Jets’ Hellebuyck Back on Track

As the calendar surges toward 2019, Connor Hellebuyck is surging toward being the goaltender everyone expected him to be for the Winnipeg Jets coming into this season.

Hellebuyck’s Early-Season Struggles

The first quarter of the 2018-19 season was not kind to the 25-year-old goaltender.

Hellebuyck’s play through November looked more akin to his 2016-17 season — where he was spectacular at times but too often leaky — rather than his outstanding 2017-18 season — where he secured a career-high 44 wins, a goalie point share of 14.0 (an estimate of the number of points contributed by a goalie due to his play between the pipes), and was a finalist for the Vezina Trophy. 

Pittsburgh Penguins vs Winnipeg Jets
The Pittsburgh Penguins celebrate after scoring their second of two third-period goals on Connor Hellebuyck on Nov. 27. The Jets entered the third with a 3-2 lead but couldn’t hang on. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Trevor Hagan)

Hellebuyck particularly struggled in the latter half of November. He allowed three-plus goals in five straight starts between Nov. 19 and Nov. 29, let a number of uncharacteristically weak shots past him, and was missing in action during critical moments.

Related: Hellebuyck’s Play Far from Solid This Season

The number of third-period goals he surrendered was alarming — a combined seven in back-to-back third period collapses against the Minnesota Wild and Pittsburgh Penguins and a near-collapse against the Chicago Blackhawks. This led many to call for rock-solid backup Laurent Brossoit to get more cracks at the crease and wonder if signing the Commerce, Michigan product to a lucrative six-year extension in the offseason may have been a mistake.

Hellebuyck Doing December Right

While Hellebuyck’s numbers and play far below his station as an elite goalie were a cause for concern, they weren’t a cause for panic. Much has been made by writers — author included — about his maturity, mettle, and bounce-back ability.

Since his rough patch, Hellebuyck has bounced back again. He is 3-1-0 in four December starts so far and is looking more like the goalie who stole countless games last year and was key to the Jets’ 52-win season. He hasn’t allowed any weak goals — a hallmark of his 2017-18 campaign — is exhibiting the calmness and economy of movement he’s known for, but is also making athletic saves when needed.

As you can see above, his past three starts have been excellent. In Brooklyn last Tuesday, the final game of the Jets’ perfect New York road trip, he made 27 saves in a 3-1 victory. He was not to blame for the Jets’ 1-0 loss to St. Louis Blues last Friday; he stopped 26 and the only puck that got past him was a fluky deflection off Alexander Steen.

Hellebuyck Stealing Games Again

Helleubuyck’s best start of his past three, however, was his most recent against the Philadelphia Flyers on Sunday. The Jets ended up trouncing the Flyers 7-1, which obscures how integral his play was to the win.

The Jets came out flat and the Flyers dominated the first 10 minutes, outshooting the Jets 10-1. The visitors could have easily potted a couple of goals, but Hellebuyck made a number of outstanding saves on ten-bell chances.

The above saves, among others, allowed the Jets to get their legs under them, ensured they were able to leave a rough first period with a lead they probably didn’t deserve, and gave the rest of the team a spark. That fact did not go unnoticed by his teammates and head coach.

“Helly made a lot of big saves to keep us in it,” Tyler Myers said post game. “When they had their push, Helly made some big saves, some huge saves actually, and kept us right there,” Josh Morrissey added. “He looks the way that we’re used to seeing,” Paul Maurice said.

I relaxed a bit,” Hellebuyck said post game. “I was gripping it a bit tight. I got a lot better at my foundation over the summer… I can do so much more so I started to fight a little bit harder for it. Now I can relax and let things kind of sink into place. It kind of helped me find my groove.

The Start of a New, Better Trend?

While Hellebuyck’s good start to December doesn’t make up for his earlier struggles, it’s always been said that once is a fluke, twice is a coincidence, and three is a trend. His past three starts — which have allowed him to drop his GAA to 2.80 and increase his SV% to .910 — hopefully represent the start of a long trend of sturdy netminding.

The Jets have a boatload of games before Christmas and Hellebuyck is going to be as busy as an elf in Santa’s workshop. Brossoit started against the Blackhawks yesterday, which means Hellebuyck will most likely get the call tomorrow against the Oilers — he and the team will be looking for a little revenge after blowing a 4-1 lead to Connor McDavid’s squad in October.

Winnipeg Jets goaltender Laurent Brossoit and Connor Hellebuyck
Laurent Brossoit started the Jets’ last game, but Connor Hellebuyck’s workload is still going to be heavy for the next two weeks. (James Carey Lauder-USA TODAY Sports)

The game against the Oilers is the Jets’ first of six in a 10-day span. If all goes according to plan, expect the number-one netminder to start at least four of them.

The Jets’ success is ultimately contingent on Hellebuyck’s play. He’s cost them some points this year, but he’s beginning to help snag them again. If his sharp December continues, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t find themselves near or at the top of the Central Division come Christmas Day.