Do the Winnipeg Jets Have a Goalie Controversy?

Winnipeg Jets:  Pavelec or Hutchinson? –

Winnipeg Jets

Michael Hutchinson versus Ondrej Pavelec

Despite Ondrej Pavelec making improvements this season, his sliding numbers in the past month or so have left a sour taste in some fans mouths.  AND with the emergence of Michael Hutchinson, do the Winnipeg Jets Have a “Goalie Controversy” on their hands?

Ondrej Pavelec has put up a .911 save percentage with a 2.52 goals against through 30 starts and 31 games played.  Not great, but not terrible either. Michael Hutchinson boasts a save percentage of .935 with a goals against of 1.90 in 19 starts, 21 games.  They have split the action more or less between the pipes thus far.  Two goalies playing well is a good problem to have.  The Winnipeg Jets are benefiting and for the first time since coming to Winnipeg they have legitimate shot at making the playoffs!

Is this a controversy?

Michael Hutchinson’s save percentage is the best in the NHL of any goaltender with at least 20 games.  Climbing the ranks from the ECHL all the way to the NHL in a short period of time, Michael Hutchinson has turned many a head across the league.  Going 3-0 with one shutout against the Chicago Blackhawks is something worth bragging about.  Last time a team won three trips in a row during a season in Chicago’s United Center was 2006-07.  Not too shabby.

Michael Hutchinson has earned more starts as the season progresses.  He and Ondrej Pavelec are being rotated each game more or less.  Michael Hutchinson has to be the “Hot Hand” for the Winnipeg Jets right now.  How long before coach Paul Maurice is forced to increase Hutchinson’s starts?

Last season Ondrej Pavelec had a .901 save percentage and a goals against of 3.01.  The Winnipeg Jets missed the playoffs by seven points and fans started rumbling.  Many wanted something done about the goaltending situation putting the brunt of the Winnipeg Jets lack of success on Pavelec.  It didn’t help his case that Al Montoya finished with a solid .920 save percentage and a 2.30 in 28 games with 22 starts.  This only added fuel to fan’s frustrations.  They want better results from their netminder and were wondering why Pavelec continued to see so many starts?

Overall it has been a better season for Ondrej Pavelec …. so far.  His average is up and despite having a few four goal games he is working on improving his play. With Michael Hutchinson’s success, it’s getting difficult to deny Hutchinson the majority of starts until he proves he isn’t ready to take them.  The numbers don’t lie.  Ondrej Pavelec has been below average for the majority of his career.  How much of that falls on him?  How much falls on the rest of the team?  How much on the management?

All of the above.

This all adds up to exactly what it should, a team that had rushed young players into the league.  A team that neglected a long-term goal attempting to achieve success sooner.  Being in a market like Atlanta likely doesn’t afford you a lot of time to build your team.  You need to win to attract new fans in a new market where hockey isn’t a primary attraction.  Looking back, it obviously was not the way to do things because the franchise moved unfortunately for Atlanta Thrasher fans.  On the bright side, we have our Winnipeg Jets back.

What does all this have to do with Ondrej Pavelec though?

Far too often in the past, Winnipeg Jets fans watched the team running wild with no solid system in place.  Sloppy play and puck chasing becomes a habit and the scramble ensues.  Sadly this wasn’t just the case here in Winnipeg.  This has been going on since the team’s Atlanta Thrasher days.

The players aren’t sure where they are expected to be or where each other will be for that matter.  Shady breakouts, poor neutral zone play and flaws all over the ice results in turnovers.  Turnovers likely end up as shots on your own net.  For a goaltender, this is about as difficult as it gets.  Trying to figure out where your teammates are going to be, where the shots are coming from and where you can put a rebound?  Bad habits develop, over aggressive play, trying to do too much, leads to poor rebound control, that more often than not leads to a puck in the back of the net.

Why are we keeping him around?

