WINNIPEG – Their goaltending was near the bottom of the league last season, but coach Paul Maurice says the Winnipeg Jets have to play better hockey in front of Ondrej Pavelec before they can assess their starter.
“Play a strong enough game in front of him, give him a chance to win every night, and then we’ll make an assessment of our goaltending and where it’s at,” Maurice said as training camp opened Thursday with player physicals.
“I have confidence in this man and his abilities to do it.”
General manager Kevin Cheveldayoff and now Maurice haven’t wavered in their support of the Czech import, and his teammates agree they haven’t always given him the help he needs.
Pavelec, 27, joined the Atlanta Thrashers in 2007-08 and became their starter in 2009-10. He was the team’s most valuable player in 2011-12, the year the Thrashers relocated to Winnipeg and became the Jets, but even then his numbers weren’t great.
They turned abysmal last season. Pavelec let in the most goals of any netminder in the league at 163 and his .901 save percentage was tied with Martin Brodeur at the bottom of the 30 players with 39 games or more.
The Jets finished 22nd last season, with a record of 37-35-10. Pavelec’s record was 22-26-7.
A trimmer and presumably fitter Pavelec went through his physical with his teammates Thursday. No players were made available to reporters.
Maurice was the only voice explaining what the team will try to do to get better and he wasn’t making any rash promises about playoff hockey come next spring.
“You’re going to ask me every day, ‘Hey, are you guys going to make the playoffs this year?’ I know that’s coming and I don’t have an answer for you. We’re going to have an answer for you somewhere in the early part of April . . .”
“I tell you what we’re going to do. We’re going to work our butts off in training camp to get better.”
That includes Pavelec, he said.
“We need Ondrej to be every bit better as every other player . . . The talent is there and we’ve seen it. We need to put a structure in front of him that he understands. . . He needs to do the work.”
His backup this season, at least so far, looks like rookie Michael Hutchinson, who came out of the Jets AHL farm team late last season and impressed enough to stick around and displace Al Montoya.
Maurice said the most important thing the Jets can do this season is improve defensively.
“No Stanley Cup champion ranks in the top-10 of everything but the one area that’s consistent is they’re good defensively. And we’re talking about from a goals against strictly point of view. We have to be a better defensive team.”
It’s something he preached last season and something his predecessor Claude Noel also talked about until he was sacked in January after a five-game losing streak.
Maurice promises more than just talk. He says things like ensuring people are where they’re supposed to be on the ice are going to dominate training camp, not scrimmages.
“We’re just going to do it over and over and over again until we get it right. Last year from day one of my taking over the job to the end of the regular season I believe there were two days when we didn’t work on our defensive zone coverage.”
He also promised things in the three systems they’ll be learning that are new to all the players. The Jets hit the practice ice Friday and play their first exhibition game Monday, when the Minnesota Wild visit the MTS Centre in Winnipeg.
The team may be looking for better results but makeup-wise it doesn’t look a lot different from last season.
About the biggest change is the replacement of centre Olli Jokinen with Mathieu Perreault. It looks like a slight upgrade since both had 18 goals and 43 points last season, but Perreault did it in 69 games with the Ducks and is only 26. Jokinen took 82 games and is 35.
“You’ve got a player that’s quite quick . . real good faceoff man,” offered Maurice, who said wherever Perreault lands, they want to use his offensive skills.
It seems likely he’ll centre Winnipeg’s third line, but with whom is anyone’s guess at this point.
“They have to be good defensively . . but we want them to generate some things. . . We are expecting him to work into the power-play units . . . increase our skill level a little bit in terms of how we can move the puck.”
The big hope for new talent, however, seems to be from within, which shines a spotlight on Jets’ prospects like the team’s No. 1 draft pick this year, 18-year-old Nikolaj Ehlers, or Adam Lowry, a six-foot-five centre who found his footing last season in his rookie year in the AHL.