When someone thinks of the Wild coaching staff, most think immediately of its head coach Mike Yeo. Rightfully so, as the buck stops with him, but the way a coach assembles his/her team of assistants and training staff is just as important. As we've seen with this year's edition of the Minnesota Vikings, new head coach, Mike Zimmer had made smart decisions in his coordinators and position coaches. From the hiring of offensive guru Norv Turner as his offensive coordinator, to the non-hire of a big name in George Edwards to run the defense - more or less a figurehead as Zimmer calls his own shots on defense. The choice of assistant coaches can be just as important as the hiring of a new head coach.
If there's one consistency with the Wild's coaching staff it's that they've been consistent. During the Mike Yeo era of the Wild, there have been no changes to the staff other than the addition of former player Andrew Brunette to his staff. Darryl Sydor has been Yeo's right-hand man since the days they stood at the helm for the Houston Aeros. Rick Wilson was a hold-over from the Todd Richards staff to coach defensemen as was former Wild and Minnesota native Darby Hendrickson.
But there has been one guy that has been with the franchise since the early 2000s. One that has seen two different ownership groups, two general managers, and has been a part of three different coaching staffs - goalie coach Bob Mason.
Mason, an International Falls native, has been with the Wild franchise since 2002 way back when Bob Naegle Jr, Doug Risebrough (HWSRN), and Jacques Lemaire trapped teams into losing games. He's been trusted to mentor and work with the various goalies that have minded the nets for the Wild. From Manny Fernandez, Dwayne Roloson, Niklas Backstrom, Josh Harding, Darcy Kuemper, to some of the odd-ball starts like Wade Dubielewicz, Anton Khudobin, and John Curry, Mason has been there every save along the way.
While injuries are a normal art of the game, last season may have been one of his most trying in his twelve year tenure. Navigating through the season by using five different goaltenders is one of those situations you can't possibly foresee or train for.
Abdominal and concussion injuries plagued Backstrom early in the season while Josh Harding carried the balance of the workload. Harding, as we all know, is battling Multiple Sclerosis and could miss a night and never return. That's what happened in December. By all assumption, the scheduled change in Harding's regimen in late December disrupted the delicate balance of medication and fitness that had helped Harding stay in the lineup. Kuemper battled confidence issues early in the season only to come in on his white horse and salvage the season in January for the Wild. Sadly, he too would lose momentum to injury because of concussion symptoms in March and then again in the playoffs. That brings us to the always enigmatic Ilya Bryzgalov. Bryzgalov came in after suffering in Edmonton as a member of the Oilers. He played well down the stretch - winning 5 of 7 in the final 8 games of the regular season. Insert John Curry. Curry faced a barrage of shots against an imploding St. Louis Blues team that had been one of the top two teams in the Western Conference. The Wild had just clinched the 7th seed a game earlier with a 4-3 shootout win against Boston and they wanted to spell their last real healthy goalie prior to the playoffs. Curry would stand tall in 4-2 win in which he faced 45 shots on goal to the Wild's 15.
Mason did an impressive job keeping all of his goalies ready to step in and make contributions right away. What really was impressive was the handling of Darcy Kuemper. This kid was struggling in limited time in the NHL. Whatever he said to him or whatever he did to work with Kuemper as Darcy was eventually sent down must have stuck with the kid. The Kuemper we saw in January was a completely different goalie. He was calm, confident, and in control as he flipped pucks back at puck shooters.
Mason has been in hockey for a long time. He played as a University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldog from 1982-1984, played for Chicago, Washington, Quebec, and Vancouver in the NHL for 8 seasons. He then was a volunteer goalie coach for the Doug Woog-led Golden Gophers for 3 seasons. Mason then became a Goaltending Consultant for the expansion Atlanta Thrashers prior to joining Jacques Lemaire's staff.
Hopefully 2014-15 can be a little easier on the Boss of the Backstops. If it is easier, it will mean that A) one of the goalies has taken the reins and a clear number 1 and 2 has emerged, or B) the goalies have stayed healthy.
Bob Mason doesn't get a ton of credit when things go well, but that's how an assistant job works.