With Connor Hellebuyck struggling, Dave Lowry faces toughest decision with Jets

Josh Bailey scored two goals to lead the New York Islanders in a 5-2 win over the Winnipeg Jets.

ELMONT, N.Y. - It might be time for Dave Lowry and Wade Flaherty to take a slight detour from the plan that’s already been mapped out.

There’s a pothole on this road and it looks like it could require some further attention.

No, this is not to suggest for even a single second that there is even a hint of a goalie controversy with the Winnipeg Jets because that’s simply not the case.

But after starting 49 of the first 59 games of this season, Connor Hellebuyck has hit a rough patch.

Whether it’s due to fatigue or just a spell where things are not fully going his way is difficult to determine, but as the Jets get set to close out a three-game road trip on Sunday against the St. Louis Blues, it might serve all parties well to consider giving backup Eric Comrie another start.

Would this be a tough decision for Lowry to make? Absolutely.

Hellebuyck has been the backbone of the Jets for the bulk of his time with the organization, especially since taking over as the starter from Ondrej Pavelec and he’s carved out a reputation as a workhorse who competes hard and hates to cede the crease - even when the schedule is taxing.

Hellebuyck has an incredible amount of self-belief - and that’s a compliment, not a critique.

It’s an essential quality for the individuals who are literally the last line of defence.

This isn’t about whether Hellebuyck still believes in himself, as his confidence remains high and he’s got the track record and Vezina Trophy hardware to back that up.

But at a time when the Jets are trying to keep their slim playoff hopes alive, Hellebuyck has given up four or more goals in six consecutive starts, including Friday’s 5-2 loss to the New York Islanders at UBS Arena.

That’s not to point the finger at Hellebuyck for the Jets not being able to string together their first three-game winning streak since early January.

The Islanders ability to crash the crease and win a number of battles in front of the blue paint was the main reason the Jets slipped to 26-23-10 on the season and remain five points out of the second wild card in the Western Conference with just 23 games to go in the campaign.

For whatever reason, the red light has been going off behind Hellebuyck more than usual of late and that’s a trend that needs to change quickly, otherwise, the Jets will find themselves mathematically eliminated before long.

Because of the compressed nature of the schedule, there isn’t much practice time available to sort through any technical issues that may have crept into Hellebuyck’s game.

Rebound control is an area he would like to tidy up, but that could also be alleviated by some stronger play in front of him.

That’s another subject entirely and it’s been compounded by poor puck management by the Jets of late.

Despite going 4-2-1, there have been far too many instances of casual play with the puck in dangerous areas and those turnovers are often leading to goals against.

Jets defenceman Josh Morrissey was asked if it was fair for Hellebuyck to be receiving criticism for this recent stretch and he was fervent in backing his goaltender.

“No, not at all. I mean, in fact, that's something that bothers me, because he's been the heart and soul of our team back there since we've been relevant in the league,” said Morrissey, who suited up in his 400th NHL game on Friday. “This guy battles and competes on pucks. And I mean, a few years ago, you look back at it, we wouldn't have been able to be even close to getting into the play-in series that year, if it wasn't for him, and, and last year as well. I understand that, when you're goaltender, you get that criticism and he puts more pressure on himself than any external source could, whether it's media or anything like that.”

Morrissey wasn’t done there.

“But you know what, it's not fair to him. I mean, when you've got guys whacking at pucks in front of the net, that's a tough place to ask your goaltender to make a second, third, fourth save,” said Morrissey. “And I don't know, look at the Tampa Bay game. I mean, some pretty dangerous players walking down the pipe. Yeah, it's frustrating to hear that. I certainly know that everyone in that room has full confidence in (Hellebuyck) and the type of goaltender he is so we're not worried at all. We got to do a better job in front of him and make his job easier. We haven't been good enough in front of him defensively so I don't listen to that for a second.”

Jets forward Nikolaj Ehlers was asked what his team could do in front of Hellebuyck to try and make life a little easier on him.

“Everything that we can. It’s not like we’re going out there during a game and just not caring. That’s not the way our minds work,” said Ehlers, who set up Kyle Connor for his team-leading 36t goal of the season. “It’s not just (Hellebuyck) that it’s not going for. Yes, we just had two wins in a row, but we haven’t had the best stretch, so everyone is frustrated. (Hellebuyck) is a great goalie and you know, he’s trying to help us and we’re trying to help him. We’re trying to help each other, every single guy on this team, to get better and get the best out of every single guy.”

Right now, getting the best out of Hellebuyck might mean giving him a few more days to reset, watch some video with his goalie coach and get himself prepared to face the Vegas Golden Knights on Tuesday as the Jets get set for the final three games before the arrival of the NHL trade deadline on Mar. 21.

Now, it’s entirely possible that Hellebuyck could wake up feeling refreshed on Sunday and single-handedly steal Sunday’s game, putting his team on his back the way that he’s done so often over the course of his 355 starts over seven NHL seasons.

That thought would certainly enter the minds of Lowry and Flaherty and could ultimately factor into the decision-making process.

However, while Hellebuyck is battling through this hiccup, Comrie is enjoying the best stretch of his NHL career.

Of course, it’s always important to remember the sample size remains incredibly small, with Comrie starting only 10 games so far this season and appearing in one more in relief, he’s won four consecutive starts and his numbers have continued to improve.

With a 7-2-1 record, a .924 save % and 2.40 goals-against average, Comrie’s feeling great about his game and the job of the backup is to come in and support the starter, giving him a break when he needs one.

In each of his 11 appearances, Comrie has allowed three goals or fewer, a strong sign of consistency.

Comrie has already gone on the road into a hostile environment in St. Louis and provided a virtuoso performance back on Jan. 29 and the fact that was his first start since Dec. 10 made the feat even more impressive.

Again, it’s important to remember that this would be a temporary fix, not a true challenge to the throne.

Comrie is well aware of the role he’s been asked to play and he’s handling it extremely well.

Even after making 33 saves against the New Jersey Devils on Thursday, Comrie was quick to praise Hellebuyck when asked a question about how he’s been handling the extended stretches between starts.

He’s also shown that he’s deserving of being given more opportunities over time and Lowry doesn’t have to wait until the next set of games on consecutive days arrives on Mar. 22 and 23.

For a guy who came into the campaign as a bit of a question mark considering the nine prior NHL games on his resume, Comrie has shown that the Jets faith in him during the offseason was justified.

Giving Comrie the start on Sunday wouldn’t be used by Lowry as a motivational tool, he’s not about playing head games or putting his star goalie on notice.

It would be a simple reward for a job well done.

Nothing more, nothing less.

History has also shown that Hellebuyck has often responded well when he’s been pushed - whether that was the Jets signing Steve Mason back in the summer of 2017 or decided to play Laurent Brossoit in the second and third games of the 2019-20 season.

This is an entirely different set of circumstances, but such a decision could bring the desired effect.

The Jets are going to need Hellebuyck to be a difference-maker down the stretch and giving him another little breather here might actually provide him with a better chance to achieve that aforementioned goal.

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