Judging by his gleaming-white smile, Steve Mason is the happiest guy in the room.
The goaltender is still weeks away from training camp, yet he’s already describing the NHL offseason — one of the shortest ever, with the lockout pushing the Stanley Cup final to the end of June and the 2014 Winter Games spurring an Oct. 1 start to 2013-14 — as long. With the Philadelphia Flyers missing the postseason cut and the number of Mason’s starts decreasing in each of his five pro campaigns, the 25-year-old is well rested. Some downtime in Punta Cana this summer has only added to the relaxation.
“Now it’s strictly business. Vacation time is over,” says Mason, who went 4-2-0 with a head-turning 1.90 GAA and .944 save percentage in Philly. “Finishing on a strong note was nice, but it also left a sour taste in my mouth.”
Mason’s story is well-told. He burst on the scene as a freshman call-up for the Columbus Blue Jackets, capturing consecutive NHL’s rookie of the month honours in November and December of 2008, his first two months in the league. After backstopping the Jackets to the franchise’s first (and only) playoff berth, the phenom beat out Bobby Ryan for the 2009 Calder Trophy and was nominated alongside Tim Thomas for the season’s Vezina.
The next season, 33 wins shrunk to 20 and a 2.29 GAA ballooned to 3.05. Mason had become less effective and, thus, less used. Less used and thus less effective. By the time the Blue Jackets acquired Sergei Bobrovsky from the Flyers in 2012, the casual fan couldn't be blamed if he had to Google just to make sure Mason was still in the league.
To say the Oakville, Ont., native welcomed his April 2013 trade out of Columbus is an understatement.
“I was ecstatic," Mason says. “Getting dealt near the deadline, there was a lot of excitement over the new chapter in my career. Going to an organization like Philadelphia, the core group of players we have there, it’s a lot to look forward to. Then you have the moves we made in the offseason, it adds more excitement.”
Swapped for journeyman Michael Leighton and a third-round draft pick in 2015, Mason entered a Flyers dressing room greeted by familiar faces. He already knew captain Claude Giroux, Wayne Simmonds and Luke Schenn from Canada's 2008 world junior championship run. He had also played with Jakub Voracek in Columbus for three and a half years. “So moving to Philadelphia, I already had those relationships built. It made the transition that much easier,” Mason says.
But what about the guy he didn't know, Flyers then-starter Ilya Bryzgalov?
“He was strictly professional. I was coming in there, and I wanted to play a lot of games, wanted to work hard. He was there to push me in practice. He’s an older guy who knows the ropes, so I just tried to take as much as I could from him,” Mason says of the Russian compliance buyout who has yet to sign a new contract. “He’s a great goaltender and there’s still a lot of time in the offseason. I think it’s only a matter of time before he finds a new spot.”
Just because Bryzgalov is out of the picture doesn't mean the crease is automatically Mason's next fall. Philadelphia acquired another goaltender on the rebound, Ray Emery, in free agency. Emery, 30, is coming off a fantastic season in support of Chicago's Corey Crawford, going 17-1-0 with three shutouts in the champs' abbreviated season.
“I thought (signing Emery) was great for the team. He obviously gained a lot of experience, winning the Stanley Cup this year, being a large part of that team during the regular season. Everything he takes away from winning that championship and brings to us is going to help us long-term,” Mason says. “We actually skated a bit in summers past, and I called Ray after we acquired him and talked to him. I wanted to reach out to him. We’re going to hook up later in the summer and start skating together.”
Big things are expected for the Flyers in 2013-14, having ridden themselves of Bryzgalov -- a talented netminder but, ultimately, a financial burden and frequent off-ice distraction -- and bolstering their lineup with two teams' captains, Vincent Lecavalier (Tampa Bay) and Mark Streit (New York Islanders). But the best hire for Mason might have been the man who no longer laces up skates. Ron Hextall, the legendary goaltender, was hired as assistant general manager, away from the Los Angeles Kings.
“To come in and have that wealth of experience from L.A., him winning a Cup there, is fantastic. And for me and Ray in particular, with Ron being a goaltender with such a great career, it’s going to help myself to touch base with him," Mason explains. "He did a great job with (Jonathans) Quick and Bernier in L.A., so I’m looking forward to it."
For entirely different reasons that the last two years, the focus in Philadelphia will once again be aimed directly between the pipes. The pressure is on Emery and Mason, not to get along but to win. Come spring 2014, it will have been three years since Emery (20-15 NHL playoff record) started a postseason game. And Mason has more points (one assist) than he does victories in the NHL playoffs.
“This organization in particular expects results, and they’ve done everything they can in this off-season to improve the team," Mason says. "Anything other than the playoffs is going to be a big disappointment not only for the organization but for all of the players involved.”