The expert consensus was that Steve Mason was a laughable solution to Philadelphia’s seemingly eternal goalie woes. Twenty-seven games into his Flyers career, nobody’s laughing.
Mason’s play to date in Philadelphia hasn’t just surpassed expectations for him. It has blown past what would have been expected if general manager Paul Holmgren had managed to pluck Henrik Lundqvist himself out of New York and placed him in the Flyers’ net.
Mason has provided his team with Vezina-caliber play, often while the defence in front of him was disintegrating. And in so doing, he’s given those commentators (including yours truly) who predicted that he would be a disaster at least a small dose of humble pie.
The real question is not about what Mason has done over a relatively short span of time, however. The real question is whether he can maintain this level of play.
There is no certain answer to that question, but there are only, really, two options.
The first is “no, he can’t.” This answer has some obvious merits. Mason’s numbers have been pretty awful outside of his rookie season, something that has been pointed out before:
As a general rule of thumb the long-term track record with goalies significantly outweighs the short-term results. Not only that, but the typical goaltending age curve suggests that Mason has passed the point where most goalies continue improving.
The second possibility is “yes, he can” or “perhaps not at this level, but he’s still likely to be better than he was.” It’s an answer that leans less on general rules and typical patterns and more on the realization that each player is an individual.
Every goalie has a unique development track, and Mason simply may have had his "Road to Damascus" moment a little later in his career. Perhaps the trade away from Columbus was the wake-up call the young goaltender needed to revitalize his career.
While we can’t know with certainty which of those answers is correct, what we can do is go back and look at goaltenders that suddenly emerged at around the age of 25. Mason’s development path is unique to him, but if we focus solely on other goalies who had the same sudden spike in performance at around the same age, it might give us an idea as to the most likely outcome.
The NHL started recording save percentage for goalies in the early 1980s, so there is only about three decades' worth of history to look through. If we limit the search to goalies that emerged between the ages of 24 and 26 and further limit it to ones with a substantial NHL track record (say, 2,000 shots) before their breakthrough campaign, we find that Mason is the eighth goalie in recorded NHL history to post this kind of major improvement at around this age (though he’s the fourth in the last three seasons).
Without making any era adjustments, here is what the players in the group look like before and after those breakthrough seasons:
Two goalies got much worse after breakthrough campaigns. Jonathan Quick has faced less than 2,000 regular-season shots since his great 2011-12 season, he’s struggled with injuries and his playoff performance has been awfully good, so the jury is still out on him. Kari Takko played his way out of the league in less than 1,000 shots after his great 1988-89 campaign, so he’s not a lot of help either.
Three goalies trod water. Sergei Bobrovsky went from being a .909-save percentage goalie to winning the Vezina, and in a very short span of time. Jose Theodore was a .905-save percentage goalie over roughly 3,200 shots before he won the Hart with a .931 number; he’s been a .905 goalie over 14,000 shots since. Trevor Kidd’s career is neatly cut in half by his .922 save percentage performance in 1997-98, with matching .898 save percentages on either side.
Two goalies improved. The most dramatic upswing was in Brian Elliott, who went from a career number of .899 to posting a .909 save percentage after his breakout 2011-12 performance. But that last number is only over 700 shots, so it should not be weighted too heavily just yet.
The other improvement is that of Martin Brodeur, who went from “well above average” to “superhuman” in 1996-97. The problem is that the NHL average save percentage climbed faster than Brodeur’s own performance; in fact, the six years following his breakthrough campaign were the worst of the legendary goalie’s career:
In all, Brodeur transitioned from being a .910-save percentage goalie in a .898-save percentage league to being a .912-save percentage goalie in a .907-save percentage league. That isn't an improvement.
In other words, from the data we have, no goalie has managed to pull off the kind of transformation Mason did and use it as a springboard for improved play down the line. The early signs with Elliott are encouraging but far from definitive, and they are countered by a opposite trends in Quick and Bobrovsky.
The most likely outcome is that Steve Mason goes back to being the fringe NHLer he was when the Flyers acquired him. He’s defied prediction before; we’ll see if he can do so again.
All statistics are either by the author or from Hockey-Reference.com and are current as of Dec. 6.