LAS VEGAS — It was just over a year ago. Connor Hellebuyck had given up five goals the night before and was pulled for the sixth time in the 2016-17 season.
He had a pedestrian .907 save percentage, and Jets management had so much faith in him, they would spend over $8 million on goalie Steve Mason the following summer. But that’s just fine.
Because Hellebuyck had enough confidence in himself to make up for any shortfall in the Jets’ front office.
“My game’s the best it’s ever been,” he said that day to Winnipeg beat man Ken Wiebe. “If I continue to play this way … I’m going to win a Stanley Cup and a Vezina one day.”
On Thursday, Hellebuyck stood there as a Vezina Trophy finalist, seven wins away from a Stanley Cup. It ain’t bragging if you can back it up.
“Oh yeah, I said that,” he said, and we asked him what his teammates thought of that comment.
“Guys don’t tell you what they really think. They probably thought I was crazy,” he chuckled. “But they don’t understand what I do in the summer. No one really knows what I do off scene. I like to make jokes about fishing and golfing, so maybe they have a different perception. I think now they see. I mean business.
“And this year I’m up for the Vezina,” he said. “I’m not even surprised how fast it’s happened. Because I believe in myself.”
Connor Hellebuyck? He is a different cat, man.
“I say it how it is, and I take a positive outlook on everything,” he said. “There is no room for negativity in this game. You let negativity creep in, and that’s when the s––– hits the fan.”
In Hellebuyck’s world, negativity includes copping to a bad goal, even if he knows it was a bad goal. It also includes admitting that Marc-Andre Fleury was the better goalie in Game 3, a statement Hellebuyck simply would never allow to cross his lips.
Even if Fleury was.
“He’s obviously a big part of that team and playing very well,” Hellebuyck said after the Game 3 loss. “But I like my game. I like it a lot more.”
Said Vegas winger Ryan Reaves: “I don’t know why he’d say that.”
“I’ve done a lot of studying of the game,” the 24-year-old Commerce, Mich., native said. “I feel like my game is defined as the exact way I like it. Very efficient, and boring. Yes, (Fleury) did steal a game. Played fantastic. His game is awesome. He is proven and has won Stanley Cups. But the way I have studied it, and the way I like to play is to be efficient and predictable (as opposed to Fleury’s less economical style).
“That works better for me. Maybe not for him. But he gets it done.”
At such a young age, it is as if Hellebuyck hovers overtop his career, watching himself grow and develop from above. Impatiently, we might add.
Like the night he won his first NHL game, and told reporters, “It was just another game.” He was already looking ahead, even then.
“I’ve been building and working extremely hard my entire life to get here. Now that I’ve finally got here, I don’t want it to just be an experience. I want to set my roots in,” he said. “This is what I’m supposed to do. It’s the way I’m wired. I don’t sit on my highs too much.”
While last season was looked upon as a growing process by everyone else, Hellebuyck describes it as “a pain in the ass.” He wanted to fast forward through the lessons, past the school of hard knocks, and right to today.
“I knew exactly what I was going through. The luck wasn’t there, and that I had to battle a little adversity to get better,” he said. “I felt myself get a lot better every single day. And I think I was getting too much better every single day, to really put together a full game. And my foundation needed work.
“I was just patiently waiting for it to arrive.”
Traditional hockey culture dictates one does not talk about himself this way. Ask P.K. Subban some day. But like Subban, Hellebuyck doesn’t mind being different.
“I don’t, but that’s not the way I’d put it. I would say, ‘revolutionary,’” he quipped. “The game’s changing in front of us. We want to be ahead of it, not behind it.”
As such, this goalie has spent as much time massaging his persona as stopping pucks. He is well aware of how he needs to be perceived by his teammates, which is why he wouldn’t own up to a bad goal even if, well, he knew it was a stinker.
“I want to make sure that everyone around me knows, it’s not a big deal. It hasn’t affected me, and I’m going to continue being the rock I’m expected to be,” he said.
Most goalies learn that the hard way. Not Hellebuyck. He skipped past that part, the way he skipped right from a shaky 2016-17 to a Vezina nomination in 2017-18.
The way he has skipped from being the third goalie on Team North America two years ago to a guy that, if you were picking a Team USA for an Olympics or World Cup today, would vie for the No. 1 job with Jonathan Quick.
He’s done the work, and that includes working on his self esteem.
“This booming confidence (that says), ‘You’re not going to beat me unless I let you,’” he describes.
It never falters?
“That never falters.”