The Winnipeg Jets have a lot of things going for them right now. They have one of the best, young offensive talents in the league in second-year forward Patrik Laine. They have a budding star in 24-year-old center Mark Scheifele, and one of the better point-producers lately in the league, right-wing Blake Wheeler. On the back end, Dustin Byfuglien is an established defensive presence, and 22-year-old blue liner Jacob Trouba has shown lots of promise.
But in the NHL, it’s difficult to win, and nearly impossible to get anywhere near the Stanley Cup, with subpar goaltending, an area which has long been an Achilles heel in Winnipeg. And if the Jets can’t plug their leaky crease, Winnipeg will likely once again find itself on the outside of the playoff picture looking in.
The Jets’ goaltending under head coach Paul Maurice, and really since the team relocated from Atlanta in 2011, has been bad. Over the past six years, the Jets finished in the bottom nine in the NHL in 5-on-5 save percentage five times. In 2014-15, Jets goaltenders combined to go .927 at evens, good for ninth-best in the NHL, and that also happened to coincide with their one playoff appearance since the Canadian move.
The other years though: 27th, 23rd, 23rd, 24th, and 22nd in terms of overall rank in 5-on-5 save-percentage, leaving a lot of room for improvement in the blue paint.
The only real constant over that entire stretch was Ondrej Pavelec, the 29-year-old goaltender who had spent his entire 10-year career with the franchise (beginning in Atlanta, continuing with Winnipeg) before he signed with the New York Rangers this offseason. Pavelec struggled badly in 2016-17, even being demoted to AHL Manitoba, and outside of a .920 save-percentage in 2014-15 (that one playoff year for the Jets) he cracked the .910-mark only one time.
And that’s not entirely an endicment of Pavelec. There were different iterations of Jets teams and, there’s a lot of context to goaltending. But each of the past three seasons the Jets have been anywehere from middle-of-the-pack to pretty good when it comes to allowing five-on-five scoring chances, finishing with the 14th-fewest against in 2016-17, the 11th-fewest the season prior, and the eighth-fewest in 2014-15, according to Naturalstatrick.com. This past season, the Jets had the third-worst scoring-chance save-percentage, with only the Boston Bruins and Colorado Avalanche posting a lower number.
Included in shaping Winnipeg’s goaltending profile a season ago was 24-year-old Connor Hellebuyck, who went through something of a sophomore slump. After a stellar rookie season that saw him post a .939 even-strength save-percentage, and force his way into the Jets lineup, he regressed this past season, the even-strength save-percentage dropping 22 points, and his save-percentage in all situations down 11. Hellebuyck was a standout in his two years as a collegian at UMass Lowell, winning the inagural Mike Richter Award in 2014 as the NCAA’s best goalie, and is the only player in the history of Hockey East to twice win tournament MVP honors.
Given all that transpired a season ago, Winnipeg signed veteran netminder Steve Mason. Entering his 11th season, the Ontario native spent the past four-plus seasons as a member of the Philadelphia Flyers, posting largely steady underlying numbers. Hellebuyck, a restricted free agent, was brought back on a one-year contract.
“I look at it as a great opportunity,” Mason said when he signed a two-year contract in July. “Every goaltender wants to be a number one goaltender, and I think there’s an opportunity here to work with Connor and play lots of hockey. Working with it, our goal is going to be able to provide the Jets with some real consistent, strong goaltending night in and night out, regardless of who is in the net.”
Mason has already been typecast in the role as the well-traveled veteran who can instill his knowledge of the position upon the younger Hellebuyck. In reality, it could be much like the picture Mason painted, of two guys battling for minutes and, Maurice utlimately going with whomever is playing better at the time.
But the bottom line is, for as many goals as Laine will score, and for as many points as Scheifele and Wheeler will contribute, the Jets can only go as far as their goaltending will allow them. Last season, the Calgary Flames posted the lowest team 5v5 save-percentage of any of the 16 playoff qualifiers at .921 (and their goaltending was certainly viewed as a weakness).
Hellebuyck will have every opportunity to show the type of numbers he put up his rookie season weren’t a flash-in-the-pan, and Mason, carrying a cap-hit north of $4 million, certainly wasn’t brought in simply to be a mentor to the young goaltender. Having a second option or a viable backup is a good thing for the Jets (from 2010 to 2016, Pavelec played the 11th-most games of all NHL goalies). Hellebuyck started a career-high 56 NHL games in 2016-17, though he started the identical number the year prior, split between the NHL (26) and AHL (30).
The Jets need their goaltending to be better. In the Central Division, competing with the likes of the Nashville Predators, the Chicago Blackhawks, the Minnesota Wild, and the St. Louis Blues, it’s hard to invision Winnipeg sniffing the postseason without average goalie play. The Dallas Stars figure to be better than their 2016-17 version, and the Central can qualify a maximum of five teams into the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
And maybe one of them will be the Jets, marking the franchise’s second such appearance since relocating north of the boarder, but to do so, it needs it last line of defense to give it a chance at winning.