Photo Credit: Jerome Miron/USA TODAY Sports
The Winnipeg Jets’ post All-Star break tailspin was momentarily halted this past weekend, when the club managed an opportunistic comeback victory over the juggernaut Tampa Bay Lightning. It was notable because wins have become something of a rarity for this Jets club since late January.
Rarer still was the relatively sturdy goaltending the Jets received from Ondrej Pavelec. Though Winnipeg’s ostensible backup didn’t face much pressure in the game, he was competent in turning away 15 of the 16 shots he faced. Pavelec’s performance was only the fifth quality start by a Jets goaltender in 21 games since the All-Star break.
Competent goaltending is all the Jets, a quality puck possession outfit with a deep blue line, really require. It’s also something the club hasn’t been able to rely on ever since arriving in Winnipeg. Will it cost them again this season?
Admittedly this is something of a trick question since goaltending quality – or a lack thereof – has already cost the Jets. It was only six week ago that the Jets looked like a shoe-in to qualify for Lord Stanley’s extravaganza of penalty-free hockey and emaciation. Winnipeg’s playoff hopes have eroded steadily and significantly since.
At the rudiment of these struggles is the Jets’ (version 2.0) most persistent bug, their iffy goaltending, which still hasn’t been patched.
Since the regular season resumed following All-Star weekend, Jets goaltenders Michael Hutchinson and Pavelec have combined to post an .878 save percentage. That’s a ghastly number and the lowest mark in the league by a fair margin.
This lack of dependable puck stopping has betrayed a Jets club that has been an elite puck possession team all year.
Since January 27, Winnipeg is actually the second best team in the league by all situation shot attempt differential, but despite out-attempting and outshooting opponents by a considerable margin over the past six weeks, the Jets have been outscored by 14 goals.
Only four teams in the NHL have been outscored by a wider margin during this span: the Buffalo Sabres, the Arizona Coyotes, the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Edmonton Oilers. You might detect a theme there. Those are are all clubs that are dreaming of Connor McDavid’s mug sporting their laundry on draft day, rather than the opportunity to compete for Lord Stanley’s mug this spring.
Here’s a graph depicting a 10 game rolling average of Winnipeg’s on-ice save percentage, which I’ve annotated:
And here’s another one, featuring Winnipeg’s playoff odds. I’ve similarly annotated it:
We can invoke ergo propter hoc without the fallacy: the recent inability of Winnipeg’s netminders to stop pucks at an NHL-average rate isn’t just related to how the Jets’ playoff hope are quickly fading, it’s the root cause.
Second verse, same as the first
Though the Jets have received only modestly below average goaltending on the whole this season (Winnipeg currently ranks 16th in 5-on-5 save percentage for the year), goaltending has been this club’s Achilles heel ever since the organization was uprooted from Atlanta.
In fairness to the Jets there was reason to believe that Hutchinson could be the answer to the club’s perpetual need in net. From his solid AHL numbers, to his stellar run of play this winter – Hutchinson reached a level of performance that resulted in his name prematurely cropping up in Calder Trophy talk – it probably made sense for Paul Maurice and the Jets to ride the hot hand for as long as they could.
It appears to have burned them of late though, as Hutchinson’s form has been cataclysmic. Since the All-Star break 34 NHL goaltenders have logged at least 500 total minutes. Of those regular recent starting goaltenders, Hutchinson’s save percentage is easily the worst in the league.
Sometimes goaltenders, even goalies who will eventually develop into dependable starters, struggle over a 15 game (or larger) sample. Let’s call this the Darcy Kuemper/Devan Dubnyk rule.
These performative nadirs don’t tell us much about a young goaltender’s true talent level frankly, and for Hutchinson, he’s still managed a respectable .916 save percentage in his NHL career. That larger sample of career information should take evaluative priority over Hutchinson’s brutal run in February, but again, he’s only faced slightly more than 1000 shots in his NHL career, so we can’t say much of anything about his true talent level with any certainty.
The 25-year-old netminder has been shaky enough though that you would understand if Maurice decided to ride Pavelec – as consistently below average as he’s been for his career – down the stretch.
It’s a tough spot to be in. On the one hand Hutchinson is probably the better bet to give you above average goaltending going forward, but there’s less certainty about precisely what he is. Higher upside, higher risk.
So over a small sample of high leverage games: are you better off taking the risk, or going with a possibly inferior, but perhaps more stable option?
Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff has built a deep club with a smattering of credible top-of-the-lineup assets and one of the league’s most impressive prospect pools, but the persistence of this team’s goaltending issues reflects poorly on his managerial tenure.
It’s possible that Winnipeg’s porous goaltending has already cost the Jets an opportunity to bring playoff hockey back to Manitoba for the first time in nearly 20 years. At some point Jets management has to actually fix this issue, right?