TORONTO — The potential future of the Winnipeg Jets’ goaltending position became a little more real this weekend, though not as imminent as some might wish.
The Jets signed 20-year-old netminder Connor Hellebuyck on Saturday as the sophomore at UMass-Lowell decided to come out of school after just two years of NCAA hockey.
Hellebuyck was drafted in the fifth round of 2012.
And Friday night, 2013 second-rounder Eric Comrie, 18, got his first taste of pro action, being thrust into an AHL game in St. John’s, NL mid-way through the first period with his IceCaps trailing 3-0.
The IceCaps trailed at one point 5-1 but the wild game wound up as an 8-7 overtime win for Springfield.
Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff was preaching patience on the two prospects on Saturday morning.
"I think the key word is prospect," he told the Free Press. "(Comrie) got thrown into the fire there (Friday), and from all accounts, relished the opportunity and actually enjoyed going in and competing.
"For us the plan is to draft and develop. These two players were draft picks and now they’re signed and they’re on the development side of the equation."
Hellebuyck has certainly rocketed to near the top of the Jets’ prospect list with his play in two seasons at UMass-Lowell.
With a goals-against average of 1.37 and a save percentage of .952, he led his team to college hockey’s Frozen Four last spring.
This season, the team fell just one win short of that tournament again, but Hellebuyck continued to shine as a Hockey East first-team all-star and numbers of 1.79 and .941.
After UMass-Lowell’s season ended last weekend, things fell into place for Hellebuyck’s decision fairly quickly, Cheveldayoff said.
"We really haven’t had a lot of conversation with his group," the GM said. "We had an agreement with the team we weren’t going to discuss any of that.
"And at the end of his season, we did have a conversation with his advisors, and it became clear pretty quickly he was considering pretty quickly the opportunity to turn pro. We had some discussions with them about that and I had a conversation with Connor personally just to discuss being a pro and taking the next step and making sure the decision he was going to come to was going to be totally his."
Hellebuyck, who left two more years of college eligibility on the table, signed a three-year entry-level deal worth $925,000 per season in the NHL.
"It’s an important family decision, those things," Cheveldayoff added. "And now that he’s made his decision, we’re obviously fairly excited to have him on the pro side of the development curve."
Hellebuyck will join the IceCaps early in the week, Cheveldayoff said, but he indicated the goalie might not stay the duration of the AHL season and playoffs because he will go back to school to finish his semester.
Current Jets back-up Michael Hutchinson will be returning to the IceCaps once the Jets’ season is done next Friday.
"It will be a crowded crease, but I think it’s more of an experience opportunity for (Hellebuyck) right now," Cheveldayoff said. "I don’t think we’re looking at anything other than that at this point. This came together quite quickly and whether he gets in the crease or doesn’t is really not the primary focus.
"It’s about getting an experience in St. John’s and being around the pro side of it.
"We always forget the college kids don’t get the training camp experience, they don’t get that feeling. We’ll take it as that and the crease will sort itself out."
As usual, Cheveldayoff said he won’t rush anyone, especially goalie prospects.
"This next step is important," he said. "From a goalie perspective, you take your time with these players, especially a prospect like this and you see how it plays itself out. A couple of weeks ago, this wasn’t something that was happening."