WINNIPEG - Connor Hellebuyck has no concerns whatsoever, and his actions are matching his words.
The Winnipeg Jets goalie is fully aware of what the numbers, in the early stages of this NHL season, suggest about how things have been going for the reigning Vezina Trophy winner.
Hellebuyck is also aware a few goals he’s allowed in recent games would fall under the soft category.
But in another sign of the maturation process he’s been going through, Hellebuyck is staying calm when it comes to his self-assessment of the five games he’s appeared in as the Jets got off to a 5-2 start heading into Saturday’s game with the Vancouver Canucks.
“I like a lot of things in my play and there are a lot of things I can clean up. That’s what the early season is like for a goaltender,” said Hellebuyck, who is 4-1 with a 2.60 goals-against average and .906 save percentage. “You start cleaning things up as you get beat. I’m looking forward to putting a full 60 together. I’ve had a really good feeling and then sometimes you pop off it and I have to re-battle myself into it.
“There’s a lot of good things I have in my game. There’s a lot of things I’ve been working on. This little break we’ve had was a great time off to kind of build up that whole 60 again. Now I’m looking forward to putting it all together.”
Going into the season, there was so much talk that the abundance of high-end forwards in the North Division could make it difficult for Hellebuyck to deliver a repeat performance.
“I don’t really watch video on guys shooting because when a game comes, I’ll read and react. I know our team has a bunch of elite snipers, too, so if I can handle these guys, I’ll be better prepared to handle the other snipers around the league,” said Hellebuyck. “It’s more about catching a good feeling, and maintaining it and keeping it. You don’t want to falter [with] your confidence at all, especially not in this shortened season and a shortened window to get it back, really.
“So I’m going to keep my confidence high, keep winning games, do whatever it takes and it might be a bunch of high-scoring games but wins are going to be the most important part of the season.”
Since his first Zoom appearance on the opening day of training camp, Hellebuyck has displayed a certain calmness. It’s almost as though he’s in a Zen-like state. If he’s frustrated by a couple of goals that snuck through the five-hole or with a shot that seemed to catch him off guard, Hellebuyck doesn’t show it.
Hellebuyck recognizes he’s held to an extremely high standard after being up for the Vezina in two of the past three seasons. Once you work your way into the conversation as being among — if not THE — best goalies in the NHL, you constantly find yourself under the microscope.
When the numbers are pedestrian instead of elite, it catches people’s attention — though it’s important to remember that it’s early.
“I like to just keep an eye on it and before the last game, I think my save percentage was pretty good,” said Hellebuyck. “Last game was a learning curve for me. I had two good periods and one period that I’d like back, obviously. I guess the balance is putting a full 60 that I can be proud of and if I’m putting wins on the table, there’s nothing to complain about. I’m doing my job. Last year was a lot different from this year. You can’t really compare the two years. The guys are scoring right now and if there’s ever a game when there not scoring, which I doubt, but if there is, I’m going to have be there to backstop them.
“I can say right now I’ve done my job and numbers wise, yeah, I’d like to keep improving them. I think any goalie around the league would say that but it’s early in the season and numbers, they kind of fluctuate a little bit early on. They’ll settle in.”
One thing that’s been prevalent for Hellebuyck has been the ability to shake off a bad goal — or a rough period.
He doesn’t let those things linger and that’s a lesson he’s learned over time.
“The biggest thing is to accept that you faltered a bit and then flip the switch,” said Hellebuyck. “It’s just an expression but, for me, it means a whole lot because when I flip the switch. I’ve accepted it, I’ve put it behind me and now it’s a fresh game and it’s a fresh start and now I need to go and prove to the people around me and myself that I’m here to play and we are not out of this game. It could be one bad goal or bad period or anything, if you show the guys around you that you’re resilient and you’re battling for them, it’ll give them energy and it’ll boost the team spirit, too. So it’s not just an individual thing, it’s a team thing as well.”
Jets captain Blake Wheeler has been around to see the transformation of Hellebuyck and loves that there are certainly qualities he’s carried with him since he first broke onto the scene.
“He’s growing up, he’s maturing and he’s incredibly confident in himself. You can’t emphasize enough how important it is to have a goaltender who believes in himself,” said Wheeler. “The best goalies I’ve played with, no matter what the goal was, it was never their fault. That’s a great quality to have as a goalie because it’s easy to wipe the slate clean when it’s never your fault. He’s got a bit of that and any goal that goes by him, he thinks that it’s lucky and we love all of those things about [Hellebuyck].
“We never worry about his confidence or his demeanour or letting one or two in that maybe he feels like he should have had. There’s a lot more good there than a flukey goal here or there. He’s the pillar for our team back there and he gives us a chance to win every single night.”
