The Winnipeg Jets spent a lot of money in the offseason trying to solidify their goaltending, only for Connor Hellebuyck to do it on his own.
Hellebuyck had poor numbers last season by any standard and the oft-repeated line of “even average goaltending would’ve had the Jets in the playoffs” rang true again. This year, he’s turned it around and been anything but average.
Crediting a new training regimen in the offseason, Hellebuyck has looked far different from the goaltender that was such a mess at times last year. Through five games, he’s 4-0-1 with a 2.25 GAA and a .931 save percentage.
There is no goalie controversy, Connor Hellebuyck has earned his place as the starting goalie for the Jets. Guy has been a rock.
— Roddy Bats 13 (@BigPapiPegCity) October 27, 2017
Now, it goes without saying those numbers aren’t entirely sustainable. Hellebuyck is not going to go the entire season without losing in regulation. His improved play is of huge importance, however, especially since the Jets have been outplayed in some of the games he’s won, and since Steve Mason has had a terrible start in Winnipeg.
Hellebuyck was at one time considered the undisputed heir apparent to the Winnipeg Jets crease – their future number one goalie with a world of potential. Last year’s showing caused some to question that.
This year, however, Hellebuyck looks like the man we thought he’d be two years ago when he made his NHL debut with a 3-1 win in Minnesota, followed by a 6-1 victory over Toronto. He’s calm, poised, and not dropping too early on shots.
Hellebuyck Continues up the Development Curve
Does anybody remember how bad Carey Price was in his first few years in the NHL? These days it hardly matters, as he’s the best goalie in the world, but there were quite a few irate Habs fans when the team chose to keep him and trade Jaroslav Halak in 2010.
These days, Price’s 2.83 GAA and .905 save percentage of 2008-09 are ancient history and entirely irrelevant to a Vezina Trophy and Olympic Gold Medal winner. He’s kept Montreal competitive in several seasons since then (recent history notwithstanding).
The point of this is not to say Hellebuyck is the next Carey Price, as that would be grossly unfair, but to point out that even the best goalies take time to develop. Look at the best starters in the NHL right now. How many were instant successes?
Goalies historically see a steady, slow boil rather than a flash-fry when it comes to stardom. Hellebuyck is trending up at just the right time in his development, the moment at which he probably should be if comparable goaltenders are any indication.
Jets fans were very impatient with Hellebuyck last year, much as Habs fans were with Price in 2009, and some were already looking elsewhere, proclaiming him a bust and touting the merits of Eric Comrie. How quickly some forget that at one time Hellebuyck was touted the same way, and with good reason.
The winner of the first ever Mike Richter Award as the NCAA’s top goalie had gaudy numbers all throughout his junior/college career, then carried those numbers into the AHL. This year, with some big saves, he’s reminding fans why, and some of them sorely needed the reminder.
I think that save shows part of Connor Hellebuyck’s evolution. He didn’t hit the deck. Stayed standing, made a glove save. #NHLJets
— Scott Billeck (@ScottBilleck) October 26, 2017
All of a sudden, the goaltending problem in Winnipeg looks like less of a problem, and Hellebuyck appears to be right on schedule. Hockey is a fickle sport with fickle fortunes and equally fickle fans, but if Hellebuyck keeps this up he’ll be a hero in Winnipeg.
Hellebuyck Saves the Day
At times this year, the Jets have needed more than solid goaltending. Outplayed and outworked, they’ve needed somebody to save their bacon.
The Jets haven’t been outplayed in every game, but, between injuries and depth issues, the Jets haven’t earned every single one of their four wins. Last year, that would’ve meant an automatic loss, but, this year, being outplayed isn’t a kiss of death.
Of course, the Jets don’t want to get in the habit of being outworked or of needing their netminder to play hero, but the fact that he can, when needed, is encouraging. Last year, the Jets lost games because of their goaltending, so it’s nice to see them win some because of it.
The question of whether this is sustainable for the Jets will be answered with time. And again, Hellebuyck isn’t going to keep this up forever, especially if the Jets keep forcing him to.
The good news is that once the Jets get healthy and a few of the top players find their strides (and hopefully the bottom six starts producing something besides frustration) Hellebuyck won’t need to be brilliant. He won’t need to win games on his own.
This was not a problem the Jets were expecting to have coming into the year. But, at the very least, they’ve been competitive in most of their games this year, and Connor Hellebuyck has been a huge part of why.
For the Jets to get bailed out by their goaltending is unfamiliar territory, but with any luck, it inspires the rest of the Jets to get into gear. After all, haven’t we been hearing it for years? The Jets would make the playoffs if only they had even average goaltending. And what a relief it would be to have some playoff hockey in Winnipeg again.