Despite some fans chattering about buying out Ondrej Pavelec during the off-season, Kevin Cheveldayoff chose to stand with Ondrej Pavelec.  The Winnipeg Jets have Pavelec under contract for two seasons and at the salary he makes, with the numbers he had put up, a trade was highly unlikely.  He stuck with Ondrej Pavelec by having a new coach in Paul Maurice with a new-found spirit of commitment around the team, and also financial reasons.  I for one wouldn’t want to explain tossing away millions of dollars to Mark Chipman.  Tossing rookie goaltenders into the crease isn’t a smart move either.  Though Hutchinson stepped up, there wasn’t any guarantee at the start of the season.  Having Hutchinson come in as back up after emerging through the ranks so quickly, Kevin Cheveldayoff also gave a “Professional Try Out” to Danny Taylor as sort of an insurance policy.  Hutchinson started shaky but they let Taylor go and stuck with Hutchinson.  Looking back, they definitely made the right choice.

Lost in this is the prospects Connor Hellebyuck, and Eric Comrie.  Having Pavelec around buys time to develop.  Having Ondrej Pavelec improve his game only makes life easier on Kevin Cheveldayoff down the road when the rookies are ready and it is time to part ways with some assets.

You can’t teach an old dog new tricks … or can you?

Having a good system in place under coach Paul Maurice, the Winnipeg Jets are able to focus some attention on improving Ondrej Pavelec’s game.  This season truly is an opportunity to teach an old dog new tricks.  If the players on the ice are given the benefit of the doubt, Ondrej Pavelec deserves the same.  Just as the rest of the team, Ondrej Pavelec developed some bad habits through years of poor play around him.  Wade Flaherty has been working with him and I can see improvements.  He isn’t where they would like him to be.  I’m sure if you asked Pavelec he’d tell you the same.  There’s still room for improvement but the better the Winnipeg Jets can make their goaltending appear the more value they can command should a trade opportunity present itself down the road.

To sum it up, Kevin Cheveldayoff’s best and safest bet was to stay with Ondrej Pavelec as the starter at the beginning of the season.

Then there’s the whole “They play differently in front of Hutch than they do Pavelec” debate.

If that is true, the real question is why?  Do they play worse for Pavelec because they don’t like him?  Are they trying too hard because they don’t believe in him? Are they doing too much and getting away from the system?  I guess it’s possible. I’m not in that dressing room so I couldn’t tell you what goes on.  Based on what I have seen, I don’t think this is the case.

Maybe the team in front of him want to do better for Ondrej Pavelec?  Possible they see him as a good teammate and want him to succeed and they want him to feel good about his game.  They want to help him out so they get caught doing a little more?  Many of these guys have been on this team with Ondrej Pavelec for years.  Having a bond there isn’t a stretch of the imagination either.  Again, it’s pretty hard to speculate what goes on in that room without being in there.

The fact that Ondrej Pavelec and Michael Hutchinson have two different styles of goaltending may change how it looks to fans.

Michael Hutchinson is a typical butterfly goalie, sound positionally, good rebound control and fairly aggressive at playing the puck.  He usual handles it well.  Except that one time … We won’t talk about that one time…

Ondrej Pavelec has a hybrid style of his own, isn’t the greatest puck mover and when he leaves the crease I always think of Dominik Hasek and consider closing my eyes in fear of watching another horrific play with the puck.  Despite that, Hasek had pretty good success so I’m not pinning that as a down side to Pavelec. He has some trouble tracking pucks, rebounds have been an issue but we have also seen brilliant saves from Pavelec.  Whether he created the scoring chance or not, his athleticism isn’t in question.  On some level, without going into great detail, the difference between the two has to change how the team adapts a little bit.  Saying they play different on purpose is a stretch for me.

What does the future hold?

Ondrej Pavelec has allowed four goals in four of his last seven games.  If he can’t find a way to be better consistently, he isn’t going to see many starts as the playoff push heats up.  Michael Hutchinson should see more starts if he can continue his success.  I do believe in riding the hot hand and if they really want to see what they have in Michael Hutchinson they are going to need to lean on him at some point.  Paul Maurice will have to decide on a true starter as the end of the season gets closer especially if the Winnipeg Jets are to have their first appearance in the post season since their return to Winnipeg.  They need to pick a goalie to lead them in.

When looking at the big picture, I see no controversy here.  Kevin Cheveldayoff, Paul Maurice and the coaching staff have handled this juggling act pretty well, keeping limited pressure on all parties involved without compromising development for Michael Hutchinson and the two young prospects Connor Hellebuyck and Eric Comrie.  Long term success after all is the goal.

The real controversy may come down the road if the Winnipeg Jets find themselves with an abundance of quality goaltending and no room to fit them all in.  That would be controversy I can live with.

Go Jets Go!

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