Connor’s Crease Now

It was an end of an era (or end of an error) on Monday when the Winnipeg Jets put longtime number one goalie Ondrej Pavelec on waivers. If Pavelec clears, he will be sent for assignment to the Manitoba Moose where he will play out the final year of his contract that will pay him $4.75 million this season.

With every sun that sets though a new blazing sun rises. That glowing light from the east comes in the form of Connor Hellebuyck. The UMass-Lowell product who was selected in the fifth round of the 2012 draft has seen his stock rise with each passing year.

After leading the RiverHawks to a Frozen Four berth in 2013, Hellebuyck won the first Mike Richter Award as the top goalie in the NCAA in 2014 while being named as the first team goalie in the All Hockey East Team. In his two years at UMass-Lowell, Hellebuyck recorded a spectacular .946 save percentage and a 1.60 goals against average. 

Turning Pro

Hellebuyck signed a three-year entry deal in 2014 and reported to the St John’s IceCaps of the AHL where he enjoyed a terrific rookie season. In 58 appearances with the IceCaps, Hellebuyck posted a .921 save percentage and a 2.58 goals against average despite the IceCaps poor performance that season.

Hellebuyck opened many eyes at the 2015 World Hockey Championships. Playing for a very young USA squad, Hellebuyck was brilliant between the pipes, registering a .948 save percentage, a 1.37 goals against average and 2 shutouts as he led the Americans to a surprise bronze medal. 

NHL Debut

When Pavelec went down to injury last November, Hellebuyck was called up by the big club. He made his NHL debut on November 27 at Minnesota and recorded his first win. In 26 appearances, Hellebuyck put up a .918 save percentage, a 2.34 goals against average and 2 shutouts including blanking Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins. When Pavelec returned, management decided it was best for Hellebuyck to return to the AHL for more seasoning. The Moose were awful last season but don’t blame Hellebuyck who posted a .922 save percentage, a 2.49 goals against average and 4 shutouts.

What To Expect This Season

Hellebuyck’s style can be classified as big and boring. He uses his 6-4, 207 pound frame to cover the net so the shooter has no idea where to place the puck. His positioning is exceptional but he does need a little work on rebound control. He may not make the highlight reels on a regular basis but he is in control of all his movements, unlike Pavelec who was regularly scrambling around in the blue paint causing heart attacks to coaches, management and fans alike.

A big question will be how will Hellebuyck handle the pressure? While he’s had success in the NCAA and the Worlds, playing for a Canadian market in the NHL is a different animal. Winnipeg, in particular is tough because it is a small market and the Jets are the only game in town in the dead of winter where the temperature can dip to -30. The pressure will be intense on Hellebuyck because he is expected to not just be an improvement over Pavelec but be vastly superior to the defeated incumbent. 

Hellebuyck’s personality is a quiet one. He doesn’t speak much and keeps his emotions to himself. In today’s NHL, that’s probably a good thing. He will need to remain calm and focused especially when events around him are in a state of panic which does happen in this market. What Jet fans should not expect this season is a Stanley Cup contender. There are too many holes elsewhere. But if Hellebuyck can be a dramatic improvement in net, a playoff berth is possible. (Certainly not a guarantee in the ultra tough Central Division.) Even if the playoffs are out of reach, Hellebuyck can make the Jets crease his own by staying true to his game, staying focused on the task at hand while making small adjustments to upgrade to the NHL level. If Hellebuyck can do this, he will be a fixture for the Jets in the crease and the future will be bright.