The challenge in analyzing Ondrej Pavelec’s career lies in the influence of Sportsnet Central and the like over the general fan base. When exposed to the imagery that populates great-save reels, we are generally treated to goalies who have placed themselves in dangerous positions that force them to rely on desperation to make miraculous saves. Every goaltender in the NHL makes these saves, but the question lies in their importance.
The issue is about opportunity. Netminders who trail plays and generally find themselves out of position more often increase their opportunity for big saves. More chances for such saves mean more opportunities to populate highlight reels, which work as currency for fans’ opinions on goaltenders they don’t regularly follow. It can be just as influential as save percentage for the fan who tracks performance through data.
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That is why Pavelec is so polarizing. When a fan sees a performance like the one Pavelec delivered against the Dallas Stars on January 15 it can be taken as evidence of his greatness. A typical average expected save percentage of .913 would have predicted four goals against Pavelec. When I ran it through my location/movement data it rose to five goals against or an expected SV% of .894. During his outstanding performance against the Stars, 12 of the 47 shots he faced were high-end with pre-shot movement. He also faced a breakaway and finished the night with a .979 SV%.
It's performances like that one that show how single-game samples wreak havoc on the eye-test analysis. When contrasted with other mediocre goaltenders, those who support Pavelec’s overpriced contract often fall back on his save percentage being the result of a poor team in front of him. It is an argument that has merit in certain circumstances and one I argued in favour for in regards to Ben Scrivens in Edmonton.
And with stats we can propose the team argument by looking at how his peers have performed as Winnipeg Jets/Atlanta Thrashers since 2008.
From that data, we can infer that the team has been bad for years, hence continually poor save percentages for its goalies. Unfortunately, outside of Kari Lehtonen, the goalies being referenced are mostly unproven NHLers or career backups—guys like Johan Hedberg, Chris Mason, Peter Mannino and Al Montoya. So in reality, Pavelec—along with his $3.9-milllion cap hit—is actually being compared to borderline NHLers, not bonified No. 1 starters.
The question then is whether Winnipeg/Atlanta goalies have all been significantly below league average or if they've been dragged down by a poor defensive structure. I ran 2,200 shots through the shot quality machine and got the following results:
The Jets have been slightly below average defensively with an expected SV% of .911 with Pavelec in net—below average, just what haunts Pavelec. He is exactly league average on clean opportunities, but his struggles are exposed in situations where he is overactive or is late tracking the puck. His save percentage plummets when fighting through screens. While reviewing him, I have noticed a lack of willingness to maintain visual attachment to the puck. When he loses sight, he has a tendency to guess and drop into the butterfly. That guessing leads to overactive responses on simple plays, meaning he's the cause of a lot of his own issues. And when he is able to clean up his own mess, it is generally in an inefficient manner, which results in a spectacular save.
Here's a series that shows exactly what I mean:
Above we see Pavelec losing visual attachment to the puck and not fighting for his sight lines. Here he is tracking Ryan Getzlaf across the royal road. As Getzlaf recognizes Ryan Kesler open for a backdoor feed, he begins to reverse the flow. At this point Pavelec is in good position.
But once Getzlaf has reversed the flow and the puck is on route to Kesler for a one-timer, Pavelec has lost sight of the puck. He guesses a shot is on the way and drops into the butterfly.
As Kesler begins to release the one-timer, Pavelec has recognized what Getzlaf has done and is now searching for the puck. At this point Pavelec is in panic/desperation mode and must rely on his reflexes, which is generally when the spectacular save emerges.
Except there is no miraculous recovery. As the shot crosses the goal line, Pavelec has finally read the play. This scenario can easily be dismissed as a lateral feed where the goalie has zero chance. It is a situation that involves one of the highest probable scenarios for offensive success: traffic in front, a man advantage and a lateral back-door feed across the royal road. But elite-level goaltenders fight, read and assess these situations earlier than Pavelec. When you repeat these behaviours over and over, they result in higher levels of success in larger samples.
Pavelec is trailing the play and goaltenders who do that with regularity need to be in controlled and protective environments. When they are, their flaws can be hidden because they aren’t forced to assess difficult scenarios as often.
Fortunately for the Jets, they have a goaltender who plays a more controlled style and—even as a rookie—rarely trails the play in this manner. Michael Hutchinson has been impressive during his small sample success. When contrasting his play with Pavelec's this season, it's clear which one should be getting the bulk of the starts.
The question becomes can Hutchinson maintain this level of play. It is unlikely that he is a .930+ goaltender, but the competition is replacement level. Hutchinson is significantly above average in every category I track except for rebound shots, where he is -.013 below the league average. The number that will likely drop is his save percentage on clean shots. Hutchinson has been successful on over 96 percent of the shots he can see and set for. This makes up 85 percent of all shots he faces.
Even if we went to extremes and dropped him to the league average on clean shots, he would still rate comfortably above Pavelec’s below average career.
I am not a fan of scanning the save percentage stats and pointing at goaltending as a resason for team struggles without context through deeper research. In this case, it is correct to assume that if the Jets want to make a real run for the playoffs, they would be smart to flip their goaltending usage rates and use Hutchinson as their guy over Pavelec.