fedor Tyutin attempting a risky stretch pass from deep in his own end (followed by Wisniewski and Tyutin not communicating and Wiz playing a 2 on 2 as if it were a 2 on 1). On the third goal you will see a defensive zone turnover, followed by three Jackets forwards high in the zone. On the fourth goal you see Wisniewski making a risky pinch leading to an odd man rush the other direction. All of the plays leading up to the goals suggests a team that trusts its goaltender. They have played this way all season. This would be acceptable if the Jackets were scoring at a high rate. You can have turnovers and bad pinches if they are leading to goals. That is the risk of run and gun hockey. However, the Jackets have not scored enough to make up for the high number of good opportunities going the other direction.

Swapping Mason with another goaltender will only help if the Jackets dramatically alter their style of play or the goaltender is one of the leagues elite players. The elite players aren't going anywhere, and the only players who could be had wouldn't be enough to singlehandedly bring the Jackets to the playoffs. A new goaltender won't suddenly inspire the Blue Jackets to score more goals, as they have continued to play aggressive offensively. What could change is more responsible defensive play, in which Mason has shown the ability to thrive. Mason has a lot of talent and is still very young. Further, he is also reasonably priced, as his $2.9M cap hit puts him at 21st in the NHL. However, he is not a workhorse goaltender. His ability at this point is that of a member of a tandem. That was the plan going into this season, but Mark Dekanich has not been healthy to provide the other half of that tandem. Making a panic move for another goaltender is premature until we see if Dekanich can be a 1A to Mason's 1B, or push Mason enough that he becomes a solid 1A.

I will agree with most CBJ fans that something needs to be done. The problem is that at this point of the season no player who will help will come at the right price. At some point this season, Howson needs to address the lack of defensive depth. Tyutin and Wisniewski are a good pairing, but not good enough to play nearly 30 minutes a night. Methot and Martinek are a decent shutdown tandem, but overmatched as a second unit (plus Martinek's health issues). Clitsome and Russell are third pairing defensemen at best. Savard and Moore have shown flashes, but would benefit from another year in Springfield. Aaron Johnson needs to go, and never wear a Blue Jackets uniform again. Looking at that quick breakdown, it seems clear the Jackets need two more top four defensemen. This is where the changes need to start. Moving one or two of Clitsome/Russell/Methot/Martinek along with draft picks or prospects for two legitimate top four defenders would be a huge boost to the Mason-Dekanich tandem, hopefully making a trade for a goaltender pointless. Or the current roster of Blue Jacket players could buckle down defensively, collapse around the net, avoid defensive zone turnovers and be more judicious of when the defensemen pinch.

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