IT IS NO SECRET that the Columbus Blue Jackets gave up on Steve Mason.
Last spring, Mason was due a $3.2 million qualifying offer as a restricted free agent. Sergei Bobrovsky, now out of the lineup with a groin strain, was wrapping up a Vezina Trophy season in goal. It was clear Mason didn't fit into the Blue Jackets' future.
Three weeks before the NHL's trade deadline last April, new Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen gave Mason's agent, Anton Thun, permission to line up a trade. Thun sent feelers around the league and the Flyers were one of only two or three teams to express interest.
It was becoming clearer then that with the help of amnesty buyouts, Ilya Bryzgalov didn't fit in the Flyers' plans moving forward. Flyers assistant Jeff Reese, also a client of Thun, had been tracking Mason for years and urged general manager Paul Holmgren to give the former Calder Trophy winner a shot.
In the waning hour before the 3 o'clock deadline on April 3, the deal was consummated. Mason was sent to the Flyers for another goaltender with no future with the team, Michael Leighton, and a third-round pick.
Starting tonight, Mason will face the organization that practically gave him away two games in a row, with a home-and-home series. It's the first time he'll look at a Blue Jackets jersey in years without any lingering ill will. The losing culture of the organization had gone to his head.
"As this season has gone on, it's not something I've really looked ahead to," Mason said yesterday. "I have nothing to prove to that organization. They gave me this chance to come here. To have that fresh opportunity, there's no hard feelings whatsoever."
Mason was most excited to catch up with former teammate R.J. Umberger over dinner last night after Columbus arrived in town. He was traded after practice on April 3, the same day Derick Brassard, Derek Dorsett and John Moore were shipped out.
"I lived in a building with a bunch of other guys who were traded the same day, and those were the only ones I got to say goodbye to," Mason said. "I roomed with R.J. Umberger for 5 years [on the road], and I haven't seen him since. It will be good to see him."
Mason will start tonight, but it is unclear whether he will start at Nationwide Arena on Saturday against the Flyers' new Metropolitan division rival. There is the possibility a motivated Mason plays both, as Ray Emery started against his former team in Chicago last week.
Mason was particularly strong against the Capitals on Tuesday after facing embarrassing media criticism following a so-called two-game "slump." He is the Flyers' unquestioned MVP this season and their only truly consistent player so far.
Mason entered yesterday 11th in the NHL with a 2.34 goals against average and 10th in save percentage (.924) among goaltenders with at least 15 starts.
"You can't just hit the panic button after one game and start to lose the confidence in yourself," Mason said. "Just stay the course. Games like that are going to happen. It's just a matter of how you respond to it."
Injured forward Vinny Lecavalier skated for approximately 30 minutes yesterday before the Flyers' optional practice. It was his toughest test yet, firing pucks and aggressively skating, following his nondisplaced lower-back fracture suffered on Nov. 30.
Holmgren said Lecavalier is still expected to miss another 2 weeks, but said Lecavalier could be back quicker than that. His original projection date for return was Dec. 30 in Vancouver.
"That depends on Vinny," Holmgren said. "Each day, the pain dissipates from the fracture site. The doctors don't believe there's any risk of him injuring it further, it's a matter of getting that spasm out of there and him feeling comfortable on the ice."
If Brayden Schenn cannot play today against Columbus, Chris VandeVelde (pronounced van-deh-VEHL-dee) is expected to jump up to center Scott Hartnell and Wayne Simmonds. Jay Rosehill also would rejoin the lineup with Adam Hall and Zac Rinaldo. Holmgren said he did not expect to make a call-up from the Phantoms, even though they're practicing in nearby Allentown, since they're at the 23-man limit.
Columbus will be without Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky (groin), right wings Marian Gaborik (knee), Nathan Horton (shoulder) and Jared Boll (foot), center Derek MacKenzie (lower-body), and defensemen James Wisniewski (upper-body) and Dalton Prout (upper-body, injured reserve) tonight. It appears previously injured goalie Curtis McElhinney will start in net . . . The Flyers have never lost to the Blue Jackets (4-0-1) in regulation at Wells Fargo Center . . . Ryan Johansen, 21, has 12 goals and 15 assists for the Jackets. The Flyers tried to acquire him in their 2011 trade for Jeff Carter that brought back Jake Voracek and ultimately Sean Couturier.