The Winnipeg Jets have been an above average team this season in just about every regard. They out possess the opposition on a near nightly basis, have a favorable shooting percentage and are getting a good chunk of their starts in the attacking zone. One area the Jets have struggled, though, is between the pipes and things aren’t about to get any easier.
The Jets announced Monday that goaltender Ondrej Pavelec, who was hit by Arizona Coyotes captain Shane Doan Saturday night, has been placed on the injured reserve and, according to TSN’s Sara Orlesky, the diagnosis, a knee sprain, isn’t good. Pavelec is expected to miss all of December’s action, Orlesky reported, and there’s a possibility he won’t return until February.
Normally, this would be where Jets fans — or at least those who have been more on the side of netminder Michael Hutchinson than they have Pavelec — would be excited about the potential for Hutchinson to shine. However, Hutchinson has been statistically worse than Pavelec this season. Of the 42 goaltenders who have played at least 300 minutes at 5-on-5, Pavelec ranks 18th with a .931 save percentage. Hutchinson? He’s closer to the bottom with a 34th-best .912 SP.
To say the Jets can’t afford a run of poor goaltending in the incredibly competitive Central Division would be an understatement. But there may not be reason for the Winnipeg faithful to worry, because with Pavelec’s injury came the call up of Manitoba Moose netminder Connor Hellebuyck, and the future could very well be now for the Jets.
Hellebuyck, 22, is currently in his second year at the pro level after two standout years at University of Massachusetts Lowell, and he was steady in his rookie season in the AHL last season. In 58 games, he posted a 28-22-1 record with 2.58 goals-against average and .921 SP. And at 6-foot-4, 185 pounds, Hellebuyck definitely has the frame to be a big league goaltender.
Things were expected to be a bit tougher for Hellebuyck this season on a young Moose club, but while his record has struggled — he’s only won two of his 10 outings — he has improved everywhere else. Through 10 games, he’s sporting a 2.41 GAA and .927 SP and was among the league leaders before his call up to the big league.
On a number of other teams, Hellebuyck might not get his chance to shine with the starting netminder out, but in Winnipeg, coach Paul Maurice doesn’t seem to have any qualms about throwing his AHL starter between the pipes for the Jets. Matter of fact, he almost seems excited about the opportunity to see what Hellebuyck can do.
“If [Pavelec is out] any kind of duration, I want Hellebuyck to play,” Maurice told WinnipegJets.com’s Mitchell Clinton. “I want to see him play. The games I’ve seen this young man play, I think he can help us win games…When they left camp I thought, ‘I’d like to see this guy play NHL games.’ ”
The opportunity for Hellebuyck to make some noise is there, too, and it’s not all that unlike the chance Andrew Hammond had with the Ottawa Senators had last season. When Hammond came in to Ottawa, the Senators were nine points out of a playoff spot and had a 5-on-5 SP of .925. Once Hammond arrived, the Senators went on a remarkable run, finished the campaign two points out of third place in the Atlantic Division and locked up a wild-card spot. From the time Hammond debuted until the end of the season, the Senators’ 5-on-5 SP was .939. Hammond was one of the season’s greatest stories.
For two AHL call up goaltenders to have similar runs in back-to-back seasons is unlikely, but Winnipeg arguably has the better defensive core and are a much better possession team. That bodes well for Hellebuyck’s ability to have success in the NHL, and it’s undeniable that Hammond had nowhere near the pedigree when the Senators called him up in 2014-15. Before coming to the NHL last season, Hammond was having a putrid season on a bad Binghamton Senators club, and then he proceeded to make a case for the Vezina Trophy in the NHL. The Jets don’t need that from Hellebuyck, but he could at least put pressure on Hutchinson for starting duties while Pavelec is sidelined.
Further, this could be the start of Hellebuyck’s transition to big-league netminder. At season’s end, Hutchinson will become a restricted free agent and could demand a significant raise from the $575,000 he’s currently earning. Pavelec will be locked up for one more year at $3.9 million. If Hellebuyck can string together some No. 1 worthy performances, he could very well push one of Pavelec or Hutchinson out the door, just as Hammond’s play made Robin Lehner expendable in Ottawa.
So while Jets fans may be panicking about the injury to Pavelec or the play of Hutchinson, it might be worth taking a deep breath and seeing what Hellebuyck can bring. Because Winnipeg has back-to-back outings in Minnesota and Colorado coming up it stands to reason Hellebuyck could be seeing a start as soon as week’s end. And if his play from the AHL carries over at all, he could be stealing a spot in the NHL sooner than Jets fans could have imagined.
(All advanced stats via War-On-Ice)