Three-goalie systems are a reasonably new concept in pro hockey.
Once upon a time, schedules made it possible for team’s to carry ‘a guy’. With the exception of situations like the Johnny Bower-Terry Sawchuk tandem in Toronto in the late 1960’s (where Bower and Sawchuk were 40 and 36, respectively), teams were able to rely on one goaltender for nearly their entire season through the pre-expansion era.
Once the schedule got larger – and goaltending got more difficult, more developed, and more physically strenuous – teams moved to rely upon two guys.
Now, waiver status and the cap is leaving some teams relying upon three net minders at a time.
This is almost always an awful idea. Period.
The only team that’s successfully carried three goaltenders in the last few years was the 2015-16 Philadelphia Flyers, who signed former backup Ray Emery to a tryout contract in the spring to serve as a practice goaltender.
Every other situation has seen it turn out nothing short of disastrous. The Calgary Flames saw it hurt the development of prospect Joni Ortio last year, while the New York Islanders ultimately found themselves walking away from hurt feelings and poor results for veteran Jaroslav Halak this year over their carrying of three net minders.
Now the Winnipeg Jets are trying it, and it’s the wrong thing to do.
The Winnipeg Jets finally seemed to walk away from the ever-polarizing Ondrej Pavelec to start the 2016-17 season, waiving him and subsequently reassigning him to the AHL’s Manitoba Moose.
In his place, wunderkind Connor Hellebuyck was thrust into the starting role, with Michael Hutchinson as his backup.
Hellebuyck had been highly impressive – and consistent – through his previous tenures as starter at every level. The NAHL? He was excellent. NCAA? One of the best. AHL? Consistent and strong. IIHF play at the World Championship? Took Team USA to bronze, with a roster captained by Matt Hendricks.
As the Jets faltered (and ultimately failed to put up any kind of consistency) this season, though, Hellebuyck struggled. He ultimately found himself dipping so low that he was yanked in two consecutive starts, after allowing six goals on just thirteen combined shots.
Enter Pavelec (again).
The Jets brought back their former starter from the minors, giving him the start in his first game back for a 6-3 win over the Arizona Coyotes.
After allowing some seriously ill-tracked goals against Arizona, Pavelec managed to hold on and help the team take home the win – breaking a four-game losing streak they’d been on prior.
Now, the team is carrying Pavelec, Hutchinson, and Hellebuyck – and in this case, three is definitely a crowd.
WHAT SHOULD THEY DO?
Ideally, the Jets will send Hellebuyck down to the AHL for a bit of conditioning.
Even just five or six games in the minors can turn a goaltender’s season back around when he’s tired, stressed, or off his rhythm – especially one as young and still relatively inexperienced as Hellebuyck.
Take a look at what Jonathan Bernier saw last season. After an abysmal start to the 2015-16 campaign, the starter spent time in the AHL on a conditioning stint.
The result? Three shutouts in four games with the Marlies before returning to the NHL.
Once he got back up to the Leafs roster, Bernier was able to pull his numbers back up to keep Toronto at least capable of staying in games down the back stretch of the year. This season, he’s been up and down – but his even strength numbers are good and consistent this year, something he was struggling to do before the AHL stint.
The tough part, of course, is that neither Hutchinson nor Hellebuyck are capable of being sent down to the minors without being waived.
The team almost certainly needs to keep Hutchinson around as expansion fodder. Waiving him would leave them in a bind come summer time. Hellebuyck, who would have been waiver-exempt still had he not played in his 60th game just this week, would be ridiculous to waive.
Those few conditioning games, though, would be better than nothing.
When talking to Hellebuyck earlier in the season, he mentioned that his game is all about playing, identifying his mistakes, and then entering his next game with a clean slate. He works on specific problems in between games, but doesn’t harp on them while on the ice mid-start.
A tough stretch like the one Winnipeg has been on, though, can jar that kind of mindset. It can make it harder to find that clean slate each game, which throws Hellebuyck off of what – in essence – helps make him so strong.
Keeping all three goaltenders up, therefore, certainly isn’t the answer the Jets are looking for.