With last season behind him, Jets' Hellebuyck poised to expand leadership role

Winnipeg Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck (37) saves the shot from Edmonton Oilers' Jesse Puljujarvi (13) as Jets’ Nate Schmidt (88) defends during third period pre-season NHL action in Winnipeg, Saturday, October 1, 2022. (John Woods/CP)

BANFF, Alta. — Connor Hellebuyck is well past the reflection phase and to be perfectly honest, he’s done talking about last season.

Now entering his eighth NHL season — and his seventh as the full-time starter for the Winnipeg Jets — Hellebuyck looks like a man on a mission.

For as much as goaltending can be among the most difficult things to predict, his body of work, coupled with having nearly five months between meaningful games, means that Hellebuyck finds himself in a perfect headspace heading into Friday’s season opener against the New York Rangers.

“Definitely. Especially when we have a hard season like last year. I’m trying to put that behind me for the remainder of my media, and I already have,” Hellebuyck said after wrapping up practice at Fenlands Arena in Banff. “I’m not going to speak too much about previous years, but I think having a long summer helped me A) rest, and then B) mentally get ready for the season and enjoy the summer, get a little more fishing in and family time and do the things I need to come here and be ready to grind.”

Although nobody is asking Hellebuyck to put the team on his back and carry them by himself, there’s no doubt that he’s the individual with the opportunity to have the biggest impact on the end result for the Jets.

He’s a guy who has established himself as an elite goalie and covered up a lot of the Jets defensive shortcomings over the years.

While the raw numbers (.910 save percentage, 2.98 goals-against average) weren’t what folks were used to seeing (.916 career save percentage and 2.69 career GAA) last season, Hellebuyck still fared well in goals saved above average despite facing the highest volume of high-danger chances (468 according to Natural Stat Trick).

Hellebuyck, 29, is one of the many goalies who thrives on being busy in the crease, especially if he has a pretty good idea of where the shots are coming from.

But the Jets’ renewed commitment to defending better should help matters for the masked men, including backup David Rittich.

“I see a lot of guys hungry to learn and the motivation is there, the feel in the locker room is awesome — everyone is ready to be their best and there’s no stress,” said Hellebuyck. “We’re ready to just go play and enjoy this process. We’re all hungry to learn the systems and figure out the new reads. It’s not one guy trying to figure something out, we’re all doing it together. I mean this trip was huge for that. Leaving here, we’re going to be more of a team.

“I don’t want to give too much away, but I think we’re going to be more aggressive and I think guys are going to understand their reads more, which helps me understand my reads and makes my life a lot easier and makes their life a lot easier. It should translate to more offence, but in the NHL, sometimes, you have to play defence to win a game. I think this team is prepared for that and we’re looking forward to it.” 

Jets defenceman Nate Schmidt knows a thing or two about what a high-level goalie looks like, having played with Marc-Andre Fleury with the Vegas Golden Knights and seeing the emergence of Thatcher Demko during his lone season with the Vancouver Canucks.

Schmidt already knew how much talent Hellebuyck had as an opponent, but being around him on a daily basis has provided an opportunity to monitor his growth in the leadership department, something that’s been even more noticeable during the training camp this fall.

“It’s been awesome watching guys come out and take charge of this team now. He’s been one of those guys,” said Schmidt. “Our so-called young guys that have been young guys for a long time, they’ve really taken a step here. Connor (Hellebuyck) is one of them. They’re no longer the young guys. It’s time to take control of the team and lead us.

“We as veterans understand how important that is. For Connor, he’s done an awesome job pushing himself into that role, I think outside some of his comfort zones a bit.”

Jets head coach Rick Bowness was an assistant coach with the Canucks when Roberto Luongo was team captain and eventually was replaced by Henrik Sedin, so it’s not all that surprising that Hellebuyck is being encouraged to spread his wings in the leadership department — even if there won’t be a letter on his jersey.

“Everything I had heard about him prior to coming in was very, very positive. His work ethic, his character, being a great teammate,” said Bowness. “That being said, he's also a great goaltender as well. An elite goaltender. We’ve got to make sure we’re playing better in front of him so he can do his thing. He is a leader on this hockey club, he’s vocal, works hard in practice. He’s having fun in practice.

“He’s great around the guys, you watch that, and you watch how he mingles with the guys. He just fits right in with them and he’s very, very positive in every aspect of the game. Being a good teammate, man, he’s wonderful. And he makes the guys work, he’s not giving up any freebie goals in practice.” 

The topic of Hellebuyck’s workload is something that almost always generates some debate, with some believing he was overworked last season when he started 66 of 82 games.

As someone who thrives on getting into and staying in a regular rhythm, Hellebuyck figures to remain among league leaders in starts and minutes played.

However, one would expect that number to decline slightly this season, though 60-plus appearances still seems reasonable.

“Listen, you’re always looking at your top goalie playing 55-60 games, in that range,” said Bowness. “You want to make sure if you need him more down the stretch that he’s not tired, so you don’t want to burn him out that first half of the year and all of the sudden you’re scrambling for a playoff spot, if that happens, and you need him to play more, you have to make sure he’s not burned out. We’ll monitor that very closely.”

Hellebuyck is past the days of saying he wants to play every single game, graduating to a more stock response about remaining ready rather than declaring what he might feel is an optimal figure for starts.

“I haven’t and I don’t really want a number. I think things come and go and change every season,” said Hellebuyck. “My job is to be ready whenever my name is called and I’m leaving it at that.”

JETS NOTES: The Jets placed RW Mason Appleton on injured reserve on Tuesday, retroactive to Oct. 5 when he suffered an upper-body injury against the Calgary Flames. C Pierre-Luc Dubois was back on the ice Tuesday, skating with Cole Perfetti and Blake Wheeler. Bowness said he expects both Dubois and Appleton (who was skating in a non-contact jersey with Adam Lowry and Morgan Barron) to be in the lineup on Friday. For the second straight day, Logan Stanley was used on a pairing with Schmidt, which suggests he’s a good candidate to be in the opening day lineup ahead of Dylan Samberg and Kyle Capobianco. The Jets fourth line featured a rotation with David Gustafsson, Sam Gagner, Saku Maenalanen and Dominic Toninato. Bowness said he expects F Axel Jonsson-Fjallby to have his visa issues taken care of and to be on the ice for practice on Thursday. Once Appleton is activated from IR, the Jets will need to make a corresponding move to fit him on the 23-man roster, likely involving one of the forwards.

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