Has the Winnipeg Jets undisputed "number one goaltender" performed better?
The answer is a resounding yes. Over his time period as a Jet, Ondrej Pavelec has saved about 90.6 percent of shots on goal. Meanwhile, Pavelec has stopped 92.4 percent of shots this season, which adds up to about 4-5 less goals against over the past 12 games. This reduction in goals against has driven the Jets recent success, despite the team scoring far below their typical norm.
This is good. Pavelec recently came off a season posting career low numbers, leading to rumours of buyout possibilities extending as far as his hometown. Over the last there years, there has been substantial evidence indicating Pavelec as a large factor in the Jets missing the post-season - granted as a lower-seed, fringe team. Pavelec's current start is statistically better than any of his previous seasons, with the exception of 2010-11.
Figure 1: Pavelec's cumulative save percentage
For some fans, that is enough... and all the power to them. Sports are fun, have fun with it. Sports fanatics reserve the right to enjoy any type of victory, whether that be process, results or both.
For those that care more about process than results there is an additional question: is this success sustainable? No one currently knows the answer to this question - as was the case last year (a couple of times actually). One can only guess or hope.
If it is sustainable, then Pavelec has indeed improved and the Jets starter goaltending issues have ended. If not, then the success we are seeing is short lived and the goaltender will likely revert back to something similar to what we've seen in the past.
This is why sample size matters, it isn't just a catch phrase.
Sample size helps determine the sustainability of results. The longer someone sustains a particular result, the more likely it will persist.
By The Numbers
Unfortunately no current goaltender statistic is significantly predictive at this amount of games played. The numbers can't tell us whether or not Pavelec can sustain his performance; however, we can look to see whether or not Pavelec has performed similarly in the past.
Figure 2: Frequency of Pavelec's save percentage for ten game sets
The above diagram displays how often Pavelec has posted particular save percentage over a set of ten games. The arrow above indicates where Pavelec's most recent ten games is located. This is not the first time Pavelec has posted this kind of numbers, in fact he has done it quite a few times.
For those interested in numbers, the Stnd. kurtosis being between -2 and 2 signifies that the distribution is (barely) normal shaped. The Stnd. skew being between -2 and 2 signifies that the distribution is not significantly skewed.
Of course, this brings up the old debate of whether overall play or consistency needs improvement. The truth is that the two are related. Looking at another goaltender may help show this.
Figure 3: Frequency of Lundqvist's save percentage for ten game sets
There are not many out there that would contest Henrik Lundqvist being considered a better goaltender overall than Ondrej Pavelec.
The above shows that, like Pavelec, Lundqvist has stretches of amazing and extremely poor showings. However, Lundqvist outperforms Pavelec on average and tends to play more consistent. Lundqvist's performance has smaller variation but is also far more skewed.
A comparison between the two density traces for the distributions helps display why the above patterns exist.
Figure 4: Comparison of density traces of Pavelec's and Lundqvist's 10 game sets distributions
There is a limit to how well a goaltender can perform, due to the impossibility of a goaltender exceeding 100 percentage of shots saved. If a goaltender has more sets of "good" games, the distribution becomes more consistent but skewed.
What does all this mean?
In short, Pavelec has performed exceptionally as of late, but the numbers cannot tell us whether or not it will persist. Performing well in spurts is nothing new, but it is usually followed by a heavy regression.
Then there is the "Eye-Test"...
There are those who say Pavelec looks visibly better and has changed his stylistic approach and his fitness level. They definitely could be right. There are elements of Ondrej's game that look changed, but even in this case it is too early to say with confidence that this is why he has saved more shots than normal.
We may be looking at a better Pavelec, or we may simply be looking at a different Pavelec.
This recent performance does not separate Ondrej from his past, nor is it proof of sustainable change.
What separates the best and worst starters is not whether or not they have sets of good or bad games, but how often they have sets of good games. The process vs results debate often gets stuck on short term versus long term benefit. Pavelec performing well for a short while may improve the Jets, but may also reinforce poor processes and decision making. This was the logic behind the JetStream Podcasts' "Pavelec playing well" in the worst case scenario tournament last summer. It was the notion that short term, unsustainable results can potentially cause harm to the process.
Here is hoping the change is legitimate and the performance is sustained.
For more reading on the matter of goaltenders and sustainability, check out our piece from last December when we pondered: Has Ondrej Pavelec Turned the Corner? after Ondrej posted a .924 save percentage across ten games.