Two or three years ago, being compared to Steve Mason was considered high praise for a young goaltender. It meant that they were deemed to be one of the league's up-and-comers, a netminder with a bright future in the National Hockey League. More recently, however, with Mason's struggles only intensifying in Columbus' current train wreck of a season, the connotation of that comparison has changed completely. That is why it should be somewhat concerning for Winnipeg Jets fans that their starting goaltender has, over the last year, had a progression that is reminiscent of the descent into futility observed in Mason.
Steve Mason is famous for his glorious run in December 2008, where he stopped 320 of 337 shots for a .950 save percentage. That made him the toast of the NHL and gave him a surge of attention that carried him all the way to a Calder Trophy, even though his play dropped off substantially over the rest of the season. Many reasons have been given to explain his numbers, but the most likely one is that he got a bit lucky while being well-supported by a Ken Hitchcock-coached defensive squad before the league caught on to some of his areas of weakness.
Ondrej Pavelec's 2010-11 season started off with a scare after he fainted in the middle of the team's home opener against the Washington Capitals. After he took three weeks off to ensure he was fully recovered from his health issues, Pavelec had a bit of a slow return to action, dropping his first three starts before suddenly catching fire. He played well for the rest of the month, closing off his memorable November by allowing only five goals against in six straight victories. As a result, his name was even thrown around in the early Vezina Trophy conversation.
Unfortunately, one month does not make a season, and one should never conclude too much about a goaltender from a sample of a few hundred shots against. Pavelec's play declined as the season wore on, in particular over the last three months of the season, where his numbers were frankly pretty awful (4-11-2, 3.33, .883), albeit on an Atlanta team playing out the string.
The return of the Winnipeg Jets came with much fanfare, but so far, the goaltending results are perhaps a little too reminiscent of the masked men of Winnipeg's history, goaltenders that were more frequently mediocre than spectacular. Pavelec and backup Chris Mason both currently hold save percentages south of .900, numbers generally considered to be below replacement level in the current scoring environment.
Comparing Pavelec to Steve Mason on a month-by-month basis, starting with December 2008 for Mason and November 2011 for Pavelec, creates an interesting parallel:
Mason: .950, .904, .901, .914, .883, .881, .902, .898
Pavelec: .951, .922, .908, .880, .886, .885, .885, .908
Those last five consecutive months have to be particularly concerning for Winnipeg management. It does not represent a huge sample size (971 shots against), but the binomial probability that a goalie with league average talent allows 108 or more goals on 971 shots against like Pavelec did is only 0.004. Even assuming that Pavelec's true talent was .905, the same calculation shows a chance of just 1 in 20 that he would hit such a poor streak by chance alone.
Of course, that is not to say that Pavelec's numbers will continue to follow the same pattern of mediocrity as Mason's. There are several important differences between the two. For starters, Pavelec has been praised for having a strong work ethic, in contrast to Mason. Pavelec also was not rushed to the NHL, playing two full seasons as a starting goaltender in the AHL before becoming the main option in Atlanta. As a result, Pavelec was three years older over the time periods compared above, with 61 prior NHL appearances under his belt compared to Mason's eight (although Pavelec's aggregate performances over those early-career games combined to an unremarkable .902 save percentage).
There is also a question as to whether Pavelec has received poor defensive support from his teammates. Over the past several years, Atlanta was routinely been among the worst teams in the league at allowing shots against. Former Thrashers Kari Lehtonen and Johan Hedberg have seen their even strength save percentages bounce upward by .005 and .004 respectively over the last two seasons since moving on to other teams. The teams have also been undisciplined, taking more penalties than average, and so far this year, that trend appears to have carried over to Winnipeg with the Jets averaging one extra power play opportunity against per game compared to an average team. In addition, since Pavelec's first NHL season in 2007-08, the team's goalies have combined for an .856 save percentage while shorthanded, a considerably lower rate than what would be expected based on their slightly below-average even strength results, which suggests that poor defensive play was primarily responsible for the franchise finishing in the bottom 10 in penalty kill efficiency in every season since the Lockout save 2009-10.
How to deal with outliers is always a difficult consideration when it comes to statistics. Perhaps Pavelec has been simply unlucky over the past calendar year, or has been dealing with other personal or team issues that have had a negative impact on his performance. Throwing out only his best performances is somewhat unfair, as removing his worst month or his worst dozen games would of course boost his numbers in the other direction. However, the concern is with the recent consistency of his play, not simply the overall effectiveness. The problem for Pavelec is that there is very little in the rest of his career that approaches his performance statistics from last fall, while the vast majority of it has been in the same range as his numbers this season.
It is not time to panic yet in Winnipeg, but Ondrej Pavelec needs to be better. At the moment, he does not even look like a league-average goalie, and unless his play improves, he will not be the long-term future at the position that the Jets were hoping for. Whether Pavelec will play through and rebound from his struggles or see his career go downhill remains to be seen, but whatever happens, Winnipeg should be sure to evaluate him based on the majority of his play, not just the incredible potential he briefly showed last fall. After all, if you remove that single 30 day period, his career numbers look an awful lot like those of another once-shining netminder:
Ondrej Pavelec, excluding November 2011: .901 on 3618 shots
Steve Mason, excluding December 2009: .900 on 4947 shots
Philip Myrland is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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