By Jacob Messing
The Atlanta Thrashers joined the NHL as an expansion team in 1999, and the journey to a serious postseason run has been anything but smooth. In 16 seasons, the organization has relocated, played eight playoff games, won zero, and morphed into the Winnipeg Jets, all while struggling to balance offense, defense, and goaltending.
But this team may finally be ready to fly.
To achieve the thrust, balance, and lift needed for flight, there must be an equal strength of left and right wings and power to boot -- think offense, defense, and talent. But once the plane hits the sky, if the captain wants to take the aircraft to its desired location -- optimistically speaking, the Stanley Cup -- he needs a working rudder.
For the Jets, that rudder is goaltending.
General manager Kevin Cheveldayoff has finally struck a balance among his units. Blake Wheeler, Mark Scheifele, Patrik Laine, Nikolaj Ehlers, and Bryan Little steady one wing. And Dustin Byfuglien, Jacob Trouba, and Josh Morrissey bolster the other.
Winnipeg is left with the rudder. As of now, it’s made of a promising experimental material, and if it can hold up then this plane may carry the Jets deep into the playoffs.
In the franchise’s 16 seasons, the team has finished in the bottom five in goals against 10 times. A statistic like that certainly speaks about the lack of defense, but a goalie inevitably see shots and needs to stop them at a better rate than the franchise’s crease has in that span.
Ondrej Pavelec has been the Jets’ No. 1 since the start of the 2010-11 season. He has only posted two seasons above a .910 save percentage and one season below a 2.30 GAA. The Czech Republic natvi finished bottom of the league in goals against from 2011-2014, giving up 473 goals on 4,931 shots for a .904 save percentage.
He was the broken rudder keeping the plane from reaching its destination.
Three years ago, 24-year-old Michael Hutchinson came in and posted a .914 save percentage, 2.39 GAA, two shutouts, and 21 wins in 36 starts. But the former third-round pick has regressed in each of the past two seasons, watching his save percentage go down (.905) and goals against average go up (2.87). He won just ten games in 45 starts in that span.
In 2015-16, the 22-year-old Connor Hellebuyck jumped on the Winnipeg merry-go-round of netminders. He posted a .918 save percentage, 2.34 GAA, two shutouts, and 13 wins in 26 starts, looking better than his numbers suggest.
Call it a sophomore slump, but the Commerce, Michigan, native’s numbers dipped to a .907 and 2.89 a year ago, although he still posted four shutouts and 26 wins in 53 games.
High hope remains for the 24-year-old, who will battle Steve Mason for the starting role this year. Mason, 29, has seen his numbers bounce around since his Calder Trophy-winning season in 2008-09, a campaign in which he also finished second in Vezina Trophy voting.
Columbus traded Mason to Philadelphia after three subpar seasons, landing Sergei Bobrovsky, but the Canadian goalie’s four seasons on Broad Street didn’t as smoothly as anybody hoped.
Mason did post a modest .918 save percentage and 2.47 GAA, but his lack of consistency and inability to bail out Philly’s sluggish blue line made him expendable.
Now, he’s out to prove he can still compete at the highest level. A friendly competition between he and Hellebuyck could do the Jets well, as only goaltending is the only facet of the game keeping the Canadian side out of the postseason.
But the real biggest obstacle standing in Winnipeg’s way to the playoffs isn’t actually goaltending; it’s the gauntlet that is the Central Division.
Three teams between the Jets, Dallas Stars, Nashville Predators, Minnesota Wild, St. Louis Blues, Chicago Blackhawks, and Colorado Avalanche are postseason locks.
However, a weak Pacific Division could open up room for five Central teams to make the playoffs. The competition is stiff, but with a high-powered offense and a stingy blue line, a beneficial crease combat between Hellebuyck and Mason could see the Jets be one of those five.
Their most auspicious road to the postseason is to ensure they post a winning record within their division and hope to win any tiebreakers that could come into play.
Have a question or a comment for Jacob Messing? You can find him on Twitter @JMessing23.