It’s a story that has been told and retold in these parts for months now: Goalie comes out of nowhere, bounces around in the minors and forces himself into the Winnipeg Jets’ goaltending debate.
That’s the now well-known tale of Michael Hutchinson, the former Boston Bruins’ draft pick who is now No. 2 on the Jets’ depth chart behind Ondrej Pavelec.
The sequel to that tale, it turns out, may be just as compelling.
Yes, for those of you who might not yet have been introduced, we give you the story of Connor Hellebuyck — named the top goaltender in U.S. college hockey last year — but whom the Jets’ scouting staff first spied during his days playing with the Odessa Jackalopes of the North American Hockey League.
Get this: Hellebuyck, at the time, was a kid straight out of high school in Commerce, Mich., who wasn’t drafted as a junior and only made the Jackalopes through a free-agent camp.
And two years later, after posting microscopic numbers at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, he’s sharing a dressing room with the likes of Tim Thomas with Team USA at the 2014 IIHF World Championships.
So, there is coming out of left field... and then there is coming out of the forest behind the wall in left field.
"He’s a kid we just kept getting good reports on," said Jets’ amateur scout Tavis MacMillan after Day 2 of the team’s Development Camp at MTS Iceplex. "Everybody that saw him raved about him and said, ‘You need to go see him.’ "
So, that’s exactly what MacMillan did, flying to Oklahoma City and then driving to Amarillo, Texas to catch Hellebuyck in a playoff game prior to his NHL draft year.
"He had an outstanding weekend, both games over 50 saves," said MacMillan. "He won one game all by himself and kept that team alive in the playoffs. From what I understand, we were the only (NHL) team in the building that weekend."
The research didn’t end there. Two coaches/scouts now working with the Jets — Max Giese and Brian Renfew — also raved about Hellebuyck, as did two coaches at UMass-Lowell that MacMillan knew previously in Jason Lammers and Cam Ellsworth.
And so as much as a team can be nervous waiting to call out a name in the first round in the NHL Draft, it turns out the same happened for the Jets’ scouts who were going to bat for Hellebuyck in 2012 and then nervously waiting for their spot to come up in the fifth round, 130th overall.
"We didn’t have a fourth rounder that year, but we had a fifth and we crossed our fingers and waited and waited to see if he would still be there when we were up," said MacMillan. "He’s a lot more polished now than he was then, but you could see he had the tools."
Fast forward to the present and Hellebuyck, now 21, is not only one of the best goaltending prospects in the Jets’ system, but arguably, in the pro ranks. He’ll likely open next season in St. John’s, but is spending this week at D-camp rooming with another bright light in the Jets’ pool, Eric Comrie, a netminder who could be wearing Canada’s colours at the World Junior Hockey Championships.
From Commerce to Odessa to Lowell to St. John’s and a stint with the American squad at the worlds...
"I don’t like to talk about (the worlds) much," said Hellebuyck. "It is a really big thing, but I don’t like to bring it up here because this is a whole different part of my life. This is a different organization and I want to do my best for this organization.
"Being there was huge for my family. It’s just a milestone in my life."
And the Jets hope there is more. Interestingly, Hellebuyck and Comrie — like last year — are rooming again during the D-Camp. So excuse them if they don’t let their minds wander a little bit about what might be.
"That’s the dream of ours, we want to be the Winnipeg Jets goaltenders of the future," said Comrie. "But you have to live in the moment, try to take it day by day and then try to get better every day you go to the rink.
"You’re getting closer and closer to the dream when you come to Winnipeg. You’re at the camp, experiencing what it’s like to play in the NHL... that just makes you want to give it more because you realize you’re closer to the dream you’ve had your whole life."