The Winnipeg Jets are paying the price during the stretch run for riding Connor Hellebuyck too hard earlier in the season.
Add Shaky Goaltending to Long List of Jets’ Woes
Prior to Tuesday’s game against the Tampa Bay Lightning, interim head coach Dave Lowry said, in response to a question about why Hellebuyck hasn’t looked like himself lately: “there’s going to be critics no matter what his numbers are. The one thing that Connor does is he gives us a chance to win every night.”
Lowry went to bat, as expected, for his number-one goaltender. He wasn’t going to throw him under the bus. But what he said wasn’t true. Hellebuyck hasn’t been an asset at all in 2022 and the numbers bear that out.
The Jets have given up three-plus goals in 12 straight games, and Hellebuyck has started 10 of them. Since the New Year, he is 8-11-5 with a 3.25 GAA and a .902 SV%. His GAA overall this season has ballooned to 2.97 and his SV% has dropped to .908.
Sometimes, Your Goaltender Needs to be a Star
Playing with a lead was a massive problem for the Jets over their four-game homestand, where they went 2-1-1 but failed to make up ground in the Western Conference Wild Card picture. They blew a 4-0 lead in an eventual 8-4 win over the Montreal Canadiens, blew a pair of one goal leads — including a 3-2 third-period lead — in a 4-3 overtime loss to the Dallas Stars, and blew a two-goal lead in the 7-4 win against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Part of protecting a lead falls on the goaltender.
It’s true that the inflated goals against and collapses are also products of poor defense. The Jets’ lack of commitment to any form of cohesive defensive structure — especially by the forwards — has been an issue throughout this disappointing season; they have surrendered the fifth-most high danger scoring chances in the NHL as of Wednesday.
But the fact remains: the man between the pipes — a Vezina Trophy winner considered one of the NHL’s elite — is not coming up with the timely saves he did in seasons past.
Sometimes, you need your goalie to steal a game, and no team should know that better than the Jets — Hellebuyck has stolen countless over his seven-season career.
Right now, he looks like someone frustrated because he knows he doesn’t have much left in the tank. He is not challenging shooters like he usually does; at his best when he’s “big and boring,” he has been awfully active in his crease. The failed poke check on the goal below — the third-period dagger in Sunday’s 4-1 loss to the New York Rangers — is just one example of him being slow to react or getting caught between two decisions.
Opponents have become aware that Hellebuyck’s blocker side and five hole are weaknesses, and they’re targeting them. All three of the Lightning’s first-period goals Tuesday came to the blocker side.
Even in the two games the Jets won, Hellebuyck wasn’t sharp. When up 6-3 against the Lightning, he allowed a weak one from the point to temporarily give the Lightning some hope of coming back. Against the Canadiens, he really sagged after giving up a rotten sharp-angle goal to Josh Anderson.
Jets Have Failed Big At Load Management
This author wrote in late January that Hellebuyck was being run ragged. At the time, he had started 13 straight games, and the author pointed to the Jets’ need to better manage his workload to keep him fresh for the stretch run.
His numbers at that time were already alarming and indicated signs of fatigue. In the last six starts of that stretch of 13 straight — before he finally got a break against the St. Louis Blues on Jan. 29 — he was 0-4-2 with a 3.84 GAA and .876 SV%.
They have not managed his workload — which was already untenable then — better since. They have played 16 games since the start of February, and Eric Comrie has only started two of them.
Hellebuyck has started more games, 24, than any other goaltender in 2022. He leads the NHL in starts this season with 48 and shots against with 1,539. He also leads the NHL in goals against.
Comrie has been strong when called upon, with 6-2-1 record, 2.47 GAA, and .914 SV%. But his role has been mostly to sit quietly in his ball cap, watching and waiting. Dave Lowry obviously has very little faith in him, not even in relief as Hellebuyck has never been pulled.
Wild Card Chase Not Looking Good, But Jets Unlikely to Change Course
The Jets’ chances of making the postseason are slim, as they sit seven points back of the second Western Conference Wild Card spot with 60 points and just 25 games to go. Although they’re mathematically still hanging around — MoneyPuck pegs their chances at 6.7 per cent — they have too many systemic flaws and are too inconsistent. They’ve only won three-plus straight once this season — four wins in a row in games four through seven of the season back in October. A long winning streak seems unlikely.
Nothing should change based on the results of the homestand when it comes to the Jets’ strategy at March 21’s trade deadline. Their time to sell arrived a couple weeks ago already, and GM Kevin Cheveldayoff should be looking to move Andrew Copp, Paul Stastny, and possibly more of his core to get some prospects and draft picks for the soft reset the team needs to get to the next level.
The Jets, however, may still consider themselves a potential playoff team. As a result, it’s likely they’ll keep trying to coast on Hellebuyck’s fumes.
Declan Schroeder is a 26-year-old communications specialist and freelance journalist in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He holds a diploma in Creative Communications with a major in journalism from Red River College and a bachelors in Rhetoric and Communications from the University of Winnipeg.
Deeply rooted in the city’s hockey culture, the original Jets skipped town when he was two and the 2.0 version came onto the scene when he was 17.