We’ve always wondered about the goaltending in Winnipeg, and that’s OK. Because in Manitoba, they wonder too.
The Jets have had an interesting “goaltending by committee” scenario over the past 12 months, mostly between an inconsistent Ondrej Pavelec and Michael Hutchinson, a high-level backup who has given the Jets some strong stints when called upon.
Enter Connor Hellebuyck, the goalie of the future in Winnipeg for whom the future may well have arrived. Heading into tonight’s game in Calgary, Hellebuyck has taken over the Jets crease, starting eight of 10 games with Pavelec injured.
“He’s just confident,” said Jets centre Bryan Little. “He doesn’t seem like a guy just getting his foot in the door in the league. And it seems like we’re confident when he’s behind us.”
Pavelec went down with a sprained knee after a collision with a net-driving Shane Doan on Nov. 21. When he returns, with his .906 save percentage, there could be a problem. Hutchinson is also at .906, while Hellebuyck took a .925 into Monday’s game at Edmonton, though he was pulled after allowing three goals — none of which he could do much about, to these eyes.
But the kid is a pro, and professional goalies can always find a reason why a save could have been made. “There’s room for improvement,” he said of his loss in Edmonton. “The first one I have to get bigger. The next two, I’ve got to find a way to get my body over there.”
The second goal was a one-timer off the cross bar, high corner. There isn’t a goalie yet created who makes that save, but you’ve got to like a kid who thinks he can.
You never quite know when a prospect is going to put his stamp on the big club, as exhibited this year by players like Colton Parayko in St. Louis, Artemi Panarin in Chicago, or Leon Draisaitl in Edmonton. The plan was to let Pavelec (two years remaining at $3.9 million per) and Hutchinson (deal expiring after this season) run another year off their deals, while Hellebuyck spent a second season in the AHL.
Last season, the Pavelec-Hutchinson duo gave the Jets the NHL’s tenth best team save percentage at .913, which isn’t bad. This season however, Winnipeg ranks 26th (.900) — not good enough, particularly in the league’s toughest division, the Central.
We’ll see what happens when Pavelec returns, but we asked Jets head coach Paul Maurice if he’d like to see one goalie — any goalie — take over the No. 1 job, and here’s what he said:
“Arturs Irbe played 72 games (77 actually, for Maurice’s Carolina Hurricanes one year), so there’s your answer. I have no problem running a guy who’s hot,” said Maurice. “Hutch was so good at times last year, and this year. Hellebuyck has come in and really been good. And Pav, he got us into the playoffs in the last month (of the 2014-15 season). So, you want to mindful … if a guy plays a good game he deserves to get in again sooner than later.”
Hellebuyck was named the best goalie in the NCAA two years ago, and last spring took over Team USA’s net during a bronze medal run at the World Championships, where he was the All-Star goalie. Now, he walks into the NHL as injury relief and has thus far outshone both Jets incumbents.
“At the end of this we’re talking about talent. He’s good — a good solid goaltender,” said Maurice. “He’s square to the net, moves well. Good fundamentals, and he rarely gets out of position or scrambly in his net so he’s easy for his defence to read.”
He’s also 6-foot-4, and at age 22 (from Commerce, Mich.), Hellebuyck will battle Anaheim’s John Gibson for the No. 1 job with the Under-24 Team North America at next fall’s World Cup of Hockey.
“I don’t know what the World Cup’s going to be like. I can only imagine it’s going to be really good hockey. A lot of NHL guys who are going to be representing their countries. They’ll get up in the morning a lot quicker,” he said. “I’m not letting that creep into my mind right now. I have my goal in front of me, and that’s doing the best I possibly can here, making the team win every night.”
As for Maurice, if his goalie misses training camp because he’s gallivanting through the world of International hockey with Connor McDavid, Aaron Ekblad and the boys, so be it.
“I think that if you’ve got a good enough goaltender to play in the No. 1 hole on any World Cup team, you’ll suffer through the chance that he might get injured,” Maurice said. “Cause he could slip and fall stepping off the sidewalk.”