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Steve Mason’s nightmare season continues

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Heading into the 2017-18 season, it was reasonable to picture things working out for the Winnipeg Jets, but it would have been tougher to see this surge coming largely without Steve Mason‘s help.

The Jets handed Mason a two-year, $8.2 million deal hoping that he’d stabilize a goaltending position that’s been a weakness for the team since day one in Winnipeg. Perhaps he did help, but if so, Mason assisted the team in an indirect way: by giving Connor Hellebuyck even more incentive to make the most of every start?

That’s about as far as you can go when it comes to positives this season, as it’s been a disaster from his first start, when he gave up five goals on 20 shots against Toronto in a game he didn’t finish.

Mason’s rarely had a chance to make the Jets situation into the sort of platoon he disdained in Philly, as his appearances have been limited by a combination of injuries, his poor play, and Hellebuyck’s breakthrough season. Mason missed considerable time because of one or more concussions, and cruelly, he followed up a 31-save shutout return appearance on March 6 with a knee injury.

In a way, he never bounced back from a poor start to his debut season with Winnipeg, allowing 11 goals in his first two appearances. Hellebuyck stormed out of the gate, meanwhile, not even recording his first loss of 2017-18 until Nov. 10.

This photo from Getty Images almost seems to capture the spirit of a lost season for Mason, and it probably deserves the “Hello darkness” treatment …

Get Simon & Garfunkel ready. (Photo by Jason Halstead /Getty Images)

The team announced today that Mason is expected to miss two-to-three weeks after getting that knee scoped.

Such a window gives Mason a chance to play another regular season game before the postseason begins, but knee issues can be tricky, so who knows? Beyond that, the Jets might be more comfortable rolling with Hellebuyck and Michael Hutchinson, whose $1.15 million contract can’t be completely ignored by Winnipeg.

Actually, contracts are where the intrigue builds.

Hutchinson isn’t the only Jets netminder who needs a new contract after 2017-18 ends. Hellebuyck will be an RFA this summer – assuming Winnipeg doesn’t hand him an extension – and he’ll be a tough goalie to gauge. Hellebuyck managed 26 wins in 2016-17, but his work was middling overall with just a .907 save percentage. Hellebuyck’s really flourished this season, going 35-11-8 with a .923 save percentage.

Even if Hellebuyck doesn’t break the bank, the Jets could plausibly find it difficult to justify Mason’s $4.1M cap hit. They’ll see Nikolaj Ehlers‘ cap hit jump to $6M and will need to pay up for Jacob Trouba, who’s also set for restricted free agency.

Whether those factors force Kevin Cheveldayoff’s hand or not, Mason finds himself right where he was heading into this season, and also when he was traded to the Flyers. He’ll need to start from scratch once again and hope that his luck will work out better in the future, whether that means during the playoffs or 2018-19.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Under Pressure: Steve Mason

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This post is part of Jets Day on PHT…

Yeah, it’s the new guy.

Goaltending has been the single biggest issue in Winnipeg ever since the franchise arrived from Atlanta seven years ago, consistently finishing near the bottom of the league in save percentage. Ondrej Pavelec wasn’t the answer, and Michael Hutchinson and Connor Hellebuyck didn’t seem to be the answer a year ago. Now the job gets turned over to Steve Mason, coming over in free agency from the Philadelphia Flyers on a two-year, $8.2 million contract.

So why the pressure? Well, simply because he has to be the guy to help fill the hole that has held the Jets back more than any other in recent years. And he has to do it while rebounding from what was a down year in Philadelphia, managing only a .908 save percentage that was his lowest individual mark since he played for the Columbus Blue Jackets.

That sort of performance won’t work for the Jets because it was pretty much exactly what their two-headed goaltending monster gave them a season ago. If he can return to the form he showed during the first four years he spent in Philadelphia it would be a pretty significant boost to a Jets team that hasn’t really had anything even remotely close to a consistent, No. 1 starting goaltender in … well … ever.

If Mason can be that guy the Jets might actually have a chance to contend for a playoff spot, especially given how good their offense was this past season.

If he can not be that guy it will simply be more of the same in Winnipeg where a team with some pretty good talent and what is now a high-scoring offense gets sabotaged by goaltending.

The Jets don’t need him to be Dominik Hasek. They can score enough goals that they don’t need a goalie to steal games for them every night. They just need him to be good.

Will additions of Mason, Kulikov be enough to improve the Jets’ defense?

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Preventing goals has been a major issue for the Winnipeg Jets.

In five of the past six seasons they have finished in the bottom-10 in the league in goals against, bottoming out this past season by giving up 3.11 goals per game, the fourth-worst mark in the entire league. That has been the biggest obstacle they have been unable to scale when attempting to become a playoff team. One of the biggest issues has been in net where the likes of Ondrej Pavelec, Michael Hutchinson and Connor Hellebuyck have been unable to nail down the position with any consistency in recent years.

