The Curious Case of Ondrej Pavelec
It’s easy to blame the Winnipeg Jets lacklustre 2013-2014 campaign so far on their goaltending. More specifically Ondrej Pavelec, who has struggled mightily at times.
Pavelec has been the perennial starter for the Jets ever since they moved to Winnipeg, but has been trending downward every season ever since. An objective look at Pavelec’s statistics question his ability to carry the workload of an everyday NHL starting goaltender, other than his large five-year $19.5M contract, and while some of that can be tied to porous defensive play, some of it falls on the goalie himself.
Despite all this, former Jets head coach Claude Noel continued to start Pavelec instead of backup Al Montoya, who has put up much better numbers. It was a decision that may have been one reason behind Noel’s firing earlier this week.
With the raw talent Pavelec possesses, it’s no wonder scouts went bonkers over him as an 18 and 19 year old playing for Cape Breton of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. He posted a 55-29-0 record with a .920 save percentage and 2.52 goals against average in his junior career, which took place in the very high-scoring Quebec league. He has always displayed a great mix of size and natural reactions that cannot be taught, but he seems to struggle in the teachable areas.
So, the question becomes: is Ondrej Pavelec fixable? And if so, what can he work on to salvage his season?
His fitness level has fluctuated throughout his career, and the Jets website currently lists him at 220 pounds. That is not horrible for a guy that is also listed at 6-foot-3, but it could be better. He has more than enough leg strength to be an elite-level goaltender, and displays it every chance he gets by “popping up” out of the butterfly with both legs. It’s a tough move that requires great strength, but is not always the best move when you should really be loading your weight on one leg or the other. He tends to overuse the pop-up technique, and occasionally throws himself off balance in the process.
Sometimes these mistakes actually show up as the fantastic highlight reel saves his supporters point to as evidence of his ability. Because he is off balance, he has to stretch to recover and make fully extended saves, but simple proper leg recovery will have him in better position to make those saves more routine.
His balance also comes into question on cross-crease passing plays. He is very good at reading plays, but almost jumps out of his skates when trying to get across. It would greatly benefit him if he worked on loading his weight properly first, then using those leg muscles to drive himself over to the other side of the crease, while keeping his body up. Keeping the body up is the key, because he ends up flat on his stomach all too often.
The possibility of making a second save is essentially nil when that happens. Just ask Roberto Luongo, who had to correct a similar problem at a much older age.
Size is not an issue for Pavelec, so theoretically a more conservative style would benefit him. He likes to play an aggressive style, sometimes ending up two or three feet outside of his crease, but it often leads to him being out of position for a second shot opportunity.
Toning down the aggressiveness would take some of the decision making out of his hands, like what Jeff Reese and the Flyers did with Steve Mason, and it would simplify the game. They should not turn him into a robot blocking machine, but they should have him sit back and rely on those great reactions more often. A more conservative technical and tactical approach will hopefully give Pavelec the consistency he desires.
An NHL goaltender can never get by on technique alone, but most NHL goalies will tell you a good technical foundation provides consistency. If you add that extra layer of Pavalec’s raw talent to a more consistent fundamental base, the results can only be positive. Right now he relies more heavily on reading and reacting, which isn’t a bad thing, but placing so much emphasis on the timing it requires tends to leave goalies more prone to the ups and downs that come with relying on rhythm. And ups and downs, going from “how’d he stop that” saves to “how’d that go in” goals, have defined Pavelec’s career to date.
It may seem like a trend, but becoming more conservative is what goalies are doing now to achieve success, and it doesn’t appear that Pavelec has tried it. He displays some of the necessary patience on breakaways, an area that he excels in, so it should not be a very difficult transition for him to start using that in other situations.
Pavelec can apply his aggressiveness to an area that he tends to get beaten on, which is screen shots from the point.
This should be the situation when he uses his aggressiveness, and does not sit back. Instead, he does the opposite and relies on his reactions, but it is not working for him. He needs to work at finding a sight line sooner, even if it means battling a bit with the other team’s forward that is attempting to screen. He is too passive and it results in missing the puck by mere inches because he did not shuffle over slightly. If the puck carrier at the point slides the puck over two or three feet and wires it, he needs to adjust by shuffling over, not just sit back and hope to pick it up as it gets closer to the net.
There is one thing Pavelec needs to realize, though; If you are unable to see the puck when you know it is at the point, you have to change that. You absolutely cannot sit back and simply react. That is also an area that the Jets’ defence can help their goaltender out a bit more, as well. Clearing sight lines for the goaltender is the defenceman’s job as well, and Pavelec does not get a lot of help in that regard.
There is a misconception that the Jets are actually not that bad of a defensive team, but the numbers do not back that up. They sit 20th in the league in shots against with 30.5 per game, but the league average this season is 29.8. That is only slightly worse than average, but when you dig into the Corsi numbers – the Jets are awful. They play an up-tempo game so they get a lot of scoring chances, but they are still giving up far too many opportunities. They are second-worst in the league when it comes to shot opportunities given up while 5 on 5, sitting at 1,495 in 48 games – ahead of only the Toronto Maple Leafs when it comes to that stat.
Giving up 31.2 shot opportunities while 5 on 5 would be manageable, if not for the fact that Winnipeg also spends much more time on the penalty kill than other teams in the NHL. They are the fourth-worst team when it comes to penalty kill time, spending 150 minutes and 23 seconds on the penalty kill so far.
Is Ondrej Pavelec entirely to blame for the Winnipeg Jets poor first half of the season, and cause for the dismissal of Claude Noel? Not at all.
The entire team must own the fact that their coach took the fall for their poor play. Pavelec has certainly not been playing up to his capabilities, but not all hope is lost. There are technical adjustments that should be attempted by Pavelec before a rash decision is made – like trading or releasing such a raw talented goalie. He has the skill to be elite in the NHL, but some hard work needs to be done to restore his reputation.