The true value of having a goalie you can count on is easy to identify.
“That makes a world of difference. Any time I’ve been on a good team, it always starts with the goaltending. It’s not just about getting a shutout, it’s timely saves more than anything,” said Jets centre Paul Stastny. “As a forward, it’s a lot easier to trust, a lot easier to play your game, you don’t have to overcompensate and really try to play too much defence because you know you have a steady netminder in there. And for defencemen, it’s easy too, because a lot of times after that first shot he’s not going to let those loose rebounds. If there’s any rebounds he’s so good positionally that he’s going to block that. It’s just so much easier to play as a forward and as a team knowing that you have that behind you.”
Hellebuyck still hates getting scored on, that hasn’t changed.
Nor has his will to not only maintain a consistent level of play, but to put in the time and effort required to keep pushing the goal posts forward.
“He's covered a lot of ground over the course of his time here. The one consistent thing is his drive to get better,” said Jets head coach Paul Maurice. “As most guys are after they've spent four, five years in the NHL, they can describe their game better to you.
"They're far more aware of what's working for them and what isn't. They now have a toolbox, if you will, of how to fix those things because they've been through it before. When a guy comes in, whether it's a goalie or a player, and things are going, they'll tell you, 'Yeah, I feel great.' And when it's not going, 'I don't have any confidence.'
“But they can't tell you why. What are the drivers of feeling great? What's missing in your game when you're lacking that confidence. He's a more mature, more analytic person about his game. And he's been through enough things now that when there's a piece to his game that he doesn't like he knows how to attack it, he knows how to practise it. He's also got a different level of confidence in himself and what he can accomplish, and also a far higher level of expectation. Although I would say that Connor always had a very high expectation of himself.”
THE SURPRISING STREAK
It is one of those curious statistics, a rarity that flies under the radar since the Jets and Canucks only played three times a season — under normal circumstances.
Yet somehow, some way, the Jets have won 10 consecutive meetings against the Canucks dating back to Dec. 22 of 2016, outscoring them 35-10 during that span while shutting them out three times and holding them to a single goal on five other occasions.
Wheeler said he wasn’t even aware of the string of success when the subject was brought up, nor was he putting a whole lot of stock into it.
“I guess not, because I didn’t know that it existed. So, now I’m going to be thinking about it all day,” said Wheeler. “Our match-ups with Vancouver have always been very competitive and very close. Those things don’t matter. It’s a new year, new teams and we’ve got to focus on [Saturday] night.”
When it came to providing a scouting report on the Canucks, Wheeler had done his homework on the team that just swept the Ottawa Senators and had outscored them by a 16-3 margin.
“Yeah, they’re explosive up front,” said Wheeler. “They have some D that like to get up in the play, clearly. They have a good power play, we’ve got to be disciplined and try to limit their opportunities on the power play and keep the puck out of those guys’ hands. It’s similar to a lot of teams in our division, a lot of firepower up front and if you allow their guys time and space and opportunities on the power play, it can bite you. We’ve got to just stick to what we’ve been doing, stay close on the ice to each other, good support, stay out of the penalty box and that will give us an opportunity.”
A slow start to the season had some folks suggesting Canucks general manager Jim Benning could be on the hot start, but that narrative has quieted somewhat.
“Early struggles kind of mold the team and snap the focus into place,” said Maurice. “We're all going to go through it during the year. Theirs happen to be early. In a 56-game schedule the urgency to right your ship is far more intense. And they did it. The pace of their game changed, the way they move as a group changed, they're sharper now than they were, they got their power play rolling, [got] some big saves.
“Ottawa, especially in that series, put an awful lot of pucks to the net and now their goaler's getting in front of a lot of them. So they're feeling good. I think we're going to find that what you did in a series, the last series, because we're playing two to four-game blocks for the most part, doesn't necessarily translate to the next series.
"You can't get overconfident right now in terms of how you're playing. Because the style shifting of all of these series. Like for us Ottawa was a certain style of game, and Edmonton's is different from them. And Vancouver is kind of a one-off for us here, an unusual one-off. You've almost got to re-establish your momentum, re-establish your good feeling, even if you feel that you're winning in each series and each game.”
PRAISE FOR PERFETTI
Jets 2020 first-rounder Cole Perfetti received a bit of a carrot this week, spending the past two days on the taxi squad as he was able to participate in his first two NHL practices.
Because of the quarantine rules, a quick trip home to see his family and his participation with Team Canada at the World Junior Hockey Championship in Edmonton, Perfetti missed all of training camp.