This offseason the team finally addressed the position in what could be a meaningful way by adding Steve Mason to take over as the primary goaltender.

Along with the addition of Mason, they also attempted to bolster their blue line by bringing in free agent defenseman Dmitry Kulikov.

Kulikov might add some depth to their defense, but Mason is going to be the player that probably makes or breaks the Jets’ season. Even though the Jets have consistently been among the league’s worst teams when it comes to allowing goals, they have always been, at worst, a middle of the pack team when it comes to giving up shots only to have sub-par goaltending sabotage their seasons. They have finished with a team save percentage over .910 just once in the past six years.

It is not a coincidence that was the one season over that stretch where they actually qualified for the playoffs.

Given the Jets’ ability to score (they were sixth in the league in goals scored this past season) and the fact they are at least an OK shot suppression team they don’t need Mason to be a superstar in net. They just need some consistency. They just need somebody to give them league average to better than league average play, and Mason has been able to do that in four of the past five seasons. Look at it this way, if he gets the bulk of the playing time (the 56 starts Hellebuyck received this past season) and faces the same number of shots with a league average save percentage the Jets would shave 12-15 goals off of their goals against total right there alone without any other improvements anywhere else. Probably not enough to make up seven points in the standings, but enough to at least maybe put them in closer contention.

Jets sign Connor Hellebuyck to one-year, $2.25 million deal

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The Winnipeg Jets took care of some important business on Monday morning, as they re-signed goalie Connor Hellebuyck to a one-year, $2.25 million contract.

The two sides were scheduled to have an arbitration hearing on Aug. 1, but as expected, they were able to hammer out  a deal before reaching that point.

After being selected in the fifth round of the 2012 draft, Hellebuyck quickly became one of the best prospects in the Jets’ system.

The 24-year-old made his NHL debut in 2015-16. He posted 13-11-1 record with a 2.34 goals-against-average and a .918 save percentage. In 2016-17, he appeared in 56 games and finished with a 26-19-4 record, a 2.89 goals-against-average and a .907 save percentage.

Even though Hellebuyck will be back next season, the Jets will have a different look between the pipes. On July 1st, they inked Steve Mason to a two-year contract worth $8.2 million.

As has been the case over the last couple of seasons, Winnipeg will continue to have a crowded crease. On top of having Mason and Hellbuyck under contract, Michael Hutchinson still has one year left on his deal at $1.15 million.

It’ll be interesting to see how head coach Paul Maurice divides starts between Hellebuyck and Mason (assuming both are completely healthy).

Mason played in 58 games with the Flyers last season and he’s making almost double what Hellebuyck is making for now.

Goaltending may finally be strength for Winnipeg Jets

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The Ondrej Pavelec era in Winnipeg is – mercifully – over.

Seeing the regularly underwhelming netminder leave for the Rangers isn’t the only reason why the Jets’ goaltending situation looks as promising as it ever has been. With the addition of Steve Mason and the possible ascension of Connor Hellebuyck, this franchise hasn’t enjoyed this kind of optimism in net since … what, the Atlanta Thrashers days? Ever?

Now, it’s worth noting that goalies are notoriously tough to predict. Mason himself struggled in 2016-17, which was a big reason why the Philadelphia Flyers let him walk in the first place.

Still, the big picture seems as promising as ever for the Jets, at least from a goaltending perspective.

Even with last season in mind, Steve Mason’s managed a .928 even-strength save percentage since his first full season with Philly in 2013-14. That ties him for 10th place among goalies who’ve played at least 50 games, tying him with Henrik Lundqvist, Tuukka Rask, and Roberto Luongo.

Hellebuyck is the other Jets goalie who’s been strong in that area, managing a .924 even-strength save percentage, giving the impression that he could at least be an above-average backup.

If even-strength save percentage is a little too specific for you, Mason managed an excellent .918 save percentage during his time with the Flyers. Such numbers give the impression that the Jets have a good chance at getting top-10 goaltending, a refreshing thought for a franchise that’s been hung out to dry one too many times, particularly with Pavelec in net.

Could the Mason – Hellebuyck combo stand as the missing piece(s) for Winnipeg? The Jets made hearty investments in their defense and boast an underrated offensive attack, inspiring hope that this middling team might finally make a big step forward.

Heck, they might even finally win a playoff game.

“I’m just really excited to be a part of an organization that’s in the right direction,” Mason said after the signing, via the Canadian Press. “I believe that I can be a piece that helps get this team over the hump, here.”

Granted, the Jets still need to hash out an RFA deal with Hellebuyck and figure out what to do with Michael Hutchinson, who has a year remaining on his contract (and generally seems to have a lower ceiling).

Still, if the Jets can get a few more ducks in a row, things could rapidly look very promising. What a difference a couple of promising goalies can make.