There will be no shortage of issues and question marks for the Winnipeg Jets this season. Team fitness, the power play and depth on the blue line are chief among the potential trouble spots.
However, no issue stands out more for the Jets, and among Winnipeg fans, than the performance of Ondrej Pavelec, the team's No. 1 goalie. Whether the Jets can climb out of last place in the Central Division will hinge, in large part, on Pavelec.
Pavelec will be 27 years old when he begins his sixth season as an NHL regular, but he is still trying to establish himself as capable of moving into the middle-tier of starting goaltenders.
Keeping the puck out of their own net has been an issue for the Jets since the team relocated to Winnipeg from Atlanta in 2011. Coach Paul Maurice ironed out some of the more glaring defensive deficiencies, but the team still ranked No. 21 in the League in goals-against last season.
Pavelec played a significant role in the defensive problems in the 2013-14 season. His 57 games tied for No. 13 among NHL goaltenders, but four of Pavelec's starts ended with Maurice, or former coach Claude Noel, pulling him from the game. In all, Pavelec finished 22-26-7 with a 3.01 goals-against average.
Pavelec's .901 save percentage was a career full-season low for him and placed him No. 46 among 51 qualified NHL goaltenders last season. Team management believes improved team defense and an improved commitment to fitness among all players, including Pavelec, whose fitness has been a subject of scrutiny in Winnipeg, will boost the goaltender's performance this season.
During the first nine games after Maurice replaced Noel, Pavelec had a .925 save percentage as the Jets' shots-against per game in that span was 27.2. Whether or not the Jets, who allowed 30.1 shots per game overall, can maintain that pace defensively through an entire season will be another question.
The franchise missed qualifying for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the seventh consecutive season and Pavelec was criticized for his role in the failure. Frequently his name was mentioned as a possible candidate for a compliance buyout this past June.
This season, rookie Michael Hutchinson will likely serve as Pavelec's understudy. Hutchinson, 24, began last season in the ECHL before snagging an opportunity with the Jets' American Hockey League affiliate, the St. John's IceCaps. Hutchinson was 17-5-1 with the IceCaps with a 2.30 GAA and .923 save percentage.
Hutchinson went 2-1-0 with a 1.64 GAA and .943 save percentage with the Jets.
The Jets saw enough in Hutchinson to allow Al Montoya to leave via free agency to the Florida Panthers, and now they are counting on Hutchinson to push Pavelec for playing time. In all, Pavelec has started 167 of the 212 games the team has played since arriving in Winnipeg.
Still, even if Hutchinson can establish himself as a capable NHL backup goaltender, the Jets have insisted all along that Pavelec is their goaltender.
Nothing during the past four months would indicate that Cheveldayoff's confidence in Pavelec has wavered, either.
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