May 07 2012 11:05AM
As the summer approaches and most sensible people around here turn their thoughts to the lake or the links or a patio on Corydon Avenue, Kevin Cheveldayoff has a more than a few meaningful jobs on his to-do list for the off-season.
One of the primary tasks at hand will be to decide precisely how to handle the RFA status of Ondrej Pavelec. The 24 year old is coming off of a season where the local media anointed him the team MVP, but a deeper look at his performance suggests that the team shouldn’t be too hasty in signing Pavelec to an expensive deal.
Performance In Context
Before I proceed any further, exhibiting a degree of caution when signing any goalie always seems in order, given the wild swings in SV% that so many NHL netminders post from season to season, and this playoff season is replete with object lessons showing the folly of presuming that an expensive goalie guarantees consistent output.
Marc-Andre Fleury, Ilya Bryzgalov, and Corey Crawford were amongst the notable goalies that scuffled this year and all of them continued their shaky play in round one, with the Penguins stopper the worst offender. Those three gents play for wealthy teams that might be able to bury their mistakes at some juncture, but not every team has that luxury when things sour in the net (cough Steve Mason cough).
The Jets, nice financial numbers from this year aside, don’t appear to be the sort of team that would send a player off to Europe to burn off a few years of a lousy deal, a la Cristobal Huet, so the need for the club to get matters right on contracts is more acute than it might be for some of the league’s high rollers.
Beyond Winnipeg’s state as a middling earner, though, there are a number of on-ice factors that would make me a bit leery of tossing a big pile of cash towards Pavelec over the long term. Since he’s only played about 190 games in the NHL, it isn’t the worst idea to examine his performance before he reached the bigs to give a fuller picture of his performance to this point.
Pavelec’s first full AHL season was 07/08, where he was the primary goalie on the Calder Cup champions. He posted a .911 SV% in 52 games, placing him 18th among goalies that played at least 25 games, which certainly isn’t anything special. By way of comparison, Jaroslav Halak managed a .929 SV% in 28 games for a Hamilton team that finished 11th in the Western Conference that season.
In 08/09, Pavelec improved to a .914 SV% in 40 outings, a number was once again only good enough for the 18th best performance by AHL goalies that played at least 25 games. Cory Schneider finished that season with a league leading .928 SV%, so Pavelec still seemed to finish quite a ways up the track relative to the league’s elite tenders.
One thing of note is that AHL EVSV% aren’t as readily available as in the NHL, so there’s always the chance that Chicago was a terrible PK team that drove his overall percentages down. The Wolves were the 7th best PK team in 07/08, but in Pavelec’s better season of 08/09, the Wolves were 23rd on the PK, so it's at least plausible that the Wolves' PK work hurt his overall numbers. Still, nothing on the surface stands out as incredibly untoward.
09/10 saw Pavelec graduate to the NHL, where he shared time with Johan Hedberg. Scott Reynolds from the Copper and Blue has recently done some fine work attempting to assess what a replacement goalie's SV% should look like, and at EV for 09/10, that figure was .909. Pavelec finished that season with a .908 mark at EV, so his performance was nothing special, even for a backup. Hedberg finished the season with a .921 EVSV%, right in line with the .920 league average for starters that year, so Atlanta's lousy team play can't automatically be held responsible for Pavelec's SV%.
Last year, Pavelec became the Thrashers' primary goalie, and his season, at least at EV, was quite good. He finished with a .914 overall SV%, and his EVSV% was .928, which is a very solid number. As Derek Zona’s post from a couple of weeks back showed, the average performance by a NHL goalie was .921 at EV in 10/11, so Pavelec’s body of work in 58 games was fairly laudable. Atlanta was a below average team at preventing shots against when playing 4 on 5, right in line with their past efforts when down a man, and there’s at least a smidgen of evidence that shot quality might exist on special teams, so I’m not inclined to ding him too much for the hit a .852 PKSV% made on his overall SV%.
Moving along to 11/12, Pavelec posted a fairly pedestrian .906 overall SV% this past year, which was a fairly steep fall from his output in 10/11. His EVSV% went right down the hole as well, dropping from .928 in 10/11 to .917 this past year. As I mentioned above, Derek’s post suggests that .917 at EV isn’t a number that one would associate with the league’s better keepers.
This is normally the juncture where apologists would wave away any complaints about Pavelec by pointing to the poverty of Winnipeg’s defensive zone play in 11/12. They aren’t necessarily wrong about the lousy d-zone coverage the Jets offered up on most nights, but it should be noted that 11/12 saw Winnipeg cut over 2 shots/60 off of their 10/11 totals in Atlanta, and while there are any number of phrases I might use to describe the Thrashers’ own-zone play in 10/11, “air-tight” likely wouldn’t be amongst them.
