Time hasn’t run out on the Winnipeg Jets this season. Despite having played the most games in the Western Conference and not currently being in a playoff spot, they remain in the picture.
As of now, they sit four points out of the final wildcard spot, currently held by the Los Angeles Kings. They actually are only five points out of the first wildcard spot, with the Calgary Flames currently holding that spot and only one game in hand on the Jets.
So for Winnipeg, the playoffs remain a very real possibility this season. It would be only the second time they would have made the postseason since relocating from Atlanta.
In order to reach the playoffs, they are going to need better goaltending, as the tandem of Connor Hellebuyck and Michael Hutchinson has been a disappointment to this point in the season. After a brief cameo last season, the Jets thought so much of Hellebuyck that they placed longtime starter Ondrej Pavelec on waivers and later assigned him to the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League (AHL) to allow their young goalie a clear path in the net.
Hutchinson has proven to be a strong backup would support Hellebuyck. Despite a strong showing here and there, things have mostly gone wrong in Hellebuyck’s first full season as an NHL regular. Both he and Hutchinson sit at the bottom at almost every 5v5 metric, with the latter having the third worst save percentage overall (of all goalies with at least 600 minutes at even strength). Hellebuyck hasn’t done much better, owning the 12th worst SV%. Both have posted negative Goals Saved Above Average (GSAA) marks, goals against per 60 (GA/60) of 2.50 and higher while neither are in the top 20 in shots against per 60 (SA/60).
There is some good that has come from the Jets this season, mainly on offense. Patrik Laine, who is out with a concussion currently, has been everything he has said he would be during the predraft process. Despite being out, the Finish rookie still sits in a tie for third in the league in goals.
Laine, Mark Scheifele, and Nikolaj Ehlers give the Jets three players in the top 25 in scoring. At 5v5, Ehlers has been one of the league’s best playmakers, posting the fifth highest assists per 60 (A/60) in the league and is 13th overall in points per 60 (P/60; among all forwards with 500 5v5 minutes).
Getting Jacob Trouba back in the lineup gives them a deep defensive group, all though they are without both Ben Chiarot (recently placed on IR) and Tyler Myers right now. Former first-round pick Josh Morrissey has quickly risen to a top pairing role as a rookie and Dustin Byfuglien is on pace to push the 50 point barrier again.
Winnipeg still boasts one of the best farm systems in the league, even if you go ahead and take Laine, Hellebuyck, and Morrissey off the list. Jack Roslovic, Brendan Lemieux, Nic Petan, Eric Comrie and Kyle Connor lead a list of top prospects that are all playing at the professional level.
It’s been the goaltending, plain and simple. With Hutchinson and Hellebuyck being a combined ten goals under league average (going back to their GSAA), it has pushed them to the outside looking in when it comes to the current playoff picture.
If the Jets were able to get league average goaltending play to this point in the season, they are probably pushing the St. Louis Blues for the third and final spot in the Central division and sitting at the top of the wildcard standings.
The goalie situation is so bad that they are going back to a player that they put on waivers, and have tried to dump in recent years in Pavelic. Since his best year of 2014-2015 when he helped the Jets make the playoffs, it has been a steep drop for the now 29-year-old Pavelic. That year he posted a 2.28 GAA and .920 SV%, a distinct difference than in his career marks of 2.86 and .907.
With Manitoba this year, Pavelic has posted a 2.78 GAA and a .917 SV% in 18 games.
It isn’t Pavelic. It just isn’t. He had a good year when the Jets made the playoffs, but that was an outlier for him. It might provide a temporary spark for Winnipeg, him getting another shot in the NHL, but it isn’t a permanent answer in net.
How quickly Hellebuyck has fallen from his first brief appearance a year ago might make Winnipeg think twice about even giving Comrie a look. The 21-year old goaltender was an AHL All-Star last year and is currently posting better numbers this season but the Jets have the depth to allow them to be patient with him.
With the expansion draft and the fact teams will only be able to protect one goalie, there is a chance that plenty will be available at the deadline. The only question is if the Jets are going to be willing to tap into that very deep prospect pool to expedite the process or if they are willing to let it ride with the young kids to see where they really stand.
A lot of that will depend on how Pavelic looks when he finally gets into a game. If he provides a spark or is even just average, that would be an improvement and the Jets could find themselves in the playoffs.
If not, this gives the Jets plenty of time heading into the trade deadline to reassess where they are at right now and maybe draw up a new plan before making any big decisions.