Hellebuyck starting to earn his keep

Goalie getting better, but might not be answer

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It was last Thursday morning, about a half hour before the start of Winnipeg Jets practice, and the arena bowl at MTS Centre was empty, with the exception of two lone figures out on the ice: Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck and Jets goalie coach Wade Flaherty.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 06/03/2017 (2103 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It was last Thursday morning, about a half hour before the start of Winnipeg Jets practice, and the arena bowl at MTS Centre was empty, with the exception of two lone figures out on the ice: Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck and Jets goalie coach Wade Flaherty.

Hellebuyck had been pulled two nights earlier after giving up five goals in a 6-5 loss at home to the Minnesota Wild. It was the ninth time in 70 starts Hellebuyck had failed to finish a game he started and this hook came at a particularly inopportune time, with his team’s playoff hopes hanging by a thread.

So with desperate times calling for desperate measures, Flaherty hauled Hellebuyck out on the ice before practice Thursday morning and put the Jets netminder through an exhausting series of drills that, by the end, left Hellebuyck panting and bent at the waist for an extended period as he tried to catch his breath.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS San Jose Sharks Mikkel Boedker scores on Winnipeg Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck Monday at the MTS Centre.

Call it skill development. Call it a remedial class. Call it punitive measures. Or, probably, call it all three.

But whatever you call it, it was extraordinary. While goalies getting in some extra practise prior to practice isn’t anything new, NHL teams at this time of year are usually trying to find their starting goalies a little extra rest, not pushing them to the point of exhaustion before practice even begins — and with three games scheduled for the ensuing four nights.

But hey, you cannot argue with results. And while we will never know for sure, it cannot be entirely a coincidence that Hellebuyck has put on three of the best performances of his young career since Flaherty gave him the goalie equivalent of a bag-skate last Thursday.

Turning away 27 of 29 shots in a 3-2 Jets loss to the San Jose Sharks at home Monday night, Hellebuyck is 2-1 in his last three starts and has stopped 78 of the last 81 shots directed his way.

It’s been exactly the kind of consistent, elite-calibre goaltending the Jets were hoping they’d get from Hellebuyck this season but which, until now, has mostly been as hit and miss as the Jets’ season generally.

Whether it’s all too little, too late to save this season remains to be seen — even with a run of 5-2-2 in their last nine games, the oddsmakers still have the Jets’ playoff chances pegged at just five per cent.

But on a day the Jets announced pending free agent goalie Ondrej Pavelec had his knee scoped and has presumably played his last game in a Jets uniform, the larger issue has turned to what the Jets do at the goaltending position this summer.

Do they need to go out and sign a high-priced veteran free agent netminder who can push Hellebuyck for the starting job next season or do they simply go after a competent backup who can provide Hellebuyck some qualify relief.

The answer — and getting it right — could define the future of this franchise for years to come.

Consider the goalies expected to become available this summer:

Marc-Andre Fleury and Jaroslav Halak are both expected to be traded. There’s talk Colorado’s Semyon Varlamov might be on the market. Detroit is said to be considering moving either Petr Mrazek or Jimmy Howard. And then there’s all the pending unrestricted free agents (in alphabetical order: Peter Budaj, Jonathan Bernier, Ben Bishop, Mike Condon, Brian Elliott, Scott Darling, Chad Johnson, Darcy Kuemper, Steve Mason, Ryan Miller and Anders Nilsson.

That’s an extraordinary group of goaltenders and the right decision this summer could give this promising young Jets team the final piece that they’ve been missing this season: a steady and reliable one-two punch in net that can give them a chance to win every night.

Hellebuyck’s numbers this season have been as enigmatic as his team. On the one hand, he’s tied for ninth in the NHL in shutouts this season with four and has a very respectable win-loss record of 22-16-3 as a starter this season.

On the other hand, there’s the .910 save percentage that his him in the bottom third of starting netminders in the league, not to mention those nine games going back to last season that he hasn’t finished what he’s started.

Indeed, it’s worth remembering the only reason Pavelec was called up from the Manitoba Moose this season was because Hellebuyck went completely sideways in January, at one point giving up six goals in 13 shots in a stretch that saw him get yanked in the first period of back-to-back starts.

Put all that together and I don’t think anyone can yet say for sure — with just 15 regular season games remaining — whether Hellebuyck is the goalie to lead this Jets team into what just about everyone agrees looks like a very promising future.

Monday’s start was Hellebuyck’s eleventh in a row and you have to figure he’s going to keep getting starts the rest of the way, as this franchise tries to both stay in the playoff conversation and figure out just who is the real Connor Hellebuyck.

There have been nights, especially lately, when Hellebuyck has looked every bit like an elite NHL goaltender. But it’s all those other nights — and all those soft goals that have had his team playing catch-up on far too many nights this season — that should give this Jets organization pause as they stand at the water’s edge this summer and stare into that deep pool of available goaltenders.

paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @PaulWiecek

Paul Wiecek

Paul Wiecek
Reporter (retired)

Paul Wiecek was born and raised in Winnipeg’s North End and delivered the Free Press -- 53 papers, Machray Avenue, between Main and Salter Streets -- long before he was first hired as a Free Press reporter in 1989.

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