Hellebuyck needs help

Jets GM will likely get him some shortly

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CHICAGO — It’s doubtful Connor Hellebuyck follows the news, blogs or the twitter chatter about him generated out of Winnipeg as he unwinds back home, presumably, in southeast Michigan for at least some of the off-season.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 26/06/2017 (1979 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

CHICAGO — It’s doubtful Connor Hellebuyck follows the news, blogs or the twitter chatter about him generated out of Winnipeg as he unwinds back home, presumably, in southeast Michigan for at least some of the off-season.

But the Winnipeg Jets goalie is a smart guy. He must have felt well before the 2016-17 NHL season ended like he’d been acclaimed as the poster boy for much of the failings of the Central Division team.

It’s not fair, mind you, to heap all the blame on him. Hellebuyck is 24 years old and has played a grand total of just 82 NHL games over the past two seasons. His win-loss record of 26-19-4 last season, on the surface, sounds pretty good, but his goals-against average of 2.89 and save percentage of .907) were below acceptable standards for a go-to guy between the pipes.

JOHN WOODS / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES "I've got lots of faith that Connor can do it. I'm also not in a hurry to have him have to do that next year. We want forward progress for the team," says Jets head coach Paul Maurice.

He was thrust by the organization into a role with duties he was unprepared to competently fulfill. The responsibility of being a starter was simply too much to bear. And it still is.

Even his bench boss makes it sound like the plan, in hindsight, was somewhat flawed.

“We went through a growing period and the goaltenders were exactly like that. Put them back in net after a tough night, yanked (Hellebuyck) early a bunch of times,” Jets head coach Paul Maurice said this weekend in Chicago. He pulled his No.1 goalie eight times last year.

“I’ve got lots of faith that Connor can do it. I’m also not in a hurry to have him have to do that next year. We want forward progress for the team. Either Connor or Michael (Hutchinson) has to step up on that or we’ve got to get some help for those guys.”

Hellebuyck needs a new creasemate, and logic dictates he’ll likely get one within a week’s time.

General manager Kevin Cheveldayoff took care of a bunch of important business last week. He pulled off a deal with the expansion Vegas Golden Knights, ensuring the only player plucked from the Jets was winger Chris Thorburn, who was already on the off ramp heading out of town as an unrestricted free agent.

Winnipeg then shored up its stable of blue-line prospects — some with serious size — over the weekend here in Chicago at the 2017 NHL Draft. In the midst of that, the club also announced left-shooting defenceman Ben Chiarot had inked a new two-year deal with the club, all but ensuring he’ll be on the third pairing.

Now, Cheveldayoff must turn all his time and attention to solving the dilemma in net, by way of trade or free agency. Sunday was the day pending free agents and their representatives could start talking with teams around the league, although no contracts can be signed until this Saturday, July 1.

“We’re going to a take a look at whatever is available to us and if there’s a good opportunity there that can help us, we’ll jump at it,” Cheveldayoff said Saturday at the draft. “We’ve got a list of names lined up to reach out to their representatives and see if we’re a fit for them and as far as they want to consider us.”

Recipients of a call from the Jets could include the camps of UFAs Brian Elliott, 32, of the Calgary Flames, Steve Mason, 29, of the Philadelphia Flyers, Jonathan Bernier, 28, of the Anaheim Ducks or Ryan Miller, 36, of the Vancouver Canucks.

Veteran puck-stopper Cam Ward, coach Maurice’s old buddy from Carolina, still has a year left on $3.3-million contract but might also be available in a trade.

In Winnipeg, Ondrej Pavelec, a UFA, is gone for good. Hutchinson, with a year left on his contract, is a nice guy and a hard worker who will undoubtedly keep that up to prolong his pro career. He can do that as Eric Comrie’s back-up with the Moose.

Bringing in a experienced starter does not signal Hellebuyck is done. Far from it. He’d probably reclaim the starting role in another season or two.

Remember, he’s just three years removed from being named the top goalie in U.S. college hockey, he was an American Hockey League all-star two years ago with the Jets’ affiliate in St. John’s, N.L., and then led the U.S. to a bronze medal at the 2015 world championship in the Czech Republic, winning seven of eight starts.

During the 2015-16 season, he played 30 more games in the AHL and also made 26 appearances with the Jets, going 13-11-1 with a pair of shutouts, a 2.34 GAA and .918 save percentage.

Then the rush job happened last season and Hellebuyck stumbled, although you could barely tell when he’d speak with reporters. Most of the time, he demonstrated a stoic confidence when answering post-game questions about his performance, good or bad.

Only once last season did he appear to me to be visibly shaken, and that moment of vulnerability came the morning after he had a dreadful outing in Philadelphia on Nov. 17 that resulted in a 5-2 loss. He surrendered two goals on the first two shots of the game by Sean Couturier and Michael Raffl in opening period and then whiffed on defenceman Mark Streit’s 60-foot slap shot in the second frame to give the hosts a 3-1 lead.

Hellebuyck wouldn’t speak with reporters following the contest. I caught up with him in Boston the next day and asked him about the long-range drive that sneaked past him, but he quietly — without making eye contact — said he didn’t want to talk about it. I ended the interview, out of respect for a kid that was hurting.

Hellebuyck already has genuine and much-deserved support within the Jets organization.

But the addition of another masked man would certainly help him out, sooner rather than later.

jason.bell@freepress.mb.caTwitter: @WFPJasonBell

Jason Bell

Jason Bell
Sports editor

Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).

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