Connor Hellebuyck is a workhorse, but even a workhorse needs a rest now and then.
The 3 Guarantees of Life: Death, Taxes, and Hellebuyck Starting in Goal
The Jets’ number-one netminder has started the team’s past 13 games, dating back to Dec. 14.
Hellebuyck has had a heavy workload in seasons past — a career-high 67 starts in 2017-18, a tie for the league-high in appearances with 58 in 2019-20, and a league-leading 45 starts in the shortened 2020-21 campaign. Hellebuyck had the 2019-20 and 2020-21 workloads despite having one of the more reliable second-stringers behind him in Laurent Brossoit.
It was always destined to be ‘Buyck or bust again this season, as Brossoit departed for the Vegas Golden Knights over the summer due to the Jets’ cap crunch, and backup Eric Comrie is inexperienced and unproven at the NHL level.
But now, in late January, it’s clear that Hellebuyck’s workload has become untenable.
Hellebuyck’s Recent Performances and Stats Indicate Fatigue
While Hellebuyck, a proud sort, would never admit to needing a night off, his play of late indicates he is physically and mentally fatigued.
His numbers on the season are alright, if pedestrian: a 14-14-6 record, 2.93 GAA, .909 SV%, and two shutouts. A reason those numbers are pedestrian is because they include his numbers over the 13-game stretch: a 4-7-2 record, 3.39 GAA, and .897 SV%.
His numbers during the Jets’ six-game losing streak are even worse than that: a 0-4-2 record, 3.84 GAA, and .876 SV%.
The Jets are used to him stealing games. He won the Vezina in 2019-20 for good reason and despite not being nominated for the award in the shortened 2020-21 season, his play was the biggest factor in the Jets qualifying for the North Division postseason.
Soft Goals Have Been Game-Killers
Lately, it’s been a different story, with stoppable pucks finding the back of the net at the worst times and sinking the Jets’ chances to win. He’s not the team’s biggest problem — the listless squad in front of him has displayed a shocking lack of commitment to any sort of defensive structure during their losing streak and their defensive depth is being tested due to injuries. But the fact the Jets are fragile and lack an identity —other than an identity as a free space on the BINGO card — makes timely saves all the more important.
The inopportune goals against have been too many, too often, and loom even larger because of how much the rudderless Jets sags after he allows one.
The behind-the-net lead-taking stinker he allowed to Aliaksei Protas in the early third-period against the Capitals, the inexcusable tally he allowed to Jeff Carter from a sharp angle after yet another puck-handling misadventure that tied the game 2-2 in the third period against the Penguins, and the 3-1 goal he allowed to J.T. Miller on Thursday after the Jets were pressing hard for the equalizer against the Canucks are all examples of the types of goals that are daggers when a team is not mentally resilient.
Some have suggested that how the Jets currently look is how they would have looked during the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons if Hellebuyck hadn’t been on his A-game throughout them. A scary thought, but one gaining more and more merit as a once-promising season spirals down the drain.
Throughout Hellebuyck’s 10 games in this month, there have been a few instances he should have been pulled — a mercy pull or otherwise — and replaced by Comrie (or Mikhail Berdin when Comrie was in COVID protocol.)
Prime examples are before the third period of an eventual 7-1 loss to the Colorado Avalanche on Jan. 6, after the Jets went down 3-0 in the first period to the Nashville Predators on Jan. 20, and after the Canucks’ third-period goal that made it 4-1 on Thursday.
But each time he was left in to finish the game, and has now played 778:58 straight.
Jets Need to Better Balance Hellebuyck’s Workload in February, Because They Aren’t Dead Yet
Comrie hasn’t seen the crease since Dec. 10, but will need to be given more starts to take some pressure off his battery mate. He’s been more than serviceable in six starts and seven appearances, with a 3-2-1 record, 2.53 GAA, and .914 SV%. None of the Jets’ three losses with Comrie between the pipes can be hung on him.
Comrie dealt with a bout of COVID-19 earlier this month, but has backed up for the past two games. He wouldn’t be dressed if he wasn’t ready for game action.
Although it seems like it, the 2020-21 season is not a total write-off yet. The Jets are certainly running out of runway, but still have 42 games to go.
Finish top-three in the Central Division is out of the question — they are 16 points back of the third-place St. Louis Blues — but they still have an outside chance at a Western Conference Wild Card berth.
They’re five points out of the second Wild Card spot, but if interim head coach Dave Lowry and the currently missing-in-action leadership core can get the team refocused during the All-Star Break, catching up is not completely of the question.
To catch up, though, will require a to battle right down to the schedule’s final late-April games, for which they’ll need Hellebuyck at his absolute sharpest.
The Jets have 12 games in February and will go through a punishing stretch of eight previously-postponed games in a 14 day span during what was supposed to be the 2022 Olympic break. That stretch, between Feb. 8 and Feb. 23, includes two back-to-backs and a stretch of four games in six days (really, five-and-a-half days because the fourth game is an afternoon matchup.)
Hellebuyck cannot possibly play in all of those. At least, he cannot possibly play in them all well. Even a workhorse needs a break, so when the most important work to be done, he’s refreshed and ready.
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Declan Schroeder is a 27-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.