Perfetti, who opened this week at Manitoba Moose training camp, couldn’t hide his enthusiasm when he spoke with reporters.
“It's pretty cool. Going from junior hockey, it's a big difference,” said Perfetti. “Coming here, I was just trying to take it all in as soon as I stepped on the ice. You're playing with guys in the National Hockey League. Some of the best players in the world. I just wanted to come in and work hard and kind of soak it all in. That was my first skate in the NHL and I'll never forget that. I just wanted to enjoy it and learn from it and kind of get to know the guys and get a feel for what it's like in the league. It was a great first experience, I had tons of fun, and it was awesome.
“It's so good for me and I'm just trying to be a sponge so take it all in, absorb everything. Just learn. There's a lot of stuff on and off the ice that I can learn from each and every one of these players. And if I can gather some knowledge, some information every day, that's what I'm trying to do. That will be a successful day.”
Perfetti has not been given any indication of when he might make his NHL debut — and it doesn’t appear to be imminent.
“Nope. When Mr. Cheveldayoff called yesterday, he kind of just said come skate with the team and, you know, the timeline is unknown,” said Perfetti. “I'm going to come here every day and work as hard as I can and play to the best of my ability. At the end of the day, if I get a game, if I don't get a game, just practising with these guys, being around the rink, it's amazing for me so I'm just soaking it in. I'm just thrilled to be here.”
Maurice is banking on Perfetti using his time around the pro game wisely.
“This is a really smart, very competitive young man with a great set of hands. He’s a fit, strong young man with a really really keen eye for the game (and) he’s carrying around a big hockey brain,” said Maurice. “You can see it in his game and you listen to his interviews and then you spend a little bit of time with him. He’s all in on hockey. His day is about how do I get better today. How do I become a better hockey player.
“So he’s figured out the fastest way to learn is to watch mentors, watch the players in the National league and the professional hockey players in the American Hockey League and learn something from everybody. And it also shows just an incredible lack of arrogance, which is so important, that you would be that age and understand that there’s lots to learn from people around you and keenly aware of that. He seems like an exceptionally raised young man, salt of the earth kind of kid. He’s here to learn, get better and then be great and I think he’s going to accomplish all three things.”
CAUGHT BY SURPRISE
The decision made by Jim Rutherford to resign as general manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins earlier this week wasn’t something Maurice was expecting.
Rutherford and Maurice have a relationship that dates back to their time together with the Windsor Spitfires of the Ontario Hockey League and Rutherford promoted Maurice to be the head coach of the Hartford Whalers when he was just 28 years old.
“It surprised me,” said Maurice. “You know Jim, I don't know that you can use 'shock.' First concern was is this serious. He's not 25 anymore. And that concern was put to rest. So I would just say this about that.
“Jim's thought about the front end of this, the back end of this and all the permutations in between. I wouldn't go so far as to say he's got a direct plan in terms of what's going to happen, but he's thought about what could happen a month from now, six months from now, six years from now. He's got it all figured out.”
The Jets have not received word about whether or not Pierre-Luc Dubois will be granted an exemption for a seven-day modified quarantine - and if he doesn’t, he won’t be cleared to see game action before the Feb. 9 road game in Calgary against the Flames.
“We have no new news on that front, so we'll plan accordingly as the full 14-day,” said Maurice. “And then that's a long time to be off the ice, so we'll get him on the ice and make an assessment from there.”
Centre Nate Thompson returned to the ice earlier this week, but he’s yet to practise with the full group and remains on injured reserve while defenceman Tucker Poolman, who was removed from the COVID-19 protocol list Friday afternoon, won't be added to the active roster until he's ready to return to the lineup.
For the Canucks, defenceman and Manitoba product Travis Hamonic remains on injured reserve and is expected to miss a sixth consecutive game with an upper-body injury.
Projected lineups for Saturday night (9 p.m. CT start):
Kyle Connor-Mark Scheifele-Blake Wheeler
Andrew Copp-Paul Stastny-Nikolaj Ehlers
Mathieu Perreault-Adam Lowry-Mason Appleton
Jansen Harkins-David Gustafsson-Trevor Lewis
Josh Morrissey-Dylan DeMelo
Derek Forbort-Neal Pionk
Logan Stanley-Nathan Beaulieu
J.T. Miller-Elias Pettersson-Brock Boeser
Tanner Pearson-Bo Horvat-Nils Hoglander
Adam Gaudette-Brandon Sutter-Zack MacEwen
Antoine Roussel-Jay Beagle-Tyler Motte
Nate Schmidt-Tyler Myers
Quinn Hughes-Jordie Benn
Alex Edler-Jalen Chatfield