The action on the ice was sizzling on Thursday night, and Connor Hellebuyck put on a show. Also, we’ll take a look ahead at the pending unrestricted free agent (UFA) goalie class in the NHL.
Hellebuyck has as strong a case as any goalie for the 2020 Vezina Trophy. Few goalies if any have been as single-handedly responsible for their team’s success and playoff (or near playoff) position. He’s arguably the best goaltender in Winnipeg Jets franchise history. And on Thursday night at home against the Washington Capitals, he put on another sensational show.
Hellebuyck made 34 saves on the Capitals, including six on the power play, and four from the recent 700-goal scorer Alexander Ovechkin. 13 of those opportunities were high danger chances (HDCF), and the Capitals mustered 2.9 expected goals (xG). Dmitry Kulikov’s first-period goal was enough to secure the Jets the win. After the game, Hellebuyck was quick to credit his teammates in explaining what caused the clean sheet.
I love shutouts. Tonight, great team shutout. I definitely love that on the resume, and it’s fun seeing it. … We really dictated our pace of play, and we really forced the way we wanted to play. We controlled a lot of [offensive] zone time, and when we weren’t we were battling extremely hard in our D-zone and allowing me to see shots, kind of keeping everything in control and to the outside.Connor Hellebuyck explains his shutout
He must not be lying about loving shutouts because this was his fifth this season. That moves Hellebuyck into a tie with Marc-Andre Fleury and the breakout sensation Elvis Merzlikins for first in the league. He will get a chance to extend his streak against the Edmonton Oilers on Saturday.
Incredible Free Agent Class
Now that the trade deadline has come and gone, many teams and fanbases — particularly those that are struggling — will begin to look to the NHL Draft and free agency as their next source of major excitement about their team. With that in mind, let’s take a moment to preview the strong free agent class of goaltenders coming this summer.
Few goaltenders have done more to build their reputation over the last two seasons than Jacob Markstrom of the Vancouver Canucks. A strong Vezina Trophy contender himself, he’s stolen more wins than any goalie this season, including Hellebuyck. Markstrom’s eight stolen wins total 16 points in the standings for the Canucks, who are desperately fighting for a playoff spot with him temporarily on the shelf.
Markstrom, 30, seemed likely to leave Vancouver, with Thatcher Demko waiting in the wings. But now, it will be tough for general manager Jim Benning to let him walk. A Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender has never left his team the season after his trophy victory. The Canucks will need to do all they can to keep their goalie in British Columbia.
Robin Lehner has been one of the best goalies in the league the last two seasons, but so far, general managers have been hesitant to reward him with an appropriate contract. Negotiations didn’t work out with the Chicago Blackhawks, who traded him to the Vegas Golden Knights in the final minutes before the trade deadline. It’s not obvious where he will play next, but it’s clear that he more than deserves the long term starter’s contract he is reportedly seeking.
On the opposite end of the spectrum from Markstrom, few goalies have damaged their reputation more in the last twelve months than Holtby. The only active goaltender to win a Vezina Trophy, a Jennings Trophy, and a Stanley Cup, he’s been abysmal this season, posting a 3.12 goals-against average (GAA) and an .897 save percentage (SV%).
The Washington Capitals have Ilya Samsonov waiting, and while general manager Brian MacLellan has backed Holtby before, the time will come when he’s forced to make a decision. It seems like his best days are behind him, but it’s very possible some team will fork over the cash to land Holtby long term. They certainly will be taking a risk by doing it, though.
Jaroslav Halak and Anton Khudobin
Two of the most valuable and reliable backup goalies in the league are also becoming UFAs after the season. But it’s hard to imagine either moving. Jaroslav Halak has formed the perfect tandem with Tuukka Rask for the Boston Bruins, and the same can be said for Anton Khudobin and Ben Bishop with the Dallas Stars. It might cost their team a raise, but both goalies need to stay put. Consistent backups are a valuable and rare commodity in the NHL.
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Stephen Ground is an author with The Hockey Writers and is co-host of the Two Guys No Cup Podcast. He enjoys studying the numbers and providing fresh looks at various stories.