A red-hot Patrik Laine has the league — and, in a podcast this week, even the venerable Hockey News — rethinking whether it should have been Laine, rather than Auston Matthews, who was the first overall draft pick in 2016.
Paul Maurice — at this point last year the odds-on favourite to be the next NHL head coach fired — is now being talked up as a potential Jack Adams Trophy winner as the league’s top head coach this season.
And Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler continues to get mentioned as a possible Hart Trophy candidate.
But after five weeks overseas, three of them spent covering the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, I returned home on the weekend to find the most valuable person in the Jets organization right now is the same person it’s been all season long: netminder Connor Hellebuyck.
For all the praise being heaped right now, quite rightly, on people such as Laine, Maurice and Wheeler, the play of Hellebuyck remains the foundation upon which everything this Jets team has accomplished so far this season — and will accomplish the rest of the way — has been built.
There was nothing ever so wrong with this Jets team that reliable goaltending couldn’t fix, and Hellebuyck has proven that point this season with a level of play that has floated all boats, including Laine’s, Maurice’s and Wheeler’s.
Case in point: that 3-2 overtime loss to the Capitals in Washington Monday night.
While Laine got credit for scoring the game-tying goal in the third period, Hellebuyck was the only reason the game was still close enough for it to matter at that point, turning away 25 of 27 shots through the first two periods, most of them of the point-blank, Buff-might-as-well-buy-a-popcorn-if-he’s-just-going-to-watch-the-game-tonight variety.
On a night the Jets neither worked hard enough nor played well enough, they still earned one point in a very difficult building against a very challenging team, not because Laine scored his 41st of the season, but because Hellebuyck prevented the Caps from scoring even more than they did.
By night’s end, Hellebuyck had turned away 40 Washington shots and was, as he has been so many nights this season, Winnipeg’s most valuable player.
It has been that way all season long for a netminder who is third in the league in wins (35) and shutouts (six) and in the top 10 in goals-against average (2.39).
If you’re looking for the biggest difference between the also-rans that these Jets were last year and the legitimate Stanley Cup contenders they are this year, it’s right there in Hellebuyck’s numbers.
Now, none of this is meant to take away from the exemplary work Laine, Maurice, Wheeler and everyone else in this Jets organization has done this season. This team is having a remarkable year precisely because they have been a remarkable team, from grinders such as Matt Hendricks all the way to snipers such as Laine, all pulling in the same direction.
But ask yourself this: where would this team be right now if Hellebuyck had not somehow — hard work? good luck? sorcery? — transformed himself last summer from the woefully inconsistent netminder he was in 2016-17 to one of the league’s elite goaltenders this season?
I’ll tell you where they’d be — in the exact same place they were at this point last season, out of the playoff race and wondering again how it all went so wrong.
It is worth remembering the Jets’ goaltending plan coming into this season was to have Steve Mason — signed as a free agent last summer — carry much of the workload, taking the pressure off Hellebuyck and giving the young netminder the kind of time and space to slowly develop the game that he never had last season.
The gaping holes in that plan were exposed on opening night when Mason never even made it through his first regular-season game as a Jet, getting yanked early in the third period after giving up five goals on 20 shots to the Toronto Maple Leafs in what went into the books as an embarrassing 7-2 season-opening shellacking.
Mason got rocked again in the Jets’ second game of the season, giving up six goals in a loss to the Calgary Flames, and it’s basically been all Hellebuyck almost all of the time ever since.
Mercifully for the Jets and their fans, Hellebuyck has been equal to the task.
Because if you add a seemingly never-ending series of injuries to Mason’s inconsistent play this season, Mason would have been an unmitigated disaster for the Jets if Hellebuyck had not stepped into the void and filled it in a way he was never able to last season.
As it is, Mason is mostly an afterthought and a forgotten mistake, albeit an expensive one: US$4.1 million per season on the Jets books for this season and next.
Indeed, you could argue the biggest save Hellebuyck made this season was the credibility of Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff, who would be getting crucified right now if he had wasted yet another promising season on lousy goaltending by betting, wrongly, on Mason as his solution.
Instead, everyone has forgotten all about the Mason snafu and is instead heralding Cheveldayoff as a genius for the way he has drafted and developed the Jets into a contender that yet another national hockey writer — Sportsnet’s Sean McIndoe — this week picked as this year’s Stanley Cup champion.
I think the Nashville Predators might still have something to say about that, but it says a lot that a Jets team that has never won a playoff game through six-plus seasons of existence is suddenly being picked to win 16 of them this spring en route to a Stanley Cup hoisting at Portage and Main.
And yet, why not?
These guys are for real. They’ve got an elite goal scorer in Laine, a strong leader in Wheeler and a gentle hand on the tiller in Maurice.
But more than anything, they’ve got in Hellebuyck exactly the kind of elite goaltending that is the cornerstone of every great playoff run.
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.