When a National Hockey League coach is rotating his starting goalies the way Winnipeg head coach Paul Maurice is, it’s like a baseball manager going the closer-by-committee route.
The coach is not doing it because he has two No. 1s. Usually, he doesn’t have even one, and he’s hoping that a starter might magically emerge.
Welcome to Winnipeg, where the Jets’ most expensive goaltender can’t even make that aforementioned two-man rotation, with Ondrej Pavelec and his $3.9-million AAV parked in the American Hockey League with the Manitoba Moose, stealing valuable minutes from prospect Eric Comrie.
In Winnipeg, the crease being shared by promising Connor Hellebuyck and over-achieving Michael Hutchinson is becoming a metaphor for the entire franchise: Always decent, but seldom great. Or shall we say, not good enough to contend.
Pavelec was signed in June of 2012 off a season where he had posted a 2.91 goals-against average and a pedestrian .906 save percentage. In ensuing seasons, his save percentages moved from .905 to .901, to .920 and back down to .904.
He took the new Jets to their only playoff appearance two seasons ago but posted an .891 once he got there. Yecch.
So the moral of that story is, even a smart management team makes a mistake once in a while. Today, the Jets team save percentage of .909 ranks 15th in the NHL — middle of the pack. Their record is 4-5-0 — slightly below average out West.
Last season the Jets team save percentage, according to sportingcharts.com, was .903 — tied for 26th in the NHL. The season before: .913 (ranked 10th). The season before: .907 (22nd).
Average numbers on an average team. Though, of course, it is never entirely the goalie’s fault. We realize that.
In fact, in towns like Toronto and Edmonton we have seen goalies arrive with very strong numbers earned on teams like the Los Angeles Kings or New York Rangers, only to see their stats plummet behind inferior defences and bad systems play by talent-deficient rosters.
The Jets, however, have a roster that is ready for big-league goaltending and the confidence that it brings. Even with Jacob Trouba on his holdout, the Jets have shown to be explosive enough to erase big, third-period deficits in wins over Toronto and Carolina. They have Mark Scheifele, a superstar in waiting, plenty of size, and a defence that is better than most.
The old saying still applies, however: Goaltending is 75 per cent of the team, unless it’s not good enough. Then it’s 100 per cent.
And with all the salary devoted to the position, the Jets are stuck. Pavelec’s deal is virtually un-moveable and Hutchinson’s 69 NHL starts are likely 69 more than the Jets thought he’d get when they found him as a free agent, given up on by the Boston Bruins.
Hellebuyck is only 23 and clearly the future among this group, but you know what they say about potential: It just means you haven’t done anything yet.
At Halloween, the Jets are averaging just 2.44 goals per game, ranked 22nd in the league and equal to the St. Louis Blues. But St. Louis is four points ahead of Winnipeg in the standings based on allowing only 2.22 goals per game, more than a half-goal better than Winnipeg’s 2.89.
On Friday Hutchinson shut out Colorado 1-0 in Denver, giving Maurice a chance to break his rotation for the first time all year. After three goals at home on Sunday against Buffalo, Hutchinson was pulled however, and eventually tagged with the loss in a 3-1 defeat.
“I didn’t like the last two (goals), but he played so very well in Denver. I didn’t pull him out of anger,” Maurice explained afterwards. “The third one should never have happened. The shot should never have happened.
“I’m not hanging that one on (Hutchinson).”
It is the kind of goaltending the Jets have endured for too long now. There is no confidence to make a mistake, because for too many years in a row that mistake wound up on the scoreboard.
Yes, we are only nine games into the 2016-17 season, but American Thanksgiving looms. And we all know what that means.
In the decade after the lost lockout season of 2004-05, teams that were in post-season position entering the American Thanksgiving holiday have gone on to make the Stanley Cup playoffs 77.3 per cent of the time, according to STATS LLC.
Last season, one Western team (Anaheim) passed another (Vancouver) to make the playoffs, while three did so in the East. That’s four of 16 teams — or roughly keeping with that 77.3% statistic noted above.
This season, that date is Thursday Nov. 24. Between now and then, the Jets will play nine of their 13 games on the road, with a home-and-home against the Washington Capitals.
It is time to take a step in Winnipeg, after a disappointing, last-place season in the Central last season.
And it won’t start at all, if it doesn’t start in goal.