IT wasn’t too long ago — roundabout the winter of 2011-12 during the Winnipeg Jets’ triumphant return to these parts — when Ondrej Pavelec could have walked into just about any restaurant in town and exited without opening his wallet.
The big Czech netminder was the Jets’ best player on many nights in Year 1, posting a 29-28-9 record and kicking out 1,845 shots — fifth-most in the National Hockey League.
And when the Jets handed out their own hardware in the regular-season finale, Pavelec — named the winner of the Three Stars Award — was met with a standing ovation at MTS Centre. My, oh my, how things have since changed.
No Jets’ player — not Evander Kane, not Dustin Byfuglien — will be more squarely in the crosshairs than the 26-year-old Pavelec when the club opens training camp in September.
Yes, he may have been declared the club’s No. 1 goaltender by GM Kevin Cheveldayoff at the end of the 2013-14 season, but it’s not so much the faith management has in him that is putting his spot in the crease in jeopardy, but the men behind him now pushing hard for more minutes and the deep prospect pool being groomed for the future.
First, a quick look at Pavelec and his back-ups’ numbers:
Pavelec’s save percentage has dropped steadily since the team’s last year in Atlanta, from .914 to .906, .905 and .901 last season. His goals-against average rose to 3.01, the highest its been since 2009-10.
The two men other than Pavelec who have made starts over the last two years — Al Montoya (an unrestricted free agent) and Michael Hutchinson — are a combined 18-10-3 with a .918 save percentage and GAA of 2.34.
All of which raises the question many in Jetland have been asking for the better part of two seasons now: why, even after signing him to a fiveyear deal worth $3.9 million in ’12-13, is the organization so steadfast in keeping him at No. 1?
And, Part 2 to that, would the club be risking that much by using a compliance buyout on Pavelec and taking a chance on a Montoya-Hutchinson combo, for example, or scooping up a tender on the free-agent market, like Chad Johnson or Thomas Greiss?
Now, a good chunk art of the faith shown in Pavelec, beyond the occasional stretches of solid play, seems to be based on Cheveldayoff having watched the 26-year-old lead the Chicago Wolves to a Calder Cup title in 2007-08 and then struggle behind teams in Atlanta and here in Winnipeg that lacked a real defensive structure.
The thinking being this: if new coach Paul Maurice can continue to clean up the defensive play in front of the netminder, his numbers should jump.
All of which, based on the numbers shown above, may have already been proven moot.
But the real story with the Jets and their goaltending is bigger than just Pavelec now. Thanks to some outstanding drafting — Connor Hellebuyck, Eric Comrie, Jason Kasdorf — and some good fortune — Hutchinson choosing to sign with the club as a free agent — the organization’s pool of netminders is arguably deeper than at any point in its’ history.
Hutchinson, after a deep run in the Calder Cup playoffs with St. John’s, is ready to push for work right now.
But Hellebuyck’s progression arrow has been pointing straight up, Comrie could be one of Canada’s goaltenders at this winters world junior hockey championship and Kasdorf hopes to rebound from an injury-plagued sophomore season in the NCAA to match some of the gaudy totals he put up as a freshman.
All of which means this: if Pavelec isn’t already constantly looking over his shoulder to see who is gaining on him, he should. The goaltenders in the mirror are closer than they appear.
This is the fifth and final part in our ‘Jets At the Draft’ series.
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TOP GOALTENDER PROSPECT
- CONNOR HELLEBUYCK, UNIVERSITY OF MASSACHUSETTS-LOWELL: Take a deep breath here because the list of accomplishments is substantial... Topped an impressive freshman campaign with a spectacular sophomore season and then passed on his final two years of college to sign a pro deal with the Jets in the spring... Won the inaugural Mike Richter Award as the most outstanding goaltender in the NCAA after leading the country in goals-against average (1.79) and save percentage (.941), finishing second with six shutouts en route to and posting a record of 18-9-2... A First Team Hockey East All-Star and a two-time Hockey East Tournament MVP, Hellebuyck was a three-time Hockey East Defensive Player of the Week and was named the Hockey East Goaltender of the Month for November and March... A fifth-round pick of the Jets in 2012, Hellebuyck was 38-12-2 with the Riverhakws with a 1.60 goals-against average and a .946 save percentage and led the nation in both goals-against average and save percentage in both of his collegiate seasons... His career save percentage of .946 is the best in college hockey history, surpassing the .941 mark set by Ryan Miller of Michigan State (2000-02)... Hellebuyck finished with as many shutouts as losses in his 53-game career.
What’s in the Jets’ system:
- ONDREJ PAVELEC: Big summer for the big Czech. If he’s focussed and fit, the Jets are better for it. His stats are far from a No. 1 stopper and he needs to reward management’s faith — and their financial commitment — in him ASAP.
PAVELEC FYI: Age: 26. 2013-14 numbers: GP: 57; W-L-T: 22-26-7; GAA: 3.01; Save %: .901.
CONTRACT: Three years remaining with a cap hit of $3.9 million).
- AL MONTOYA: Has been pretty much the perfect back-up over the last two years, save for some concerns about his durability. Doesn’t moan and groan about playing time and when he is in the net, gives the Jets a legit shot at a ‘W.’ But depth in the organization and his age might mean his next gig is elsewhere.
MONTOYA FYI: Age: 29. 2013-14 numbers: GP: 28; W-L-T: 13-8-3; GAA: 2.30; Save %: .920.
CONTRACT: Unrestricted free agent (earned $601,000 in 2013-14).
THE ICE CAPS
- MICHAEL HUTCHINSON: Simply a great story — signed with the Jets last summer after bouncing around the Bruins organization; played in the ECHL, NHL and helped lead St. John’s all the way to the Calder Cup final. Was 53-19-3 in the three leagues, including the playoffs, and looked very solid in his three late-season starts with the Jets.
- TYLER BESKOROWANY: An emergency addition for the IceCaps during the winter. Former Dallas Stars draft pick finished the year in the ECHL.
- EDDIE PASQUALE: Began the season as the IceCaps No. 1 stopper and third on the organization’s depth chart. But a season-ending hip injury opened the door for Hutchinson and, with Hellebuyck now a pro, his place with the franchise is in doubt. A restricted free agent.
- JUSSI OLKINUORA: Finnish netminder who played 10 games with the IceCaps, but finished the year with Ontario in the ECHL. Still needs to grow his game: he had a GAA north of 3.00 and a save percentage under .900.
In the system
(Draft picks or players under NHL deals)
- ERIC COMRIE, TRI-CITY AMERICANS: A second-team Western Conference all-star in the WHL, Comrie joined the IceCaps in April and struggled in two starts. But he was recently at Hockey Canada’s Program of Excellence goaltending camp and could be in the running for the World Junior squad.
- JASON KASDORF: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute: Was superb as a freshman, as the ECAC Rookie of the Year, but played in only two games this year after suffering a shoulder injury.
- JAMIE PHILLIPS, MICHIGAN TECH: Seventh-round pick in 2012 now has two NCAA seasons under his belt. Was 4-6-1 with a 2.82 GAA and .892 save percentage for the Huskies.