When people imply that the Winnipeg Jets are playing with house money this season – or, in other words, that they can have a rough season on the ice but will be spared because of the mere presence in Winnipeg – they’re mostly correct. Of course, those statements cover the team at the box office and in the hearts of fans, but the actual players suiting up during games will face a season-long audition to prove to new GM Kevin Cheveldayoff that they’re a part of the club’s future.
That might be especially true when it comes to their duo of goalies: Ondrej Pavelec and Chris Mason.* They’d be facing enough pressure just by the regime change alone and their own up-and-down moments during the 2010-11 season, but the interesting thing this is that both goalies are in contract years, so next season will determine their future with the Jets and the NHL overall.
Pavelec will go into the 2011-12 season as the probable No. 1 goalie, but he might face more pressure since this is his chance to prove that he has the chops to be a top guy. As you may remember, Pavelec’s season started in a scary way with his out-of-nowhere fainting spell. Amazingly, he played his best hockey shortly after that frightening episode, but his play tapered off toward the end of the season to match the Atlanta Thrashers’ own struggles.
Still, he put up a solid .914 save percentage and 2.73 GAA while going 21-23-9, the best individual numbers of his short NHL career. Pavelec definitely showed some potential during last season, but he’ll need to put together a consistently strong 2011-12 season to convince the Jets’ brass to keep him in the fold.
Mason has been one of the league’s most underrated 1b/backup goalies the last few seasons, but he fell on his face pretty badly in 10-11, sporting ugly individual numbers (.892 save percentage and 3.39 GAA) with a mediocre 13-3-3 record.
The stakes are probably lower for the journeyman goalie who can grow an all-world beard, although another .892 save percentage-type year might convince many that his days of being NHL-relevant are over. It wouldn’t be surprising if Mason finds himself in another uniform next season, because his main goal is simple: secure an NHL job.
For what it’s worth, Mason seems confident that the duo will have a strong season in 2011-12.
Mason, who is in Winnipeg training, says fans can expect goaltending to be a strong point.
“I really think we can be a top-notch talent,” he said after skating with local NHL players at the MTS IcePlex Tuesday. “Pav’s an unbelievable talent, a good young goaltender and a great guy. I really enjoyed playing with him last year and this summer I worked a lot on my strength conditioning and I plan to try to push him.”
“Last year (Pavelec) had a two-month stretch where, in my opinion, he was a top goaltender in the league,” Mason said. “The last half of the season was different for our whole team … we kind of fell off … but he definitely has the potential to be a great goaltender in this league.
“I’ve been around long enough to know that every year you never know what’s going to happen. I’ve played as little as 10-11 games to 60-some games. I just have to work on performing when it’s my turn.”
Ultimately, I think the dangling carrot of a contract year should propel at least one (if not both) goalies to reach their highest potential. When you consider the fact that they’ll be playing in a hockey hotbed like Winnipeg instead of a struggling market like Atlanta, it’s quite possible that the sheer excitement might help carry them on tougher nights as well. (Of course, the heightened pressure might break them down, instead.)
Either way, it’s one of the more interesting goalie duos to watch since the Jets rank as one of the few teams who haven’t determined their mid-to-long-term future in net just yet. We’ll have to see if greed is good for those goalies.
* This is assuming that David Aebischer doesn’t pull off a serious upset by stealing one of the jobs during a training camp tryout, of course.