Blue Jackets’ rebound hopes ultimately rest on Steve Mason’s shaky shoulders

Their financial struggles might not draw the same amount of attention as the New York Islanders or Phoenix Coyotes, but the bottom line is that the Columbus Blue Jackets are in a pretty desperate situation themselves. They’re hoping for some government help to keep them from hemorrhaging even more money and maybe even move the team, but one of the most important things that could help them turn around is a deviously simple proposition. They need to put together an actual contending team for once.

Simply put, the Blue Jackets have fallen well short of that mark for just about their entire existence, with the only minor exception being their spirited run to the playoffs in 2008-09 that was immediately squashed by a brutal sweep at the hands of the Detroit Red Wings.

Mason brings down Blue Jackets with him

In a way, that dispiriting sweep highlighted the disturbing possibility that Steve Mason’s impressive rookie season might have been a mirage. Mason has been the definition of a mediocre NHL goalie since then, sporting the save percentage of a backup (.901) and a middling record (44-47-16) during the last two seasons. And to be honest, Mason’s numbers tailed off quite a bit even in that first season; a .916 save percentage would represent a down year for Tomas Vokoun, a goalie the Blue Jackets should have at least flirted with.

Aaron Portzline points out a disturbing fact from the 2010-11 season: Brian Elliott is the only NHL goalie with 50+ starts whose save percentage and goals against average ranked lower than Mason’s marks. While the Blue Jackets are tying a pivotal season to Mason, Elliott might not even win a battle to backup Jaroslav Halak in St. Louis.

Garon’s departure removes face-saving safety net

Speaking of backups, the Blue Jackets took a problematic step back in that department, raising their risk factor that much more. Mathieu Garon escaped to Tampa Bay this off-season after producing virtually identical numbers to Mason last season. Their odds-on backup is Mark Dekanich, a prospect who has exactly one game of NHL experience to his credit.

Looking at this awfully questionable situation, it’s not surprising that Portzline thinks that if Mason goes down in flames, Blue Jackets GM Scott Howson will go down with him.

Before the Twitter neophyte introduced new additions Jeff Carter, James Wisniewski, Vinny Prospal and Radek Martinek to his 5,821 followers, Howson needed to decide whether Steve Mason was still the Blue Jackets goaltender. Not an easy choice for a general manager who has to know another season without the playoffs is likely his last.

Mason was the Calder Trophy winner in 2009 leading the Jackets to their only playoff appearance. He’s been among the league’s most inconsistent players since. He’s resembled a franchise building block on some nights and a guy trying to swat a swarm of bees on others. Of goaltenders with 50-plus appearances, only Brian Elliot had a worse goals against average and save percentage last season.

That doesn’t mean Howson has made the wrong decision. It’s just means the near futures of the goaltender and general manager are irrevocably intertwined. Howson is banking on the improvement of a fourth-year pro who has the pedigree and skills. To make the playoffs, the Blue Jackets don’t need Mason to be a great as he was in 2008-09, but they need him to be much better than he’s been the past two seasons.

I’m not so sure that Mason doesn’t need to be great, at least if you define the complete body of work that was his overrated rookie season as “great.” James Wisniewski and Jeff Carter should give the Blue Jackets more offensive punch, but neither are the kind of two-way players who dominate at both ends. In other words, an already suspect Columbus defense might be even worse next season, especially after they lost a decent defenseman in Jan Hejda and traded one of their other better ones in Rostislav Klesla last season.

The team’s formula calls for them to score a ton of goals while being just good enough in their own end. That all hinges on Mason – and quite frankly – I really don’t like their chances. What do you think, though? Will Columbus make a much-needed run to the playoffs? Let us know in the comments.

The Buzzer: Tuukka Time isn’t running out

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Be sure to visit NBCOlympics.com and NBC Olympic Talk for full hockey coverage from PyeongChang

Players of the Night:

Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins: Remember when people thought Tuukka Time was running out? Rask stopped 28-of-29 against the Flames in a 2-1 overtime win for the Bruins on Monday. Rask, according to Sportsnet Stats, is now 20-2-2 with a 1.83 goals-against average, a .933 save percentage and two shutouts in his last 25 games, 24 of which has been starts.