In other words, it seems less than plausible that the Jets were markedly worse in their own end than the 10/11 Thrashers, and yet Pavelec’s own performance slid precipitously. Had Pavelec replicated his 10/11 EV performance, Winnipeg would have saved approximately 19 goals from this year’s figure. 6 or 7 extra points might not have got the club to the post season, but stopping a few extra shots versus Ottawa alone might have aided matters tremendously in that regard.
One argument made on Pavelec’s behalf was that he was likely overworked, since 68 games is the most he’s every played in a season, and his fatigue apparently played a role in his decision to decline his country’s invitation to the World Championships. I’m normally a bit sceptical about claims that fatigue damages goalie performance, but in this case, there might be something to that line of thinking.
Parsing the Season
Timeonice.com shows that Pavelec posted a .923 5V5 through the Buffalo game on March 5th, the 55th game of his season. That night was also when the Jets were in the most favourable position they would be all season in terms of the playoffs, 3 points ahead of Washington with the Caps holding 2 games in hand. .923 is obviously just OK 5v5, but it’s a figure that’s a least presentable for a regular goalie.
From that point onward, he batted .906 5v5, with a particularly ghastly .883 when the game was tied. 5v5 SV% and the NHL EVSV% aren’t always perfectly in tune because the NHL numbers obviously include 4v4 play, but they’re close enough for these purposes. In any case, that’s not a number that particularly flatters Pavelec, and the Jets fell out of the race despite scoring about 3 goals a game down the stretch.
It’s also worth mentioning that the Jets actually were marginally better at outshooting during Pavelec’s last 13 games as well, going from an overall Fenwick % of .503 through his first 55 games to .505, and their Fenwick tied in front of Pavelec went from .492 to .509. The Jets did give up a couple of more shots per game in that stretch, but most of that seems linked to the fact that they were chasing games early on, and there certainly isn't anything suggesting the extra volume was solely composed of ten bell opportunities for the bad guys.
In any event, we know that Fenwick and scoring chances tend to run together fairly closely, so the fact that the skaters weren’t operating at a significantly diminished level doesn’t really fit the narrative of a team that was markedly worse 5v5 in the final stretch. Pavelec’s own performance, on the other hand, hit the skids, so I won’t discount the possibility that fatigue might well have played a part in his late-season struggles.
With everything tallied, Pavelec has likely had one above average year as a goalie in his 5 pro seasons, along with a few poor ones. I don’t doubt he was a better option that using Chris Mason this past season, but it's always wise to rememeber that there’s a significant difference between simply being Winnipeg’s best option and being a legitimate top 15 NHL goalie.
I’m not running anything, obviously, but on the off-chance my opinion were requested, I might advise the Jets to look at Pavelec in the same manner the club regarded Zach Bogosian last summer. Bogosian was a player of great promise that hadn’t quite put the pieces together, so rather than trying to sign him to a long term deal, Bogosian and the team agreed to a two year bridge deal for 2.5M per season. Blake Wheeler was in roughly the same boat, and the club took the same approach in his case, avoiding arbitration by inking him to a two year deal for 2.6M per year.
Those contracts appear to be excellent value, albeit with a bit of risk for the club over the long haul since the Jets will have to head back to the table with both players next summer, and both of them will have significantly enhanced bargaining power when that happens. That’s a risk that any team has to take with RFAs, though, and it’s one I’d take in Pavelec’s case.
Of course, arbitration is also an option in this case, and although that option always seems fraught with the possibility of damaging the player-club relationship, the Jets can’t fear taking Pavelec to a third party. You can't use video, and the only stats permitted are ones readily available on NHL.com can be used, so there won't be any high-light reel stuff to be offered on the player's behalf. As for the numbers, save percentage would be the primary stat in play, and his 11/12 season was not up to snuff by that criteria, especially at EV. Allan Walsh is a creative gent, but I’m not sure he’d relish the task of defending a goalie that posted one of the worst figures in the league of any starter in front of a team that cut its shots against total by over 100 from 10/11.
In the end, my primary fear is that the Jets end up regarding Pavelec in the same manner Pittsburgh assessed Marc-Andre Fleury. The two do appear to share the twin penchants for spectacular saves borne from an over-reliance on athletic skill, often equally matched by dreadful play driven by shaky positioning. Having paid close attention to the media coverage this season, I don't doubt for a second that it's those flashy saves that appear to fool people into thinking that they're a cut above most stoppers.
The essential aim of a goalie is simply to not allow pucks to pass him by, though, and style points aside, Ondrej Pavelec's actual performance at the basic task of a goalie would have me cautioning any team against locking him in to deal beyond a couple of seasons.