Connor Hellebuyck’s superb season rightly culminated in a Vezina Trophy victory at the 2020 NHL Awards aired live from Edmonton.
Hellebuyck received 19 first-place votes and a total of 123 points — 24 more than the Boston Bruins’ Tuukka Rask’s 99 and 92 more than the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Andrei Vasilevskiy’s 33 — to take home the honours.
He is the first Jet to win a major award since Teemu Selanne won the Calder Trophy in 1993 at the end of his record-setting 76-goal rookie season.
Awarding Hellebuyck the Vezina Was a No-Brainer Decision
The Vezina is awarded “to the goalkeeper adjudged to be the best at this position.” When you take into account the combination of his numbers and the patchwork defense in front of him, there’s no doubt Hellebuyck was the cream of this year’s crop of candidates.
The stats scream “shoo-in”: he posted 31 wins, a 2.57 GAA, a .922 SV%, six shutouts, and a 12.5 Goalie Points Share. He was first in saves with 1656, tied for first in games played with 58, and first in Quality Starts with 36.
Those numbers are even more impressive considering the sorry state of the Jets’ blue line for much of the season. The Jets experienced a mass exodus on defence last offseason, losing mainstays Ben Chiarot, Tyler Myers, and Jacob Trouba. GM Kevin Cheveldayoff was unable to sign a veteran blue-liner to soften the blows as he needed all the funds at his disposal to sign Kyle Connor and Patrik Laine, who both held out until September.
The back-end outlook became even bumpier on the first day of training camp, when Jets’ X-factor Dustin Byfuglien decided he didn’t want to play anymore, leaving his team in the lurch and tying up $8 million in cap space all season long. (Not that Cheveldayoff would have been able to do anything with the money, anyway — all the top-four free-agent d-men were long signed by then.)
The result of all those unfortunate events was that third pairing-calibre players and waiver-wire pickups were forced to play big roles — Anthony Bitetto, Carl Dahlstrom, and Luca Sbisa are not exactly household names — and they were often not up to the task.
Hellebuyck Worked Harder, Battled Through More than Rask and Vasilevskiy
While fellow finalists Rask and Vasilevskiy undoubtedly had fine seasons, they had much sturdier defences in front of them and therefore, their coaches could start their backups more often.
Both played fewer games than Hellebuyck — Vasilevskiy played 52 and Rask played just 41 — and while some of their raw numbers were better (for example, Rask’s GAA was lower and SV% was higher,) neither were as single-handedly responsible for their teams’ successes, nor did they face nearly as challenging of circumstances.
Hellebuyck faced 509 high-danger chances in 2019-20 (8.77 per game), more than any other goalie in the league. To compare, Vasilevskiy faced 408 (7.84 per game) and Rask faced 279 (6.80 per game.) Hellebuyck was also peppered with 35-plus shots on 18 different occasions, but still captured 10 victories in those games.
Really, the only reason the Jets qualified for the playoffs at all and occupied a Western Conference Wild Card spot when the season was put on pause in March due to COVID-19 was because of their masked man’s proficiency between the pipes. No team leaned on their goaltender more than Hellebuyck in 2019-20.
This author was concerned that the 31 general managers who cast ballots to determine the winner would overlook Hellebuyck because he plays for a small market team, like they arguably did in 2018 when Pekka Rinne won the Vezina despite Hellebuyck posting similar numbers under much more difficult circumstances.
Individual Accolade Great, But Hellebuyck Has Eyes on Big Prize
Back in April, Hellebuyck said winning the Vezina “would be a great milestone and it would definitely be one of my goals achieved, but at the end of the day, what I truthfully want is the Stanley Cup and a chance to win it.”
Well: one down, one to go. The Jets were dispatched by the Calgary Flames in four games in the Stanley Cup Qualifier Round last month, and must reload before 2020-21 — a couple of top-four defencemen and a second line centre are the biggest priorities — if they want to get back being the contender they were just a few season ago, when they went all the way to the Western Conference Final.
This offseason will be critical for determining whether Hellebuyck and the Jets’ window for capturing hockey’s holy grail stays open, or if he will have to settle for his individual accolade.