Connor Hellebuyck is making the decision easy.
That decision, of course, depends what general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff and the Winnipeg Jets want to do with the rest of the season.
If you haven't noticed, the future appears to be right now for the Jets with regards to the situation in their crease, as Hellebuyck has been everything as advertised.
The club's top prospect, still just 22-years-old, was sensational in Winnipeg's 4-1 win over the Nashville Predators Tuesday night, stopping 43 of 44 shots and sending fans into a frenzy over a goaltender who should be in the Jets net for the next decade or so.
Check out these numbers: since being recalled for an injured Ondrej Pavelec on Nov. 22, Hellebuyck is 9-4-0 with a 1.93 goals against average and an alarming .935 save percentage—alarming in the sense that he's doing this behind a club that has not only taken a boatload of penalties but has also been a little loose in its defensive coverage.
Tuesday, Hellebuyck was under siege right from the opening whistle, turning back a 2-on-1 chance and a breakaway opportunity before the game was 70 seconds old. The 6-foot-4, 207-pound netminder made 17 saves in the first period, giving his club a chance to find some semblance of a gameplan with the game still there for the taking.
The last time the Jets rolled into Music City they got rolled, down 4-0 early and losing to the tune of a 7-0 score. Hellebuyck made sure there was no encore.
With the win over the Preds, the Jets (19-19-2) are once again a .500 team, which is where an important decision from management comes into play.
Winnipeg has 42 games left. They remain in last place in the Central Division. They are five points out of the second wildcard spot (Nashville), and are surrounded by five other clubs (separated by no more than three points) fighting to keep hope alive.
Making the playoffs is going to be tough.
Are the Jets out of it? Of course not. Don't be dumb.
Can make up the ground? Maybe. Anything can happen.
There is a certain reality facing Winnipeg, though. The team will probably have to win roughly twice as many games as they lose the rest of the way to make any push a successful one, and they'll probably have do it under difficult, disruptive circumstances. Andrew Ladd and Dustin Byfuglien, two pending unrestricted free agents who could generate a lot of conversation come the Feb. 29 trade deadline, will have to be moved to ensure the Jets get something for those players.
No way Cheveldayoff can risk losing them for nothing, right? Asset management is crucial for this franchise. It has to be.
As of Tuesday, there was no definitive timetable for Pavelec, who suffered a lower-body injury in November. When he returns, the Jets will have three goaltenders on the NHL roster. All things being equal, and under the premise of the Jets going with the best roster they can ice, the smart bet would be Hellebuyck backed-up by Pavelec, with Michael Hutchinson as the odd-man out.
If the Jets are to make a second-half run, Hellebuyck will be a key player. If Tuesday is any indication, he will need to stand on his head to make any push a reality—a big ask for a 22-year-old NHL rookie.
Ride this out and see what happens. That's one way the decision can go.
But with the uncertainty surrounding the roster and the rather large task of climbing back into (and maintaining) a post-season spot, does it make more sense for Cheveldayoff to recognize the reality of his roster, the mediocre win-loss record is has to this point and understand the greater good that could come with a higher pick in what figures to be another loaded draft this summer?
That would mean sending Hellebuyck back down to the Moose. Yeah, good luck selling the demotion to a fanbase that is getting increasingly impatient of looking up at other teams in the conference. People are ready for the future to start right now.
It says here this season can be salvaged two ways: embrace the soft tank, pluck a couple assets at the trade deadline and add those to a Top 5 pick at the draft versus a frantic, exhausting rush to grab the last playoff spot that will probably end in another first-round exit. Maybe they re-sign Ladd and/or Byfuglien. Maybe they walk for nothing.
It all starts with what Cheveldayoff decides to do with Hellebuyck when Pavelec comes back.
How much pressure is on the GM to make the playoffs? We may have an answer soon.