Ondrej Pavelec (Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images)
In the early stages of 2014-15, Winnipeg was buoyed by the play of Ondrej Pavelec and Michael Hutchinson. But in 2015-16, the Jets can’t seem to get a timely save from either netminder and find themselves in a tailspin. The Jets have lost five straight, and have surrendered 31 goals while losing six of seven games in November.
The 2014-15 campaign was a huge step forward for the Winnipeg Jets, regardless of being swept in the first round of the post-season by the Anaheim Ducks. Thought to be an also-ran in the Central Division heading into the season, the Jets rode speed, size and timely scoring to a playoff berth, the first since the team arrived in Winnipeg.
One of the bigger surprises of the Jets’ season, though, was the play of their goaltending duo of Ondrej Pavelec and Michael Hutchinson. Though goaltending was thought to be a potential problem area for the Jets, Winnipeg finished the season with a .927 save percentage at 5-on-5, which was top-10 in the entire league.
Pavelec, one of the most maligned starting netminders in the league, had a resurgence, and was given all four starts in the first-round series. He finished the season with a 2.28 goals-against average, .920 SP at all strengths and five shutouts — far and away the best numbers of his professional career. At 5-on-5, Pavelec was above average for goaltenders who played at least 1,500 minutes in 2014-15, finishing 13th in the NHL with a .929 SP. Meanwhile, Hutchinson was stellar and posted a 21-10-5 record, 2.38 GAA and .914 SP in his rookie year.
But for much of the 2015-16 campaign, the Jets’ previously strong goaltending has been nowhere to be found. And that has been especially concerning since late October. In their past five outings, the Jets have surrendered 24 goals and haven’t allowed fewer than one goal against in any game in the month of November, a streak which has lasted eight games. And after a 7-0 drubbing at the hands of the division-rival Nashville Predators Saturday night, it seems like Winnipeg would do just about anything to get a timely save or two.
It’s an interesting role reversal for the Jets, though, as last season it was the team’s defense that buoyed them through much of the first two months of the campaign. At this point in the 2014-15 campaign, the Jets were in third place in the Central with a 9-7-2 record, 34 goals for and 42 against. The Jets’ minus-eight goal differential was the worst of any team in a playoff position at this point last season, and Winnipeg was able to find themselves among the playoff teams only because of the play of Pavelec and Hutchinson. This season, however, it has been the offense keeping the club afloat.
Through 18 games, the Jets find themselves in the middle of the league, tied for 12th, with 48 goals for. As for goals against, though, only the Columbus Blue Jackets and Calgary Flames have had to collect more pucks out of the back of their net than Winnipeg’s 59. Some of those goals have come with the net empty or on the penalty kill, of course, but the Jets haven’t fared well at 5-on-5. Winnipeg has allowed 33 goals against at 5-on-5 this season, sixth-most in the league and five more than they had in 2014-15 with one fewer game played.
One area of concern is that defensively the Jets have been giving up far more scoring chances in a high-danger area. According to War-On-Ice, per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, Winnipeg has allowed more than 12 chances from the slot area in the past 18 games. In 2014-15, the Jets averaged fewer than 10 of those scoring chances against per game. Being that they’re the most difficult shots for goaltenders to stop — hence high-danger — there’s an obvious correlation between the dip in save percentage across the board and Winnipeg’s inability to slow down the scoring opportunities in tight. That said, it doesn’t entirely excuse the play of Pavelec and Hutchinson.
Of the 42 goaltenders to play at least 250 minutes at 5-on-5 this season, Pavelec ranks 27th in SP at .922 and Hutchinson ranks an ugly 35th with a .907 SP. Pavelec’s numbers put him alongside netminders like Buffalo’s Linus Ullmark and Chad Johnson, while Hutchinson ranks just between Edmonton’s Anders Nilsson and Toronto’s Jonathan Bernier. Compare that to 2014-15, when Pavelec was in the same company as Los Angeles’ Jonathan Quick and Washington’s Braden Holtby and Hutchinson was near Columbus’ Sergei Bobrovsky and New York Islanders’ Jaroslav Halak and it’s not hard to see where the failing has been of late.
The worst part about unfavorable goaltending for the Jets is that no matter how potent their offense has been, they can’t outrun their lapses on defense and between the pipes. Ask last season’s Dallas Stars, the second-highest scoring team in the league, who missed the playoffs thanks in large part to subpar goaltending.
The option, as least for now, to turn to AHL netminder Connor Hellebuyck would be seen as a desperation move for Winnipeg, and it’s not something GM Kevin Cheveldayoff is likely to turn to. Hellebuyck’s numbers have been solid in the AHL, though, and if an injury fells either Pavelec or Hutchinson, it could open the door for Hellebuyck to pull an Andrew Hammond — come in and start a streak that makes him impossible to overlook, just like Hammond did in 2014-15 with the Ottawa Senators.
Last season’s success has given the Jets an expectation to live up to. They’re not supposed to challenge for the post-season anymore — Winnipeg is supposed to make it and take a step forward again this season by potentially winning a round or, at the very least, going deep into a first-round series. If things don’t turn around in goal, the Jets are going to find themselves staring down a long off-season and still without a post-season victory.
(All advanced stats via War-On-Ice)