The New York Rangers have one of the best goaltending coaches in hockey. Evidence of Benoit Allaire’s ability to develop goalies goes well beyond superstar Henrik Lundqvist. Allaire molded Cam Talbot of the Edmonton Oilers into one of the best goalies in the Western Conference. He also unlocked Antti Raanta’s potential, transforming him into a legitimate starting goaltender. But will Allaire be able to bring out the best in Ondrej Pavelec?
Lundqvist is now 35 years old. He’s still a great goaltender, but he is no longer capable of carrying the same load that he could five years ago without wearing down. Lundqvist injured his hip in March and missed two weeks. He also injured his knee at the 2017 IIHF World Championship on his path to winning gold with Sweden.
The Rangers needed a backup goaltender capable of taking on a bigger role. Enter Pavelec.
The 30-year-old Czech netminder is coming off of a disappointing season with Winnipeg. After failing to make the team out of training camp, Pavelec put up solid numbers in the AHL with the Manitoba Moose. General manager Kevin Cheveldayoff recalled the former starting goaltender in January. The Jets were in dire straits and needed a change.
Pavelec’s comeback was somewhat underwhelming. He allowed three or more goals in all eight of the NHL games he played last season. He posted an .888 save percentage in that span, but managed to earn four wins for the listless Jets. Serious injuries cut Pavelec’s season short, and as a result, there was some talk about whether or not he had played his last NHL season.
Needless to say, Allaire has his hands full with Pavelec. But there is hope. Pavelec is only three seasons removed from posting a .920 save percentage. At first glance, his numbers are something of a nightmare, but deeper analysis reveals that there’s more to Pavelec. He has a history of putting up solid numbers during even strength play, which is something the Rangers and Allaire must have noticed.
Anyhow, here's 2015-2016 (regular season, 5v5). Pavelec really did have an incredible year and it's just as disorienting to remember. pic.twitter.com/YtGGwrqxbR
— Micah Blake McCurdy (@IneffectiveMath) June 5, 2017
Pavelec relied on his athleticism and his big frame to stop pucks with the Thrashers and Jets. The result has been an abundance of highlight reel saves and a lot of inconsistency. Highlight reel saves tend to happen when goaltenders are caught out of position. This is often a result of poor positioning, poor defensive coverage or a combination of the two. Athletic goalies like Pavelec and Mike Smith have an ability to make miracle saves when they are down and out.
But the problem is they are too often down and out.
Pavelec’s athleticism is not a problem; it’s an asset. But Allaire will have to train the Czech netminder to hone his technique and rely much more on sound positioning. For Pavelec that could mean playing deeper in his net and transforming his game. Allaire took a similar approach with Raanta, who is a much smaller goaltender than the former Jet.
“I’d say that the biggest difference is when I look down at the toe of my skate, I now see blue in front of it,” Raanta told InGoal Magazine in December. “A few inches of blue crease are in front of my skate now, [Allaire] told me that pulling in that little bit just gives me more control,” Raanta said. “If someone tries to go back door and score it’s much easier to get back and protect your net if you’re inside your crease more.”
Of course, Raanta and Talbot were both much younger goaltenders when they started working with Allaire. Pavelec is the goaltending coach’s first “former starter” project. And therein lies much of the controversy of the Rangers signing him to a one-year, $1.3 million deal. That’s quite an investment for a 30-year-old goaltender on the decline who played only eight games last season.
The Rangers had other options on July 1, potentially including Antti Niemi, Philipp Grubauer and Keith Kinkaid. But it appears that Gorton had his eye on Pavelec from early on. Now it’s up to Allaire, “The Goalie Whisperer,” to bring out the best in perhaps his most challenging project to date. The Rangers 2017-18 season could very well depend on it.