Goaltending has long been a love/hate affair with the current Winnipeg Jets franchise.
The early days of this iteration of the Jets saw Ondrej Pavelec as the primary netminder, to streaky results; the first appearance in the NHL Postseason seen in Winnipeg since the return was largely due to his play. His lockdown goaltending skills, with a little help from Calgary was enough to carry the Jets into the postseason – but the reason that help was needed was due to losing a game where he let in a goal off a shot from the blue line.
Pavelec’s noted streaky play resulted in games like his 2-1, 46 save win against the Stars on 15 January 2015, but also left him with a career average save percentage of .903 during his tenure in Atlanta/Winnipeg.
The franchise’s goaltending woes could be seen even looking to his predecessor in Atlanta who is also very familiar to Winnipeg hockey fans. Johan “Moose” Hedberg was reliable only for giving us heart attacks each game on attempting to play the puck away from the net front, or further back to the earliest goaltenders to don the Thrashers sweater.
That all changed with the drafting of Connor Hellebuyck in 2012. Strong fundamentals – often described as a big and boring goaltender – Hellebuyck prefers to maintain consistent and clean net-front presence to the puck rather than subscribing to the Dominik Hasek school of surgically precise flailing that goalies like Marc-Andre Fleury does. With help from Adam Francilia – who works with other goalies as well, and we will come back to this point in a moment – Connor Hellebuyck earned himself a six-year, $37 Million contract after a season which saw him as a Vezina Trophy finalist.
While the early first part of this season has given many fans pause and concern over his less than Vezina-like play, Hellebuyck has looked back up to form after the Jets tour through the New York area ending in three wins, a 1-0 loss to the Blues, and an incredible first period to position the Jets’ offence to bury the Flyers 7-1 on Sunday afternoon.
Part of the general sense of calm, even with Hellebuyck’s below-expectations start, is thanks to the fact the Jets appear to have a bona fide second string netminder available.
Laurent Brossoit, an off-season pickup by the Jets, has performed well above expectations during his starts, to the tune of a .935 save percentage over the course of a 5-1-1 record. Brossoit never put up the numbers he was expected to in Edmonton, but the Jets scouting team clearly saw something they felt would be beneficial – and it appears to have paid off. Brossoit, like Hellebuyck, trains with Francilia resulting in a tandem of goalies who play on the same foundation. Francilia works with his goalie clientele fundamentally differently than any other skater – the mechanics of the goaltender position require different mechanics at their root, often in precisely opposing manners to that of the primary skating positions of hockey.
So what’s changed, from that Vezina finalist season a year ago to the rough start of this one?
Hellebuyck has spent more than a single season as the starter. Opposing scouts have had an opportunity to read the book on him, metaphorically speaking, and come up with plans of attack on how to beat him. Glove side is often a target when Hellebuyck is in net, and plays that result in maximizing the chance of difficult to control rebounds that prevent him from maintaining his squared-up positioning are being run as often as possible. The defensive lines have been banged up severely over the last several games which has not helped matters, and Hellebuyck by and large is facing a higher number of high-danger attempts than in years prior.
Hellebuyck is also facing the same challenge all goalies are this year – the shrunk down padding and jerseys have resulted in higher scores across the league, and there have been more than a handful of saves where he has looked genuinely shocked that a goal was scored – and potentially because of this change, those shots would have merely been shots not goals just a year ago.
While Brossoit is a fantastic ace in the hole, keeping him as such is a huge boon to the Jets moving into the heart of the season rather than attempting to ride the hot hand. Keeping his games played down to prevent other teams from getting the hard reads on him means Brossoit can be more reliable to steal games when needed, should the need arise to play him, including in back-to-back situations. Having someone proven to be reliable this season also forces Hellebuyck to keep his head in the games, as there is the perception that Brossoit can try to make a play for the starting role (contract notwithstanding).
Brossoit has also, through the level at which he has played when called upon, has earned the trust and confidence to backstop the team when needed, meaning the skaters do not feel like they need to change up what they are doing to insulate Brossoit from play at all.
The netminding present and future of Winnipeg looks to shine as bright as the offensive talent they have been lauded for all season, and should Hellebuyck find his groove, he could find himself in talks at the end of the season for individual trophies again.