Michael Hutchinson (Jonathan Kozub/Getty Images)
Early this season, the goaltending of Michael Hutchinson was one of the highlights for the Winnipeg Jets. But since the all-star break the rookie netminder has fallen apart as the Minnesota Wild and Los Angeles Kings began to charge hard for wild-card spots.
Winnipeg goaltenders Ondrej Pavelec and Michael Hutchinson should buy Devan Dubnyk a present. After all, were it not for his tremendous play between the pipes for the Minnesota Wild, the NHL’s goaltending story may actually be how the Jets’ netminding has failed them over the past several weeks.
Heading into the all-star break, Hutchinson was the league’s save percentage leader with a .935 mark. Pavelec’s .913 SP was serviceable enough that it wasn’t killing Winnipeg’s playoff hopes. It seemed all but a certainty that the Jets – two points back of the Chicago Blackhawks for third in the Central Division and eight points up on the Los Angeles Kings in the wild-card race – were postseason bound for the first time since moving to Winnipeg in 2011.
Then the post-break slump came, and the Jets goaltending duo hasn’t been the same since. Hutchinson is no longer the league’s SP leader – he’s not even in the top 10. Pavelec has lost four of his five decisions post-break, posting a SP above .900 just once, in a 5-3 victory over the Colorado Avalanche.
So, again, maybe Dubnyk deserves a Thank You-card at the very least. While he’s carrying Minnesota to the playoffs, Winnipeg’s tandem is falling apart and could cost the Jets the postseason. But no one is talking about it quite yet.
Whether or not it seems unfair to pin a team’s struggles solely on their goaltending is up for debate, but what isn’t is that this season’s Winnipeg Jets are a team that belong in the playoffs. Big, fast and skilled, they’re exactly the type of team that has been built to win at least a round in the postseason. And, outside of the eye test, they’ve also got the underlying numbers to back it up.
At 5-on-5, Winnipeg has controlled play to the tune of a 52.8 shot attempts for percentage. In unblocked shot attempts, they’re ninth with a percentage of 52.2. Their possession metrics put them in the conversation with teams like Detroit, St. Louis, Chicago, Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh. And when the score is close in the first two periods, they’re even better.
They rank as the NHL’s third best team in shot attempts when the score is within a goal in the first and second periods, getting 54.3 percent of the 5-on-5 shot attempts. That’s ahead of league leaders like the New York Islanders, Nashville Predators and Montreal Canadiens. The same goes for unblocked shot attempts, where their 53.6 percent rate is again third best.
Those two numbers alone paired with a team that’s sliding usually points to one of two things: goaltending that’s failing or shooters that couldn’t hit a wide open net.
Before the all-star break, the Jets were shooting 7.8 percent at 5-on-5, tied with the Wild for 14th in the league. Post-break, they’ve slid to 6.9 percent, which is tied with Carolina for 22nd. While that number may be alarming, or the dip in shooting percentage may lead some to believe the issues go both ways, consider that since the break they’re averaging just as many shots and generating the same amount of legitimate scoring chances as they were before the slide. It’s not a frighteningly large drop for a team that’s shot 7.43 percent at 5-on-5 over the course of the season, either.
When it comes to save percentage, though, Winnipeg’s total 5-on-5 SP has slipped to .913, 22nd in the NHL and well below league average. Before the break, they had a .930 SP, tied for fourth best. A regression of sorts was in the offing – it would have been pretty spectacular for Hutchinson to maintain his incredible play for the entire season – but a drop that significant should be concerning.
Equally as concerning is that Pavelec, who lost the starting job to Hutchinson, has a 5-on-5 SP of .929 since the break. Albeit Pavelec has only seen five starts and action in seven games, but that mark dwarfs Hutchinson’s .906 SP over the same span.
In the 13 games Hutchinson has played, he has posted an SP below .900 in seven games, while posting a mark above .920 just four times. When a team is struggling to score, as clubs are wont to do during the course of a season, they need their goaltending to come through.
Winnipeg’s play hasn’t changed enough to warrant the statistical difference for Hutchinson, either. Before the break, Winnipeg allowed an average of 25.1 scoring chances per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey. Since the break, that number has dropped by two chances per 60 minutes. In that regard, one might have actually expected Hutchinson’s save percentage to increase, not decrease.
It’s been the other way around, though, but Hutchinson has miraculously picked up six wins since the all-star break. Maintaining a .500 record at this point in the season will kill the Jets, however. And since entering the break with a lock on a wild-card spot, Winnipeg has slipped to a mere three-point lead on the defending Stanley Cup champion Kings. And the Kings have a game in hand.
Maurice has done wonders with his lineup and GM Kevin Cheveldayoff has built a team that can make some noise in the playoffs. But first they need to get there, and for that to happen, they’ll need Hutchinson and Pavelec to play like men possessed. With the losses of Dustin Byfuglien and Bryan Little to injury late last week, even more of the onus will fall on the Jets’ netminders to steal some points.
If they can’t get the job done, it’ll be another playoff-less season in Winnipeg, and with the skill of this season’s team, what a shame that would be.