Connor Hellebuyck has been in the discussion before, though it’s fair to say it was more of a happy-to-be here moment two years ago when he was a finalist for the Vezina Trophy.
Sure, the Winnipeg Jets netminder was deserving at that time as well.
But now, he’s not only a candidate, he’s the clear-cut favourite – with all due respect to Andrei Vasilevskiy of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Tuukka Rask, who are the other two more-than-capable finalists for the award that is voted on by the 31 NHL general managers.
Hellebuyck’s impact on the Jets this season is obvious by any measure.
He’s the backbone of the team and his numbers back that up.
Hellebuyck led the league in shutouts (six), tied Carey Price of the Montreal Canadiens for appearances (Price had 58 starts while Hellebuyck had 56) and posted a strong save percentage (.922) and low goals-against average (2.57) — especially when you consider the volume of high-danger scoring chances he faced.
He’s a workhorse in an age where many successful teams have shifted to more of a crease-sharing and load-management system.
“It’s no secret — if he could play 82 games, he would,” said Adam Francilia, the goalie guru who has worked with Hellebuyck since June of 2017. “He’s hard-wired that way. His goaltending philosophy is based so much on precision that it does allow him to play so much more of a quiet and efficient game. You’re not going to see him on too many highlight reels.
“He gets in the way.”
And he gets in the way with great regularity, which is the most important thing a goaltender can do.
Hellebuyck has often been described as big and boring — and that’s not an insult, either. It’s a compliment.
After watching the Jets defence corps get overhauled during the off-season, Hellebuyck knew that he and goalie partner Laurent Brossoit would have to be especially sharp in order to keep the team in games.
Oddly enough, Hellebuyck had a shaky appearance in the season opener against the New York Rangers, giving up five goals on 31 shots in a 6–4 loss.
With the games being played on consecutive days to start the campaign, Brossoit got the call in Game 2 against the New Jersey Devils. And when the Jets rallied from a four-goal deficit to win in a shootout, Maurice chose to go back to his backup for the third game of the road trip.
Sure, this was a nod to Brossoit’s effort.
It also had some unintended consequences, even if Hellebuyck said publicly that he wasn’t bothered by the decision.
That may be true, but it certainly got his attention.
And that wasn’t an accident, as Jets head coach Paul Maurice admitted on Friday.
“I wasn’t sitting around two or three games into the year going, ‘How am I going to light a fire under Connor Hellebuyck?’ I’m not worried about him being wired up,” said Maurice. “I knew he wouldn’t be very happy about it. I didn’t think that that was a bad thing.”
As has been the case frequently during his career, Hellebuyck bounced back and got the job done, providing a stellar performance to defeat the Pittsburgh Penguins – something the Jets hadn’t done on the road since the franchise relocated from Atlanta (a span of 18 consecutive games that dated back to 2007, for those of you keeping score at home).
“I mean, he’s a rebound guy. Connor Hellebuyck doesn’t sulk if things don’t go his way. He gets a little ticked off,” said Maurice. “And he’s also not a guy that runs around pointing fingers. Truly. I mean I just know that there’s a lot of goalies that never feel they make a mistake — that if it’s in the back of their net, it’s not their fault. But Connor is unusual, because he’s at the other end of the spectrum but it doesn’t beat him down.
“He’s not saying that it’s his fault, but on a 2-on-0, cross-ice, bar-down, he’s looking at the video because he’s pretty sure he should have been able to get that. There’s a confidence there about him. He has this inner fight, this inner power that lets him think he should have every single puck. But when that doesn’t happen — and clearly that doesn’t happen for anybody — it doesn’t weigh on him. It just fires him up.”
Hellebuyck’s play has fired up his teammates all season long.
To put it bluntly, it’s what allowed the Jets to find their collective footing in early November, a time when things could have easily gone off the rails.
The calling card for Hellebuyck’s exceptional play came in San Jose on Nov. 2, when he made a career-high 51 saves in a 3–2 triumph over the Sharks.
“That will definitely be one of the milestones of my career, just because of the shot total,” Hellebuyck said during a conference call on Friday. “That was kind of the stars aligning.”
To say the Jets had no business winning that night would be an understatement.
“Saving the season isn’t the right phrase, but giving us a chance to develop with some confidence and stay in the fight and develop a certain scrappiness if you will. Resilience is an accurate word for our team this year, (and) he would have been the leader in that,” said Maurice. “He gave us a chance.”
It’s not accurate to call it a one-man show, but there was no question Hellebuyck was the Jets’ most valuable player this season.
It’s going to take some time before we find out if Hellebuyck is going to accomplish one of his clearly defined and publicly stated goals, to win the Vezina Trophy.
For the time being, his focus is solely on trying to capture a different silver trophy for the first time.
During the pause, Hellebuyck watched a lot of video and worked to keep his mind sharp, engaging in frequent conversations with both Francilia and Jets goalie coach Wade Flaherty.
“I would watch old games, have chats with my trusted goalie advisers and keep my mind into it, knowing the competition is coming,” said Hellebuyck. “Try to use it as more of a break as opposed to a shutdown.”
Hellebuyck is known for exuding confidence, and you can usually count on him mentioning in a scrum how much he likes his game or how his details were right — regardless of the result.
But those comments are based on a profound belief in the process. He’s not simply viewing things through rose-coloured glasses or ignoring the things he might need to work on.
“Mental toughness is one of the biggest assets a goaltender can have,” said Flaherty. “(Hellebuyck) has grown into that over the years. Does he get bothered by a poor outing? He can be one of his own hardest critics. But, with that being said, we’re always honest with it, too. It goes back to his drive, that he wants to have success on every single play, every night. It’s definitely one of his strengths.”
Along with his mental toughness, Hellebuyck has built his foundation around competitiveness.
“That’s always been him,” said Jets left-winger Kyle Connor. “He has taken his game and built on it each year. He learns new things each year and implements them into his game. You’ve seen it come together, and he’s in his prime right now.
“Hopefully he only continues to get better.”