The goaltender position can be a tricky one to predict. Patrick Roy and Ed Belfour were relative unknowns and entered the NHL with little to no fanfare. Both are now in the Hall of Fame. Meanwhile, Jimmy Waite and Justin Pogge entered the NHL with considerable hype after spectacular performances at the World Junior Hockey Championships. Both never found their stride and are only remembered for their junior success.
It is why I say this with some trepidation but I’m going out on a limb. Connor Hellebuyck is the goalie of the future for the Winnipeg Jets.
Yet, I wasn’t surprised that the Jets sent Hellebuyck back to the AHL, where he will suit up for the Manitoba Moose to start the season.
With Ondrej Pavelec and Michael Hutchinson ahead in the depth chart, Hellebuyck was a long shot to make the big club. It was for the best to send Hellebuyck down now and give him more minutes in the crease, where he can sharpen his game.
Jets send down Connor Hellebuyck. Imagine he’ll get at least some starts in NHL this year though. Considered top goalie prospect leaguewide.
— James Mirtle (@mirtle) September 30, 2015
The best way for Connor Hellebuyck to get to the NHL is to go down to farm and continue to progress. He’ll be available if #NHLJets need him
— Ken Wiebe (@WiebeSunSports) September 30, 2015
Before we delve into the future, let's take a look at Hellebuyck's past.
A fifth round pick in the 2012 entry draft, the Commerce, Michigan native played his collegiate hockey at UMass-Lowell, where he led the Riverhawks to back-to-back Frozen Four appearances in 2013 and 2014. In those two seasons, Hellebuyck posted some incredible numbers. In 2012-13, Hellebuyck had a 1.37 GAA and a .952 save percentage. The following season saw Hellebuyck with a 1.79 GAA and a .941 GAA as well as winning the Mike Richter award as the top goalie in NCAA hockey.
to this day, the best stat for connor hellebuyck is that he had as many shutouts in his two NCAA seasons as losses
— r + l = ok (@twolinepass) May 19, 2015
Hellebuyck turned pro in time for the 2014-15 season, where he joined the St. John's IceCaps. In his first pro season, Hellebuyck was invited to the AHL All-Star Game in which he was the starting goalie for the Eastern Conference. His numbers weren't quite as spectacular compared to this college days but a 2.58 GAA and a .921 save percentage are excellent numbers for a rookie. Given the fact that the IceCaps weren't very good last year, it makes Hellebuyck's numbers look even better.
USA hockey noticed Hellebuyck's strong play and invited him to represent his country at the 2015 World Hockey Championships in Prague. Despite sending a very young team to the Czech Republic, the Americans captured the bronze medal and Hellebuyck was a major reason for that. In eight games, Hellebuyck posted a 1.37 GAA and a .948 save percentage. His most impressive performance was a 39-save shutout of the host nation in the bronze medal game. For his work, Hellebuyck was named to the tournament All-Star team by the media.
— Slava Malamud (@SlavaMalamud) May 18, 2015
Hellebuyck is a positionally sound goalie who plays his angles smartly. His 6-4, 200 lb frame covers the net, especially when he's out of the blue paint to challenge the shooter. His rebound control is very good to excellent but may need a bit of fine tuning before he's NHL ready. Hellebuyck relies on positioning and puck tracking skills more than athleticism to make the save but he will use his terrific reflexes when necessary.
His experience at the Frozen Four and the World Hockey Championships will serve him well when he does get his chance with the Jets. He has a calm demeanour that serves him well during high pressure situations.
Winnipeg hockey fans will get a good look at Hellebuyck this season.
He will get the majority of minutes between the pipes with the Manitoba Moose this season. If either Pavelec or Hutchinson gets injured or struggles mightily, Hellebuyck will get the call up to the NHL. But don't expect Hellebuyck to be a full-time NHL goalie for at least a year, maybe two.
Hutchinson is a restricted free agent after this season while Pavelec becomes an unrestricted free agent after the 2016-17 season. Don't be surprised either if one of the current goalies leaves the organization at some point, in order to make room for Hellebuyck.