Without Goaltending, Kiss Your Chances Good-Bye

ondrej pavelec

 Like my esteemed colleague, Jonathan Willis, I’m happy to call myself a "numbers guy." I deeply respect baseball’s Sabrmetricians and I appreciate Willis’s insight into the Nashville Predators’ decision to give Pekka Rinne a seven-year $49 million deal. I also agree with Jonathan when he suggests that certain numbers aren’t as important as they seem.

On Nov. 3 here at jetsnation.ca, Willis posted an outstanding piece on why Pekka Rinne should not have recieved his huge contract. I read it and I don’t disagree with a word of it.

Except for one thing.

If Preds GM David Poile and head coach Barry Trotz believe Rinne is worth keeping, if they believe they don’t have a chance without him, I buy their logic. Like Jonathan Willis, I can live with, or ignore, certain numbers when necessary. When it comes to goaltending, I’m just a tad more visceral.

Having watched Grant Fuhr in Edmonton for all those years, I am convinced that goaltending is as much timing as it is percentages and the importance of having a goaltender that the team trusts is more important than having a guy with great numbers who gives up a cheap one with less than five minutes to play.

Fuhr didn’t have Hall of Fame numbers. Not even close. He had a career 3.38 goals against average and an .887 save percentage. His numbers would suggest that he should have spent much of his career — by today’s standards — in the American Hockey League. In 1987-88, Fuhr played 75 games. He went 40-24-9 with a save percentage of .881 and a goals against average of 3.43. He would have been cose to dead last in the NHL last year in both save percentage and goals against. And yet, the Edmonton Oilers won the Stanley Cup because Grant Fuhr was outstanding.

"Grant makes big saves when we need big saves," Wayne Gretzky once told me. "There isn’t a better clutch goalie in hockey than he is."

Sure, times have changed, but Fuhr wasn’t among the leaders in 1987-88, either. Still, he helped the Oilers win four Stanley Cups in five years because whenever he absolutely, positively had to make a save, he did. He broke opponents’ hearts, playing on a team that won with firewagon hockey. Heck, there were games when Paul Coffey and Grant Fuhr wouldn’t even make contact with each other and Coffey was an Oliers’ defencemen. Fuhr was a winner. Glen Sather knew it and the Oilers skaters knew it and the numbers didn’t matter.

Poile and Trotz are hoping for the same thing from Rinne. They’ve decided that he’s their guy. If Nashville is ever going to win anything  they need a goalie they can trust and they trust Rinne. There were no numbers involved in this signing (and yes, as Willis pointed out, it was an incredible signing for the frugal Predators). This was from the gut. Nashville Brass decided that Rinne is their Grant Fuhr.

And I do not disagree with their thinking. Look at the Winnipeg Jets right now. Ondrej Pavelec has an .899 save percentage and a 3.22 goals against average. If you just looked at the stats, he’d be a lousy goaltender. And yet he has been lights out in the last three games, a 1-0 loss to Tampa, a 4-3 shootout win at Florida and a 3-0 shut out of the Islanders. Ask the Jets players. There is no one they’d rather have behind them right now than Ondrej Pavelec.

When it comes to goaltending, numbers are nice, but having a guy who makes the saves that win games is even nicer.

Seven years from now, we all might say the signing of Pekka Rinne was a failure (although the shutout on the first day with the new contract looked pretty encouraging), but I certainly understand why it was done.

You can’t win a football game without a decent quarterback and you can’t win a hockey game without a decent goalie aOndrej Pavelec Stops the Panthersnd tonight in New Jersey, the Winnipeg Jets will certainly expect Ondrej Pavelec to be nothing less than decent. Despite his numbers.