It’d be tough to blame Jets fans who are disappointed with how the 2015-16 campaign has gone thus far. With 28 games remaining in their season, the Jets are seven points out of a wild-card spot, 18 out of a Central Division berth and, in all likelihood, destined to finish outside the post-season for the fourth time in five campaigns since the franchise moved from Atlanta to Winnipeg.
With the threat of missing the post-season looming, though, there was a glimmer of hope in the play of rookie goaltender Connor Hellebuyck, especially after injury felled Ondrej Pavelec. But the Jets were never going to carry three goaltenders. So when Pavelec was activated Friday, Winnipeg demoted Hellebuyck, the surefire goaltender of the future, to the AHL’s Manitoba Moose.
There’s little doubt a number of Jets fans, many of whom are still holding playoff aspirations, are unhappy with the decision. Here’s the thing, though: demoting Hellebuyck was the right call.
Without a doubt, one of the most troubling aspects of the 2015-16 campaign has been the Jets’ inability to get steady goaltending. Last season, the Jets were helped by the play of Michael Hutchinson and Pavelec, the latter of which had become one of the most maligned starters in the entire NHL. The tandem was successful in 2014-15, though, and both Pavelec (15th, .930) and Hutchinson (23rd, .924) finished in the top half of the league in 5-on-5 save percentage. This season, not so much.
Pavelec’s numbers have stayed relatively the same (.931 SP), but Hutchinson’s have seen precipitous drop. Through 20 starts and more than 750 minutes at 5-on-5, he has a .902 SP. Only two of the 58 goaltenders who’ve played more than 500 minutes, Columbus’ Curtis McElhinney and San Jose’s Alex Stalock, have been worse. So when Pavelec went down with injury and the reins were passed to Hutchinson, there began to be some worry about his ability to hold up. And those continued, at least until Hellebuyck showed up.
Over the past two and a half months, Hellebuyck has made his mark in Winnipeg. Almost immediately upon coming up from the Moose, he snatched the starting gig from Hutchinson and rightfully so. In 26 appearances, he has posted a 13-11-1 record, 2.34 GAA and .918 SP to go along with two shutouts. More importantly, though, he was giving the Jets a chance to win on any given night, something they didn’t have with Hutchinson’s struggles and Pavelec on the shelf.
From that perspective, it might be puzzling why Hellebuyck, 22, now finds himself back with the Moose instead of continuing on with the Jets. But that’s not really not hard to understand.
If this Jets team is going to make the post-season, they weren’t going to make it on the back Hellebuyck alone. His play was remarkable, to be sure, but barring the second-coming of a once-in-a-generation run like Ottawa’s Andrew Hammond went on in 2014-15, the Jets weren’t going to be able to be backstopped to the playoffs by their rookie goaltender. And while Pavelec’s shaky play in the past may have him closer to heading out of Winnipeg than he is to earning the adulation of Jets’ fans, his play should be good enough to get Winnipeg to the post-season if the team can play well enough in front of him.
But consider that the Jets have only a 5.1 percent chance of making the post-season, according to SportsClubStats.com. And consider then that the Jets’ strength isn’t in their current on-ice product but in their depth of prospects. Missing the post-season wouldn’t be so much a step back for the Jets as it would be an inevitability during a time of growth.
Which brings us to the demotion of Hellebuyck. Keeping Hellebuyck would serve little purpose in the long run, and it appears GM Kevin Cheveldayoff is thinking big picture with the first-year standout. If he were to stay in the NHL, it may only stand to negatively impact his career. Say what you will for confidence, but Hellebuyck has already been pulled in two of his past three starts, one of which saw him get the hook after allowing three goals on six shots in less than five minutes of work. Going back to the AHL, where he has been excellent, gives him a chance to keep playing and get some of that confidence back. There’s no use putting the potential mental stress on the youngster with no promise of a grand reward at season’s end.
Winnipeg is in the midst of an important period and they’ll have important decisions to make. Demoting Hellebuyck was one of those choices. Cheveldayoff already checked one major box on his to-do list when he signed Dustin Byfuglien to a contract extension, and now he has to decide how to proceed with captain and free-agent-to-be Andrew Ladd. None of this is to mention that a strong showing by Pavelec could help Cheveldayoff’s ability to unload the netminder’s contract, if that’s the GM’s wish.
The immediate implications of Hellebuyck’s demotion are that Winnipeg appears less likely to go all-in this season in an attempt to make a miracle run to the playoffs. But long-term, this choice some will be unhappy with bodes well for the Jets’ future.