The Winnipeg Jets, 5-6-0 through 11 games and coming off a 1-4 homestand, have plenty of issues. Connor Hellebuyck’s play isn’t one of them.
Hellebuyck Is Running Hot
Ever since his terrible opening-night performance against the New York Rangers — which got pundits and the peanut gallery alike wondering if he was a one-season wonder — the Jets’ No. 1 netminder has been very good, if not outstanding.
The 6-foot-4, 207-pound goalie is at his best when he’s big, boring and moving economically. He’s been all three in his seven starts since the Big Apple debacle. There’s no panic in his play and he’s reading the shot, rather than the shooter, quite well. He’s controlling his rebounds too, and swallowing up plenty of shots in his crest, which is good to see.
He’s looking more like the 2017-18 Vezina-nominated goalie who stole a number of games and was key to his team capturing a franchise-high 52 victories, rather than the 2018-19 goalie whose performance varied wildly from game to game.
Hellebuyck is giving the Jets the big, timely saves and rock-solid backstopping they need again, just like he did two seasons ago when they reached the Western Conference Final.
Take his 19-save opening frame in Tuesday’s contest against the Los Angeles Kings that allowed his team to go into the first intermission tied 1-1 when they deserved to be down by two or even three goals. Take his breakaway stop on Connor McDavid Sunday night against the Edmonton Oilers that saved the team from suffering a fourth-straight loss. Take the two below against the New York Islanders last Thursday that preserved 1-1 second-period deadlock as just three examples of stellar ‘tending.
“He’s come back and just been lights out (since the Rangers game)” head coach Paul Maurice said Tuesday after his goaltender made 38 saves, many spectacular in a 3-2 loss to the Kings. “He’s been solid, he’s working… Connor was really good here tonight. After that, no one’s bragging about their game.”
Advanced Stats Show Improvement
Going into some advanced stats provided by Natural Stat Trick, Hellebuyck has faced 46 high-danger chances — i.e. shots from the slot or “home plate” area that are the most likely to produce a goal — at five-on-five this season, at which the majority of the game is played.
He’s stopped 37 of those chances, for a high danger save percentage (HDSV%) of .848, 29th among all NHL goalies. That’s not incredible, but that number is low mainly due to his first rough start, an outlier at this point. Last season, Hellebuyck’s HDSV% at five-on-five was worse at .809.
At all strengths this season, he’s seen 59 high danger chances and stopped 47, for a HDSV% of .797, or 37th. That’s low, but not solely his fault, since the Jets’ penalty kill has been oft-atrocious and is operating at a league-worst 63.6 percent. The D-corp in front of him is also much worse than a season ago due to a number of offseason departures, Dustin Byfuglien’s no-deadline leave of absence, and a couple of injuries.
Overall, the numbers are cause for optimism when you consider the back-end uncertainty. His five-on-five HDSV% mark is, in fact, higher than it was in 2017-18. That season, his five-on-five HDSV% was .832, albeit in a much larger sample size.
His HDSV% at all strengths was much better, however, at .823 as the Jets’ penalty kill operated at an 81.75 percent efficiency.
Internal Competition Seems to Bring Out Hellebuyck’s Best
Speaking of the 2017-18 campaign, if you do recall, Hellebuyck wasn’t even the starter as it got underway. His inconsistent 2016-17 led the Jets to sign Steve Mason and peg him as the No. 1 guy.
Mason struggled early and Hellebuyck seized the opportunity. By the end of October, he was firmly entrenched as the starter and went on to post career numbers in most meaningful statistical categories.
The internal competition and the need to prove himself on a one-year deal pushed Hellebuyck to another level; a level he never reached last season given he had fat six-year, $37-million deal in his back pocket.
This season, Laurent Brossoit is pushing Hellebuyck to be his best self. After a stellar 2018-19, the backup signed a one-year deal in May and looked excellent in the preseason while Hellebuyck struggled in a trio of starts. Brossoit may be the most motivated Jet of all — if he plays anywhere close to the way he did last season, he’ll attract suitors that want to make him a starter.
After Brossoit got back-to-back starts against the New Jersey Devils and Islanders on the Jets’ season-opening Eastern road trip, it looked as though there was a full-blown crease controversy brewing.
But since Brossoit allowed seven to the Penguins, Hellebuyck has taken control of the crease again — just as he did after Mason allowed five goals or more in each of his first three starts in his short and forgettable tenure in Winnipeg.
Will Hellbuyck Continue his Upward Trend?
Brossoit hasn’t played since the Penguins game and may not until the second of Jets’ back-to-back games next Friday and Saturday. However, they’ll still need him to lighten Hellebuyck’s workload.
Down the stretch last season, Brossoit’s late-season injury and the Jets’ desire to hold the Central Division top spot despite being in total freefall were both contributing factors in Hellebuyck seeing too much rubber when he should have been resting up for the playoffs. By the time the first round rolled around, although he would never admit it, he was worn out from making 67 starts and facing 2,048 shots.
They’ll also need Brossoit to keep pushing and motivating Hellebuyck, because when the latter doesn’t have something to prove or someone to beat, he simply gets too comfortable. The Jets will rely on goaltending more than ever this season because their blueline will undoubtedly continue to give up plenty of quality chances. Overall, the team’s still searching for their identity and consistency.
The calls for Hellebuyck’s head have died down for now, but with a couple of shaky starts, they’ll start up again. The numbers are encouraging, but only time will tell whether he will completely regain his 2017-18 form.
If he wants to, Hellebuyck will have to do it against some tough opponents: the team has 16 games through November, and 10 of them are against squads that made the playoffs last season.