The Montreal Canadiens made an unexpected trade prior to the start of the 2018-19 season. They acquired two picks, Joel Armia, and Steve Mason for Simon Bourque, who would leave the professional ranks for U Sports before the year even started. While Armia went on to be a valuable fixture in the Canadiens’ forward group, Mason was immediately bought out, and currently is contemplating retirement after a 10-year career.
But was buying him out the right move ahead of this season?
After a resurgent year in 2017-18, Antti Niemi regressed heavily to his previous form this past year, posting a sub-.900 save percentage and generally looking nothing like the player he was in his first year. With an adjusted goals against of 4.03, and a goals saved above average of -12.42, it’s hard to find a true silver lining in what Niemi did between the pipes.
The chart above illustrates this. With a fairly easy workload, Niemi failed to be a quality backup, allowing far more goals than would be expected from an average goalie this past season. If we use Hockey-Reference.com to look back on Niemi’s career, six out of his seven previous years resulted in a negative GSAA, reaching its lowest point in Dallas when he posted a GSAA of -18.84 in 37 games.
It makes some sense why Montreal opted to bring him back, however. An adjusted GAA of 2.63, a save percentage of .929% and a GSAA of 9.96 made Niemi look like his career had found new life with the Canadiens. Last year was the one year in the past seven where Niemi had positive numbers across the board. This isn’t meant to be a roast of Niemi the person by any means, but even on his cheap deal Montreal was gambling on one good year, and didn’t win this time.
Mason was bought out before the Canadiens even got a look at him, and despite multiple teams having near disastrous goaltending across the season, he remained unsigned. He had a poor year in 2016-17 on a middling Philadelphia Flyers club that struggled to defend in front of him and partner Michal Neuvirth. His -8.34 GSAA was his lowest since his half season in Columbus, which saw him traded to the Flyers. In Winnipeg, Mason’s overall numbers dipped a bit more, with a .906 save percentage and bloated 3.24 goals-against average, yet his GSAA dropped to a more palatable -2.59.
While the Canadiens were willing to take a risk on Niemi after he was banished from two separate teams in 2017-18, they were not willing to do the same with Mason. Despite the fact that the previous year seemed to be the outlier for Mason he never spent any time with the team, while Niemi’s previous season was a drastic outlier in the opposite direction.
Across their careers, the overall numbers between both veteran goalies are strikingly similar in save percentage — .911 for Mason vs. .912 for Niemi — and also in GAA — 2.70 for Mason, and 2.57 for Niemi — and they each had a similar number of seasons with positive GSAA, with Mason having six and Niemi five.
The biggest difference is that Niemi had the benefit of playing on some of the NHL’s best teams for much of his career, between his Stanley Cup victory in Chicago and four seasons with perennial Western Conference contender San Jose. However, when he shifted to Dallas, things came off the rails and his underlying numbers took a nosedive. With five straight seasons as a below-average netminder, his miracle of a season in Montreal might have been just that. Overall, it was far more likely that Mason would bounce back from his poor showing with the Jets, than that Niemi would repeat his previous performance.
It’s entirely understandable why the Canadiens brought Niemi back, given that behind a patchwork team he had a career year for the club. But he didn’t come close to finding that same level of performance, despite an easier workload.
Cap space wasn’t an issue, yet the club did not provide Mason with the chance to prove his salt in net. Had Niemi not fared so poorly in important games this year this conversation wouldn’t be taking place, and it becomes easier to use hindsight in this case. However, the Canadiens had both Niemi and Mason on the roster before the season began, and could have focused more on the goalie they acquired in the deal and not solely on the contract.