Through 42 games played, the Columbus Blue Jackets are in 9th place in a crowded Western Conference. Insert Jim Mora here. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p3-eavMSBnk Yes, Jim. The Blue Jackets faithful have that "p-word" on their minds, thanks in large part to a 20-year-old kid from Oakville, Ontario, Canada. The first half of the 2008-2009 Columbus Blue Jackets season can be summed up in three words: Steve Freakin' Mason.
Pardon the pun that has probably been overused so far this season, but this kid has been simply a-Mason. So far, in 25 games, he's 15-9-1 with a ridiculous 1.75 goals-against-average, a .938 save percentage, and an even more ridiculous six shutouts in 25 games. In 22 of the team's 25 games, Mason has allowed three goals or less.
What gives Jackets fans reason to believe? The answer again is Steve Mason. Take Friday January 9 for example. The severely shorthanded Jackets went in to our nation's capital to take on a Capitals team that was 18-1-1 at home this season. On paper, it was a mismatch to say the least. Without Rick Nash, Kristian Huselius, Rostislav Klesla, Jason Chimera, and Derick Brassard, Steve Mason put together a 45-save gem to shutout the high-powered Capitals 3-0. Mason had 18 saves in each of the first and third periods. To top it off, Mason was questionable for that evening's game with upper body muscle spasms. It was Mason's second shutout of the sixth most powerful offense in the league, in terms of goals scored per game.
The question is, how long can the Blue Jackets ride Steve Mason? Perennial team leading scorer Rick Nash was placed on IR retroactive to January 6 with an ankle injury on January 12. Derick Brassard is out for the year after season-ending shoulder surgery. The most creative player on the team, Kristian Huselius, is just now returning from a concussion. Rusty Klesla continues to be bit by the injury bug was placed on IR again on January 5. He has played just 18 of the team's 42 games. Jason Chimera, one of the team's leading energy guys, has been on the shelf since mid-December with a groin injury.
In wake of all of the injuries, rookie Nikita Filatov will be called upon to carry the flag for the beleaguered offense. Fresh off an eight-goal performance in the World Junior Hockey Championships in Ottawa, Filatov popped his first career hat trick this past weekend against Minnesota. It was also the first hat trick in Jackets' history for a rookie. He will bring much needed help to a team that has had the league's worst powerplay almost all season, hovering around the 10% mark.
This past offseason, Scott Howson tried his best to compete with the shortcomings of his team during the free agency signing period. Columbus is not an ideal place for most players to play and Columbus needs to be very wary of who they throw money at and for how many years. After losing out on guys like Wade Redden, Brian Campbell, and Michal Roszival, Howson settled on Mike Commodore, a 30-year-old defenseman who had never scored more than 29 points in a season and had never been counted on to play over 20 minutes per game against other teams' best lines.
On July 1, the Jackets signed Mike Commodore to a five-year $18.75M deal. In the first year of that contract, Commodore has been spectacular. Through 42 games, he has 18 points and is a +10. He is one of four Jackets to play in all 42 of the team's games. Commodore has provided stability to a weak backline for the Jackets and adds some veteran leadership.
The other big free agent acquisition was Kristian Huselius. Huselius has underachieved a bit, as he only has 25 points in 39 games, specifically, only 5 points on the powerplay. After eclipsing 65 points each of the last two seasons, the Jackets will need Huselius to gel with his teammates in the second half for them to get enough offense to stay in the picture, even with Mason.
Scott Howson was also forced to get creative this past offseason and help the blue line through trade. Fedor Tyutin has been a pleasant addition to the team, being one of the other Jackets to play in all 42 games. He's chipped in 18 points from the blue line and has played solid despite his -1. Also acquired in the same trade that sent Nikolai Zherdev and Dan Fritsche to the Big Apple, defenseman Christian Backman has really underachieved this season when taking in to account his $3.5M price tag. Backman has just 4 points in 39 games.
Howson also shipped his 2008 first round and third round draft picks to bring former Buckeye R.J. Umberger back to Columbus. Umberger has fallen into the role of the top line center with Derick Brassard's injury and has done admirable, with 21 points in 42 games. If nothing else, Howson got five guys who have stayed pretty healthy, all in all, for the Jackets this season.
With all of that sinking in, one has to ask, what do the Jackets have to do to make their first postseason appearance in franchise history?
First, Steve Mason must stay healthy and must continue to play well. The offseason investment in Pascal Leclaire has not gone as planned. Leclaire has played just 12 games for Columbus, and his injuries led the way for Mason to enter the starting role. Without a reliable backup, the grind will continue to get to Steve Mason. In his first full season as an NHL goaltender, he will wear down at some point. Either Leclaire will need to get healthy, or Scott Howson will need to make a move to get a reliable veteran backup to play ten or so games down the stretch.
Second, the Jackets simply need to get healthy. As of January 12, 95 of the team's 232 points are injured. That accounts for over 40% of the offense that the Jackets have as a team. When Huselius missed two games with the concussion symptoms, that meant over 60% of the offense was gone. The injuries force players out of their comfort zone and make a bad powerplay even worse.
Third, Columbus's defensemen need to continue to overachieve. It's safe to say that Jan Hejda is not a +14 player. Marc Methot is not a +11 player. But if they continue to play together in Coach Ken Hitchcock's system and allow Mason to see shots, they have a chance to win only scoring three goals a night.
Fourth, if the Jackets are still in the playoff chase in late February, Scott Howson needs to improve the team any way he can. The McConnell family has already agreed to allow a payroll increase. Rumors have already circulated about the team adding a veteran centerman like Doug Weight, but the Jackets need an impact player at the deadline. Howson has stated that he would move the team's first round pick, if necessary, to acquire what they need. Jay Bouwmeester is an unrestricted free agent from the Florida Panthers. If Florida falls out of the playoff picture, he's a perfect fit on defense for Columbus. Other defensemen could include Jassen Cullimore and Nick Boynton, also both from Florida, or Sean O'Donnell from Los Angeles. Most of the forwards are depth guys, which Columbus is stocked with already. Andy McDonald is the best centerman set to become a UFA at season's end on a team that may not make the postseason. But a great faceoff guy like Mike Sillinger would be a good trade going forward and wouldn't cost more than a second or third rounder. A backup goaltender like Olaf Kolzig or Mathieu Garon would come cheap and take some of the burden off of Steve Mason.
All things considered for the Blue Jackets, they have to take the first half as a success. Battling through injuries, and having your starting goaltender, fresh off a contract extension, go down again is very difficult to do. Luckily, Steve Mason has come into the picture and taken full advantage of his opportunity. It has vaulted the Jackets to where they are and the rest of the team will need to help him out for them to have a shot at the (Mr. Mora?) playoffs come April.