WINNIPEG — The Winnipeg Jets are hoping veteran goaltender Steve Mason can help accomplish two things with his new team: fix the current issues in net, and help the franchise’s future in the crease by mentoring a young teammate.
Defensive struggles dominated the off-season conversation in Winnipeg, sparking general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff to sign Mason to a US$8.2-million, two-year contract when free agency opened in July.
“You look at the roster and there’s lots to be excited about,” Mason said Friday on the opening day of camp. “I think everybody here’s on the same page, realizing in the last number of years it hasn’t been good enough, but we’re right on the cusp of becoming a team that can be a consistent contender.”
While Mason is expected to handle the majority of the workload and serve as the Jets’ No. 1 netminder this season, head coach Paul Maurice is hoping the 29-year-old veteran can also work with 24-year-old Connor Hellebuyck.
“It was part of the conversation prior to the signing that, in getting to know (Mason’s) personality, that he would be willing and able to (mentor Hellebuyck),” said Maurice. “To make sure the relationship between the two goaltenders in the room (is strong) and he would have a willingness to work with someone. Connor’s feeling the same way.
“He wants to fight for that job as well, so it’s a really healthy competition.”
The Jets can definitely score, finishing seventh in the NHL last season with an average of 3.00 goals per game. But Winnipeg was 27th in the league in goals against last season.
Consistent struggles plagued Hellebuyck during his sophomore campaign. Hellebuyck signed a one-year deal worth $2.25 million in the off-season after posting a 26-19-4 mark with a .907 save percentage and 2.89 goals-against average.
“Connor and I have gotten to know each other over the last two weeks of being here,” said Mason, who spent the last four-plus seasons with Philadelphia. “I think that’s the important thing, getting our friendship going and then the on-ice stuff takes care of itself I think. We’re both in the position where we want to play. We both want to get better. I see a lot of potential in him, and hopefully I can help him realize that potential as well.”
Maurice knows being a young NHL goaltender can be difficult.
“This is a capitalist sport and it’s a performance business, so it’s very difficult as a young player to deal with that,” said Maurice. “There isn’t more (of) a position in the game that’s a confidence position, and you can lose that real quick. You’ve seen so many young goaltenders who’ll put that year up and then they’re out of the league, they disappear. Now I look at it as a huge benefit in that he’s been through that and he can handle that.”
Mason, who nearly gave up on his NHL career before being traded from Columbus to Philadelphia in 2013, can see the value of having a teammate as a mentor.
“I never had that older goaltender ahead of me to help me along the way, and looking back on that, that’s something I wish I had,” he said. “And now I’m in a position where I am the old guy, I guess. It has put me in a position now where Connor has experienced some of the same things, and I can help him along the way in terms of helping him become a better goaltender that the organization believes he can be.
“I’ve gone through a lot in my career that he’s starting to experience. The NHL is by no means an easy league to play in, especially as a goaltender in a Canadian market where they expect so much. I think I’m looking forward to working with him, helping him get better, and in return have him push me as well. I think it’ll be a good situation.”