Jets column: The curious case of the Jets crease
Pavelec and Hutchinson opened the door for Connor Hellebuyck, 22, to start the meter on his own NHL career
On the surface, the move to send Connor Hellebuyck back down to the Manitoba Moose made a lot of sense.
Over there was Ondrej Pavelec, deemed healthy and ready to resume his position in the Winnipeg Jets goal when head coach Paul Maurice gave him the green light prior to the start of the club's four-game road trip.
Pavelec made 21 saves in a 2-1 shootout win over the Edmonton Oilers Saturday night. It was his first action since going down with a lower-body injury in a Nov. 22 games against the Arizona Coyotes.
And on the other side of the room sat Michael Hutchinson. The Jets back-up netminder was struggling right around the time Pavelec got hurt and hasn't exactly put up a convincing argument for more crease time this season.
While the 28-year-old Pavelec missed 33 games trying to get back to full health, his absence and Hutchinson's struggles opened the door for Connor Hellebuyck, he of just 22 years of age, to start the meter on his own NHL career.
The rookie gave everyone a taste of his talent and despite recent stumbles, his season numbers (2.34 goals against average, .918 save percentage) are still decidedly better than what Pavelec (2.68 and .909) and Hutchinson (2.87 and .908) have been able to show to this point.
Going against Hellebuyck, though, was his waiver status. Unlike Pavelec and Hutchinson, he didn't need to clear waivers to be re-assigned. That bought the Jets brass some time to figure out what they want to do for the rest of the year.
Again, this is all fine on the surface. Under the surface, sending Hellebuyck down made no sense — at least not in a big picture sense.
Over the years, the Jets have demonstrated a preference to protect young blue-chippers inside the vacuum of the NHL environment. They did it when Mark Scheifele struggled as a rookie. Let him learn at this level, that was the missive. They made the decision to keep Nikolaj Ehlers up with the big club this season and when he struggled through November and December, it was no problem. This is valuable NHL experience for him, they offered.
Even Joel Armia has been given the golden opportunity to ripen with the big club. He's looked a lot better with the Jets than he did with the Moose.
If patience is the accepted course, then there is nothing inherently wrong with this development blueprint. In fact, it's prudent asset management — put your best prospects in a position to succeed and if things mature as projected, the decision will bear fruit at a later date.
It's curious why Hellebuyck isn't being afforded the same consideration here. Why not give the rookie equal time with Pavelec and let him continue to see NHL shooters? Why not allow him to continue to learn on the fly — he certainly hasn't been over-matched or looked out of place in his time with the big club, right?
Pavelec is never going to be sent down to the AHL but why is Hutchinson given a free pass? If you are worried about another team putting in a waiver claim for him, then you must think the inconsistent, unproven NHL backup goaltender market is red hot these days.
Those reaching far beyond reality have even suggested the club cleared out Hellebuyck so that it can showcase Pavelec prior to the trade deadline. With another year on his deal after this season and career .908 save percentage on his resume, it's highly unlikely there's much of a market there.
If the move was made under the guise of the playoff chase, as has been suggested by some, well … let's put that under the microscope for a second.
Saturday's shootout win pushed the Jets record to 25-27-3 and moved the club to eight points out of the second wildcard spot in the Western Conference. The playoffs are a Hail Mary for this team, a dream built on the premise that a long winning streak (something the team hasn't been able to do this season) will launch them over a handful of clubs above them in the standings and into spring hockey.
But let's go ahead and say this dream is the plan. Wouldn't the Jets want the goaltender who has put up the best numbers this season between the pipes?
Maybe there will be a trade and maybe Hellebuyck will be back with the big club. Maybe it will happen before the end of the season. Maybe the Jets crease will find some logic one day.
Right now, though, none of it makes any sense.