Latest posts by Ray Sarlo (see all)
On July 1st, the Rangers began their foray into the league-wide unrestricted free agency spending spree by signing former Winnipeg Jets netminder, Ondrej Pavelec. The 29 year-old native of Kladno, Czech Republic replaces fan and team favorite Antti Raanta who provided the Rangers with two solid years back-stopping Henrik Lundqvist. Raanta was included in the Derek Stepan trade with the Arizona Coyotes that left the Rangers with massive holes at the first-line center and backup goaltender positions.
Pavelec comes to the Rangers on a one-year, $1.3 million “show me” contract, and he has a lot to prove. He is fresh off an injury-riddled 2016-2017 season that saw him lose his spot in the Jets lineup and ended with him having knee surgery in March. In what few games he did play, he was not impressive – going 4-4-0 in eight games with a .888 save percentage (SV%) and a 3.55 goals against average (GAA). “Not impressive” has pretty much been the story of Pavelec’s career. Of the 48 active goaltenders who played 100 games or more, he ranks 43rd in save percentage (.907) and 44th in goals against average (2.87).
Now you might say, “Why spend so much time diving into a backup goalie’s stats? Who cares?” Well, Rangers’ backup goalies have played a major role in the last few seasons. Cam Talbot appeared in 21 and 36 games in his two seasons with the Rangers – including his 24-game stint filling in for an injured Lundqvist in the latter half of 2014-2015 season. Raanta played 25 and 30 games in his respective seasons as a Blueshirt – with a nine-game stretch as starter when Lundqvist spent time recovering from a minor hip injury last season. Talbot posted a record of 33-15-5 with a .931 SV% and a 2.00 GAA while Raanta went 27-14-4 with a.921 SV% and a 2.26 GAA.
It is hard to overstate how absolutely stellar these numbers are for any goaltender, let alone a backup. On the same token, it is also very apparent how important this level of play from Talbot and Raanta was in the cumulative success of the Rangers’ past four seasons. Lundqvist’s struggles last season were well documented, even seemingly losing his starting job to Raanta for a brief stretch at the mid-point of the season. In what has become a concerning trend since 2013-2014, for whatever reason, each season Lundqvist has gone through stretches where he can’t find the consistency in the net that he built his career on. Further, as much as it pains me to say it, Henrik Lundqvist is 35 years old. The late 30s are not kind to hockey players and especially not goalies, even moreso to ones that have as many miles as Lundqvist has on him. We’ve seen Lundqvist go down to injury two of the last three seasons. The damaged blood vessel was obviously an unfortunate incident, but the hip injury last year was one of those “wear and tear” type issues that could continue to crop up. That’s not to mention the minor knee injury that he sustained playing for Sweden at the IIHF World Championship in May. It’s clear that the further he gets into his career, the more important the supporting cast around him becomes – he cannot do it on his own anymore.
Which brings us back to Ondrej Pavelec. Expectations will certainly be high given the fantastic play of his predecessors. He is going to be called upon to play in at least 20 games. Can he win ten of them? Probably, though that is not exactly a glowing endorsement. Getting about half of the available points is about where I would put his ceiling given his career with a 50% win percentage. Is that good enough for the Rangers to duke it out in the Metropolitan Division and claim a playoff spot? Maybe not. Let’s just say that instead of Raanta going 16-8-2 last season, he went 13-13-0, claiming 26 points instead of 34 (same points percentage as my projection for Pavelec). That would have placed the Rangers on the outside looking in with 94 points. Close but no cigar. The margins are so small, especially in the Metropolitan Division that was a knife fight last season and only looks to have gotten meaner and nastier in the off-season.
It’s not all bad for Pavelec, however. He might enjoy the change of scenery having spent all of his career thus far with the doomed Atlanta Thrashers and yet-to-takeoff Winnipeg Jets franchise. Coming to play for a successful team seeking to break through and win a Stanley Cup could jumpstart his game. Also, the Rangers team he is coming to possesses a shiny, new defense headlined by major free agent signing Kevin Shattenkirk. With improvements to the back-end that should fundamentally improve the Blueshirts’ puck movement and foot-speed, as well as through other additions and subtractions, there could be less pressure on Pavelec (or Lundqvist, for that matter) overall. It’s tough to quantify the level to which these factors may influence matters, but it will bear itself out over the course of next season.
There is one other factor that Rangers fans might point to that would give them hope for Pavelec’s success – Benoit Allaire. He deservedly made a name for himself grooming Lundqvist from a 7th round pick to the Vezina trophy winning goaltender he is today. Allaire also has been given some credit for developing Talbot through the Rangers system and for his work with Raanta.
Despite this praise, I don’t necessarily believe there’s an “Allaire effect” so to speak. When it comes to development within the system, it might be true, but there’s no baseline to compare it to. In the case of Pavelec, have we really seen Allaire re-invent a goalie’s game at an NHL level? The only recent comparison would be Raanta who posted a .912 SV% and a 2.41 GAA with Chicago while going 20-9-5. He was not exactly a goalie in need of a rebirth and his numbers improved only slightly when coming to the Rangers. He was also only 39 games into his career when he was traded to New York – with that small of a sample size, it’s impossible to tell what effect Allaire may or may not have had.
Pavelec, on the other hand, has played 379 games, many of them lackluster, in his career thus far. He comes to the Rangers scarred after losing his starting job a few seasons ago and then, last season, losing his backup job. I would not hold my breath in hopes of any sort of emergence as a reliable goaltender. His career stats are not kind to him, even in the limited role he has played these past few seasons in Winnipeg.
For the Rangers to succeed, lately, they have relied on strong performances from Henrik Lundqvist and, when that is not possible, his trusty side kick – Talbot, Raanta, and now Ondrej Pavelec. I fear that Pavelec will not be able to elevate his game to the level of play necessary to consistently win games in Lundqvist’s absence – be it due to injury, poor play, or just regularly scheduled time off. In an increasingly competitive Metropolitan Division with an ever aging Lundqvist, it is more important than ever to have a strong backup goaltender. And if history is any indicator, Pavelec is not the guy for the job.