Goaltenders and Wine Have More In Common Than You Think.

Unless you're a fan of Beaujolais wine, you probably prefer what you drink to have a bit more body, especially in the wintertime.  Beaujolais is fun for the summer, slightly chilled, with a light salad.  A nice well-aged Bordeaux or Burgundy work so well in front of a fire with a big bowl of stew or a nice prime rib.  And, of course, we've all gotten a hold of a bottle of wine that we're excited to drink, because it's old - and either the cork falls apart in it and you have to pour it through a mesh sieve, or the wine's actually too old and tastes like an old gym sock.

This scenario can apply to the goaltender as well.  They're good at the start of their career in juniors, or in the minor leagues - the summertime of hockey.  As they mature at the proper rate, they should get better and better - if stored and treated properly - and then there comes a magic age (Behind the Net has it guestimated at around 33-34) where you need to consume before they turn into rotted cork.

Some members of the Thrashers fan community are not sold on Ondrej Pavelec.  Admittedly, his statistics in Atlanta have not been mind blowing.

Of course, when looking at his stats with the Thrashers, you do have to keep the teams that he played behind in mind.  The 2007-2008 Thrashers were atrocious (I dubbed them "Futility On Ice," because that's really what they were all about), allowing 272 goals and finishing with a record of 34-40-8.  The 2008-2009 season, despite the strong finish of the team, was actually statistically worse than the previous year in the terms of record (35-41-6) and goals allowed (280).  The goal differential dropped from -56 to -23 not necessarily through improved defense or goaltending, but from coach John Anderson's up-tempo system.  Add to this the fact that in 2007-2008, Pavelec played just 7 games and the following year he played just 12, there wasn't enough of a sample size to draw a conclusion on what kind of goaltender he was going to mature into.  The key word there was "mature," considering Pavs was only 20 and 21 years old those two seasons.

Not surprisingly, the summer after the 2008-2009 season, the traditional "who should our goalies be" debate broke out on the official boards.  The vitriol directed at Pavelec by some individuals shocked me.  I really wasn't sure how you could judge his ability based upon the sample size, let alone hate the kid.  But that's what I was reading from some people - either dislike because they were rabid Kari Lehtonen fans and saw Pavelec as competition, or dislike from people who were too quick to jump the gun. Pavelec's agent's response to his not being the starter the season prior to the 2009-2010 one also left a bad taste in people's mouths, because people associated Pavs' agent's statement with the goaltender's attitude towards the Thrashers.

Pavelec began the 2009-2010 season on a bit of a tear, turning in some outstanding performances and silencing some of his critics.  Ben Wright of the Blueland Blog has a very useful month by month breakdown of Pavelec's stats.  October and especially March were excellent months for the young goalie.  December, in contrast, was an atrocious month to forget, both for Pavs and for the team as a whole (horrible losing streak for the team and a 5.29 GAA for Pavs).  It was mostly this month and the fact that he only won five games the second half of the season that led people to crow that the goaltender was awful, taking no notice of his 2.16 GAA during the month of March. 

The question then becomes, which goalie is Pavelec?  The answer is a few years off.

Goaltenders mature differently, usually at a slower rate than their defensemen and forwards counterparts.  What damage, if any, was done by the Thrashers having to utilize Pavelec sooner than developmentally ready?  Before anyone points out Marc-Andre Fleury's age, or Jaroslav Halak's, you have to compare the resumes of both Fleury's stats and Halak's stats to Pavelec's.  Both of those goaltenders have three years experience on Pavelec, and while their rise to success was certainly fast, there is no evidence to show that needs to be applied to every young goaltender.  Even Patrick Roy's rookie year Stanley Cup was prefaced by four years of development in lesser leagues.  Pavs had only three seasons before he was flung, albiet briefly, into the fire of the NHL.  How does that abrupt change in environment challenge his flow of development?  How do you expect a child learning to crawl to break into a short dash and fall back to all fours without mastering the art of walking?

The most interesting aspect of this entire debate, and of course I toss it in at the end, when everyone's slogged through the above paragraphs, is that maybe there isn't that much of an impact when you look at skill.  Maybe it's partially luck.  Luck, development, and skill level all play into a successful goaltender.  While I'm not chalking Pavelec's poor months last season to a bad roll of the dice, the luck element should give people pause when they jump to evaluate a young goaltender's future in the NHL after only 61 total games spread across three different seasons.  Let him mature to the right level - say, after four years of consistant NHL play - before you pop the cork.

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