1. The story so far
The prolonged absence due to injury of Ondrej Pavelec and the relatively poor play of Michael Hutchinson created something of a whirlwind that swept Connor Hellebuyck to power, and now it seems as if that power won’t be relinquished any time soon.
Hellebuyck didn’t exactly get a slow run-out with the Jets, and was instead thrown pretty quickly into the fire, but has excelled to an almost ludicrous extent. Behind the same team and in close to the same number of games, Hellebuyck has a save percentage more than 30 points higher than either of the previous Jets’ goalies, and one wonders if that forces Winnipeg to make some very tough decisions when Pavelec comes back from injury.
This is, after all, a team which is holding on tenuously to realistic playoff hopes (they entered Friday four points back of Nashville for the final wild card spot, the only one to which they have any sort of realistic access) and Hellebuyck seems to be the only goaltender who can actually get them there. A combined .937 save percentage across 14 appearances will yield a 9-4-1 record pretty much of the time, and even there you have to say he’s been a bit unlucky if nothing else. The Jets’ penalty-killing problems are often discussed and illustrated once again on a pretty much nightly basis at this point, and Hellebuyck is as much a victim as anyone. He, unlike the other goalies to man the Winnipeg crease this season, at least has the ludicrous 5-on-5 numbers to overcome even the worst penalty kill on a lot of nights.
And that’s a quality he’s shown far more often than not in his career.
2. Past performance
Hellebuyck is nothing if not a goalie with a pedigree, but it’s a bizarre one. He went from a good but not great goalie in a mid-tier junior hockey league (the NAHL), to a world-beater in college, to an AHL All-Star to the NHL in the space of five seasons. And at the age of 22, regardless of how he was pressed into service and what the sample sizes are, he looks more than ready to stay with the big club.
Doesn’t he? Again, that .950-something save percentage at 5-on-5 is bound to come down. It has to, because no one does that for a full season. The highest full-strength save percentage in the Behind The Net era from a goalie playing more than 2,500 minutes was Tim Thomas’s .950 in 2010-11, which was a literally legendary season. Carey Price won the Hart last year, and by the same token, Thomas should have won it that year. He was a nightmare to play against.
Can Hellebuyck be that? It’s tough to say, but one imagines that the ceiling on this kid is pretty high. Here’s his rolling save percentage over the years, from the NAHL to today, comprising almost 190 games worth and nearly 5,900 shots worth of data. Apart from one really bad hiccup in his AHL days, he has basically always been a destroyer of worlds:
Some context on that crater around Game 160: He had six games in which he allowed 22 goals on 141 shots (.843) sandwiched between a bunch of games that were like 33 of 35 and 39 of 41. It was a bizarre downturn the likes of which he never experienced in his career, and whatever was wrong with him corrected itself pretty quickly. Take those six games out of his AHL days and his save percentage in that league jumped from .922 to .927. It was a hell of a bad stretch, but it’s also literally the only one of his career.
3. Setting a baseline
So what can we reasonably expect Connor Hellebuyck to be at the NHL level? Well, as you might imagine guessing at future goalie performance isn’t always easy. But insofar as we can use past performance, there’s nothing to indicate Hellebuyck will be anything less than above-average, pretty much at the very least.
The NAHL had an average save percentage in the mid-.910s, college hockey’s was right around .910, the AHL was back in the mid-.910s, and obviously the NHL is around .915 this year. Hellebuyck has blown all those marks out of the water by a pretty decent margin, in all cases.
The only reason to suspect he would slow down is regression, which is likely at the NHL level. I would say .922 (his AHL average across 68 appearances) is a pretty decent point at which we can aim. And if he can deliver .920 or better goaltending to the Jets, he’s going to put that team in a very good position to succeed this year and beyond.
It’s not easy to do that, of course, but the pedigree is there: He’s always been better than his peers, occasionally by a lot. And again, he’s only 22.
4. Finding comparables
As you might imagine, it’s incredibly difficult to find kids who played low-level junior A hockey, demolished the NCAA, became an AHL All-Star immediately thereafter, and then ran away with an NHL gig before the age of 22. It just doesn’t happen.
But a guy he seems to remind me of statistically, to some extent, is Cory Schneider. Schneider played a higher level in junior hockey (the US junior team is several steps up from the NAHL), an extra year in college, and about 50 more AHL games before becoming an NHLer — even as a backup — but the quality seems to be there every step of the way.
Schneider is, of course, one of the five or six best goalies in the NHL, so this is high praise. But again, it’s almost impossible to find another goalie who was a commanding presence at every step of the way and so consistently at such a young age.
It’s very, very difficult to do so.
Here, then, is every goalie with at least 10 appearances to post a save percentage of at least .920 in their first season, before the age of 25.
As you can see, there are only 13, and with the exception of a few of them, you’re looking at a pretty solid pack of highly regarded goalies. Very few of them did this as starters which is what Hellebuyck might become. Basically only Reimer and Lundqvist, but if he can be as good as either of those guys, or even Jonas Hiller, the Jets really have something here.
5. What’s the verdict?
Again, you don’t want to go basing career expectations on 14 games of NHL experience, but jeez this is some pretty damn good company to start your career. Moreover, it’s very possible for even really bad goalies to have 10 or 15 or 20 games of unbelievable hockey in their grasp. Sometimes things just go your way.
But again, the fact that Hellebuyck basically has only one run of six games of awful play in his entire career, at any level seen so far, he should be in really good shape to keep this thing going for a while longer at least.
He’s basically giving the Jets every reason not to send him back to the AHL, and at the same time giving observers little reason to be in any way surprised.