Pekka Rinne, Nashville Predators: Rinne stopped 36-of-38 to help the Predators back into a tie first place in the Central Division. Rinne, who has won three of his past four starts, picked up his 30th win of the season, the seventh time he’s done so in his career, and fourth season in a row.

Jason Zucker, Minnesota Wild: Zucker notched two tallies in the game, his second and third goals in his past two games, to help the Wild to a much-needed win after dropping their previous two contests.

John Gibson and Ryan Miller, Anaheim Ducks: Gibson left after the second period with a lower-body injury. He made 13 saves. Miller came in for a relief stint and stopped 20 third-period shots for the rare combined shutout, just the second occurrence in team history.

Highlights of the Night:

Poor Erik Karlsson:

Brad Marchand uses his head for some good:

The Chronicles of Rittich:

Factoids of the Night:

MISC:

Scores:

Wild 5, Islanders 3

Capitals 3, Sabres 2

Bruins 2, Flames 1 (OT)

Predators 5, Senators 2

Kings 3, Blackhawks 1

Ducks 2, Golden Knights 0


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

U.S. beats Slovakia 5-1, will play Czechs in Olympic quarters

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GANGNEUNG, South Korea (AP) — Ryan Donato scored two goals, Troy Terry had three assists and the United States beat Slovakia 5-1 in the qualification round Tuesday to advance to face the Czech Republic in the Olympic quarterfinals.

College kids again led the way for the U.S., which scored more against Slovakia then it did in all three preliminary-round games. James Wisniewski, Mark Arcobello and Garrett Roe also scored for the Americans, who took advantage of a 5-on-3 power play for hits on Donato and goaltender Ryan Zapolski.

Shaking off a collision with Ladislav Nagy, Ryan Zapolski had arguably his best game of the tournament, stopping 21 of the 22 shots he faced. Zapolski and the U.S. also beat Slovakia 2-1 in the preliminary round when Donato scored twice. With his second two-goal game, Donato equaled his father, Ted, who scored four goals for the U.S. at the 1992 Games in Albertville.

Slovakia goaltender Jan Laco allowed five goals on 33 shots and Peter Ceresnak scored a power-play goal for Slovakia, which became the first team eliminated from the men’s side.

After a listless first period with no goals and few scoring chances, the U.S. wasted little time getting on the board early in the second. Terry, as he has done all Olympics, used his speed to get to the net, and Donato picked up the loose puck and beat Laco 1:36 into the period.

The Americans got not one but two scares 26 seconds later when Nagy ran over Zapolski and Slovakia defenseman Michal Cajovsky put a shoulder into Donato’s head in the neutral zone. Trainers attended to Donato and Zapolski as backup goaltender Brandon Maxwell stretched and prepared to go in.

Donato got stitched up on the bench and Zapolski took a few minutes before deciding not to leave the net. The ’90s hit ”Tubthumping” by Chumbawamba blared over the speakers when both players got to their feet and provided a fitting soundtrack for the next few minutes.

With Cajovsky given a match penalty – a five-minute major and an ejection – and Nagy in the penalty box for goaltender interference, the U.S. scored 18 seconds into its 5-on-3 power play with Donato screening Laco for Wisniewski’s first goal to make it 2-0 at the 2:20 mark. Terry took advantage of all the time in the world behind the net and found an open Arcobello for a one-timer to put the U.S. up 3-0 at 13:30.

After Jordan Greenway was penalized for slashing, Slovakia scored on the power play 16:54 into the second to cut it to 3-1, but the lightning-fast line of Roe, Brian O’Neill and Broc Little combined for a tic-tac-toe goal to make it 4-1 at 9:52 of the third. O’Neill flashed his speed down the right wing, took a hit while making the pass to Little who found Roe for a tap-in.

Donato scored his second of the game, this time on the power play, 16:46 into the third.

NOTES: St. Cloud State defenseman Will Borgen was a healthy scratch again for the United States. … Veteran forward Jim Slater returned to the lineup, replacing Chad Kolarik. … Former NHL player and coach Craig Ramsay coaches Slovakia.

Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

Be sure to visit NBCOlympics.com and NBC Olympic Talk for full hockey coverage from PyeongChang.

Desperate for goaltending help, Flyers acquire Petr Mrazek

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The deal: The Philadelphia Flyers acquired goaltender Petr Mrazek from the Detroit Red Wings for a conditional fourth-round pick in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft and a conditional third-round pick in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft.

Why is Philadelphia is making this deal? Simple: With the injuries to Brian Elliott (out five-to-six weeks with a core muscle injury) and Michal Neuvirth (out indefinitely with a lower-body injury), the Flyers had Alex Lyon, a veteran of just four NHL games, left to shoulder the load. Philly needed help after Neuvirth went down on Sunday and they went out and got it in 25-year-old Mrazek. The Flyers are currently third in the Metropolitan Division. Even with their six-point cushion from the second wildcard spot, relying on a rookie to see out the rest of the regular season could have been met with disastrous consequences.

Why is Detroit is making this deal? Sam Carchidi of Philly.com said Flyers general manager Ron Hextall had spoken with the Red Wings about Mrazek prior to Neuvirth’s injury, but the Detroit Free Press reported that the Flyers turned down a deal that would see a third-round pick go the other way. With the Red Wings being sellers, and with Hextall even more desperate for help after Sunday, he had no choice but to fold to Detroit’s demands.

Who won the trade? Pretty even. The Red Wings get a couple of picks over the next two years as they rebuild their team. The Flyers get immediate goaltending relief and perhaps an upgrade on the oft-injured Neuvirth. And Flyers fans will like that the team didn’t overpay to fix their problems. A good move from Hextall.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Blackhawks ban fans after racist chants directed at Capitals’ Devante Smith-Pelly

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The Chicago Blackhawks took action on Monday, banning a few fans from team home games after their involvement in directing racist chants at Washington Capitals forward Devante Smith-Pelly on Saturday.

In a post on the team’s website, the Blackhawks said they have “contacted the offending individuals and notified them that they are no longer welcome at Blackhawks home games.”

“Racist comments and other inappropriate behavior are not tolerated by the Chicago Blackhawks,” the Blackhawks said in a post.

Four Blackhawks fans were kicked out of Saturday’s game against the Capitals at United Center after racially-charged taunts were made toward Smith-Pelly.

Smith-Pelly, serving a five-minute major for fighting in the third period, got upset with a fan next to him who, according to the Washington Post, was chanting, “Basketball, basketball, basketball,” toward Smith-Pelly, who is black.

On Monday, Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville spoke about the incident.

“Totally unacceptable in our game, in any sport and in society,” Quenneville said. “We have to learn from something like that. (It) can’t happen. I talked to (Capitals coach Barry Trotz) yesterday, apologized to the organization and the player, Devante. We’re sorry about what happened and let’s learn from it.”

Anthony Duclair, who is black, also spoke to the media.

“It’s not ok,” Duclair said. “Whether it happens to Devante Smith-Pelly or a random person on the street, you should be comfortable in your own skin and gender and nationality or religion, your beliefs. Everyone’s equal. Everyone should love each other.”

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman released a statement on Sunday morning:

“Last night in Chicago, individuals directed racial taunts and abuse at Washington Capitals player Devante Smith-Pelly,” said NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. “The National Hockey League condemns this unacceptable and reprehensible behavior. The League fully supports the actions taken by the United Center and the Blackhawks to eject the offenders and would expect the same response to any similarly unacceptable behavior at any of our arenas.

“While this incident was isolated in nature, no player, coach, official or fan should ever have to endure such abuse at one of our games. The League will take steps to have our clubs remind all stakeholders that they are entitled to enjoy a positive environment – free from unacceptable, inappropriate, disruptive, inconsiderate or unruly behaviors or actions and may not engage in conduct deemed detrimental to that experience.”

February is Hockey is for Everyone month in the NHL.

Be sure to visit NBCOlympics.com and NBC Olympic Talk for full hockey coverage from PyeongChang.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck