Jets’ Ondrej Pavelec opens up about road back to the NHL

Winnipeg Jets goalie Ondrej Pavelec. (Mike Carlson/AP)

• Ondrej Pavelec had been underperforming
• Devan Dubnyk can relate to Pavelec’s situation
• Pavelec now making the big save

WINNIPEG — Ondrej Pavelec was light years from the National Hockey League, yet still gearing up each day just 180 steps from his old dressing room door.

A failed starting goalie who had cleared waivers and landed on the roster of the American Hockey League’s Manitoba Moose, he’d make a right, not a left, when he walked into the MTS Centre.

He still got to play at the Winnipeg Jets‘ home rink, but in front of 5,000 or less fans — not the packed houses he used to see. The Jets weight room he formerly used? Out of bounds now, as was the omelette bar that greets Jets players when they arrive for morning practice.

“Nobody feels sorry for you,” said Pavelec, who was called up on Jan. 17 as a last resort in goal and has started seven of Winnipeg’s last eight games. “So you can’t feel sorry for yourself.”

Minnesota’s Devan Dubnyk knows well the fall from grace. He was a starter in Edmonton one day, and seemingly on his third organization the next — hoping for playing time in AHL Hamilton, his game in tatters.

“You know how far away it feels when you’re down there. It’s not like guys get talked about. You get forgotten about pretty fast,” said the likely Wild starter Tuesday night in Winnipeg. “But that would be even more weird. To just switch dressing rooms in the same city? That’s crazy.”

Every team has a Pavelec. A hoped-for superstar signed to a five-year, $19.5 million deal that has underperformed.

The difference is, where Dennis Wideman or Benoit Pouliot can simply get fewer minutes in a depleted role, it’s more complicated when you were supposed to be the No. 1 goalie. But the story of Pavelec and the Jets is a curious one, beginning with a management team that awarded a .906 save percentage over 68 games in 2011-12 with a long-term deal with an average of $3.9 million per season.

Pavelec, who is experienced enough to have played 119 games in the legendary togs of the Atlanta Thrashers, rewarded the Jets with save percentages of .905, .901, .920 and .904 in successive seasons. As such, he showed up at training camp this past September with no chance of making the Jets.

Management had given up on him. He barely played in the pre-season and was quickly farmed out.

“I didn’t know what was going to happen, but I knew anything could happen,” he said Monday, an easy-spoken and engaging interview in English, his second language after Czech. “I could be traded. I could be called up. I could stay in the minors the whole year.

“Paul, Chevy, (head coach Maurice and GM Kevin Cheveldayoff) get paid to make those decisions, and I get paid to play wherever they tell me to play. I didn’t make a big deal of it, and it helped me.

“Things change. I’m back.”

It was not, however, as tidy a transition as Pavelec likes to remember. It is a slick and icy patch of highway from the NHL to the AHL, yet somehow a gravel road all the way back. Especially when you walk in the door of your old rink and the security guy looks at you a little differently than he did the week before.

“I think it was really difficult,” said Maurice. “It wasn’t a straight line, ‘I’m happy to be here I’m just going to work hard.’ He struggled early on, then he got into a rhythm and realized it wasn’t just going to be a weekend turnaround for him.

“He needed to put himself in the best (position) if he got another chance, to be good. But it wasn’t a lock at his age. He took a look at where he’s at in his career.”

We asked three Jets if they’d taken the time to watch Pavelec play when he was a Moose. All three have variations on this theme: “Our schedule is so busy. Guys have families. When I’m not playing hockey I’m helping my wife with the kids…”

That was winger Chris Thorburn, who had his head turned when the goaltending tea leaves became clear during training camp. “It was a shock at training camp,” he said. “For everyone.”

Today, on a Jets team that failed the Connor Hellebuyck experiment this season, Pavelec is the No. 1 again.

“He’s kept us in games, helped us win games, won games for us… He’s a great person too,” said Thorburn.

To listen to Maurice tell it, Pavelec is making the necessary two or three big saves in a game that a team can’t necessarily expect but will always wish for. Those unexpected, prime scoring chances that allows your own team believe, and makes the opponent think that maybe this won’t be their day.

“I didn’t come here and try to prove to someone that I can play in the NHL,” Pavelec said. “I didn’t need (to prove) it. I play hockey for myself, and even in the minors, I felt real good about my game. I knew the only way to get back was to just suck it up. Practice hard, play the games.”

His contract ends after this season, so between now and then the hockey world will recalibrate on Pavelec. Is he a No. 1? A 50/50 guy like a Chad Johnson or Jacob Markstrom? He might be better than what Dallas has, but is he enough to win with?

And what about Las Vegas?

Whatever, says Dubnyk. Pavelec is back on the map and back in the conversation, which is the important thing.

“Good for him to get it together and be ready when he got a chance.”

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