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EDMONTON — It was just moments after the Winnipeg Jets year had ended when Adam Francilia fired off a text to his star pupil. A disappointing four-game defeat to Calgary Flames had bounced Connor Hellebuyck and his teammates from the bubble here in Edmonton.
"Congratulations on an amazing season. I'm so proud of you. I hope you're proud of yourself, too. Let's talk in the next couple days," wrote Francilia, a goalie guru from British Columbia who works with several pro puckstoppers.
Turns out he wouldn't have to wait even a couple minutes. Hellebuyck replied immediately, no doubt still sitting at his stall inside Rogers Place stewing over what transpired.
"Thank you very much. It was a great season. Now it's time to get better," the 27-year-old Michigan product replied.
On a personal level, it's hard to imagine how much more Hellebuyck can improve. But Francilia — who shared details of the conversation with the Free Press — has no doubt he's going to try and find another gear after the best campaign of his career, one that should end with him winning the Vezina Trophy on Monday.
A 30-minute awards show will be held prior to Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final between Tampa Bay and Dallas. The league's 31 general managers voted prior to the start of the playoffs, having to choose between Hellebuyck, Boston's Tuukka Rask and Tampa Bay's Andrei Vasilevskiy.
"I fully believe that he deserves it. It would mean a lot to all of us in that very close circle," said Francilia
No other netminder faced more quality scoring chances and high-danger shots than Hellebuyck, who played behind a re-tooled defensive group that at times resembled an AHL outfit. He's the prime reason the Jets were still in the playoff picture when the regular-season paused in mid-March due to COIVID-19, which got them into the 24-team playoff tournament.
It's been quite a journey for the kid who showed up to camp on a tryout for the Odessa Jackalopes, a Tier 2 junior team based out of Texas, in 2011. There was no scholarship or years of recruitment that led to this moment. Just a teenager done with high school hockey trying to take the next step in a career he was confident that would one day take him to the NHL.
It didn't take long for Hellebuyck to stand out in a group of eight hopefuls.
"I just remember he had a presence that the other goalies didn't have. He'd already been to several other camps and had been discarded. To me, he just looked like he was driven. He was stopping the puck and made it look easy," Joe Clark, the former GM and goalie coach with Odessa, told the Free Press on Sunday.
"I remember telling the coach we gotta ride him, because he's going to give us a chance to win every game."
Ride him they did, with Hellebuyck cementing himself as the No. 1 and playing 53 games, with a 26-21-5 record, 2.49 goals-against-average and .930 save percentage, named both the co-rookie of the year and co-goaltender of the year in the North American Hockey League. That not only led him to UMass-Lowell, where Hellebuyck would spend the next two years, but also put him on the radar of NHL scouts.
"It was kind of the birth of his confidence, the birth of his mindset," said Clark.
It was then St. John's IceCaps (now Manitoba Moose) goalie coach Rick St. Croix who lobbied for the organization to select Hellebuyck in the fifth round (130th overall) of the 2012 draft. At that point, every team in the league had already taken a pass on him multiple times. But the Jets felt he was at least worth taking a flyer on with a late-round pick, which is often the case with goaltenders whose development curves can be more unpredictable than skaters.
"It totally is a crapshoot," said Clark. "There might be some that look like they can't miss, but at that age you still have to hope they figure it out at each step. No one knows, no one has a crystal ball. The majority of times they don't work out, but they hit a home run here."
Hellebuyck won numerous honours with the River Hawks, including the Mike Richter Award as the NCAA's top goaltender. He had a strong rookie pro season with the IceCaps in 2014-15, which led to him splitting the following season between the Moose (as a starter) and Jets (as the backup to Ondrej Pavelec).
But things really seemed to take off when he added Francilia's training to his off-season routine following the 2016-17 season — around the same time the Jets signed Steve Mason to be their new No. 1 to replace Pavelec. As history shows, that wouldn't last long, with Hellebuyck stealing the veteran's job early in the 2017-18 campaign and never looking back.
He led the Jets to the Western Conference Final that year and was named a Vezina Finalist for the first time, ultimately losing to Nashville's Pekka Rinne.
"Right from the get-go, I don't know if I've ever had anybody that jumped on board with the amount of trust and compliance that Connor did. He believed in himself, he believed in what I was trying to do and what we were trying to do together, and he just went to town," said Francilia.
Credit for them coming together goes to Ray Petkau, Hellebuyck's agent who is based out of Steinbach with Alpha Hockey Inc. and founded the NET360 program that Francilia runs.
"I get a very good look at the way he trains in the offseason, because I go on the ice with these guys. He wants to be the best. There's nothing else that he wants more," Petkau told the Free Press.
This past season didn't exactly start out looking like it would end with a trophy for Hellebuyck. He was beaten for five goals on 31 shots in an opening night loss to the New York Rangers way back on Oct. 3. Backup Laurent Brossoit, who also trains with Francilia, got the start the next night in New Jersey as the Jets rallied from a 4-0 deficit for a 5-4 shootout victory.
Cue the goalie controversy two nights later, as Brossoit was tabbed with the start against the New York Islanders, a 4-1 loss.
"We had a long talk after that (Rangers game). I had watched his preseason games, and he just wasn't all that sharp. A little clunky, he needed a little bit of a shot in the arm. Whenever we talk, he initiates it, because he knows if needs anything he can call, and that I've always told him the truth, that I'm not going to sugarcoat anything," said Clark.
"I think that was a wake-up call. It was exactly what he needed."
Hellebuyck was back to his old self in his next start, a 37-save effort as the Jets beat the Pittsburgh Penguins 4-1. One of his unique quirks is that you'll sometimes see Hellebuyck insist he played a strong game even when your eyes might suggest otherwise, and he'll also shred a performance that was stellar.
"He doesn't allow a game, good or bad, to become something bigger or smaller than it needs to be. Whether it's a deliberate overcompensation one way or another, it works. If anything, he's maybe tried to take on too much responsibility for the team," said Francilia.
"I think if you look at the numbers and you put that against how he achieved what he achieved....he put on a world class performance in a less than ideal situation. I don't know how that can’t be the best goalie in the world for that season."
Clark believes there are even brighter days ahead for Hellebuyck, including a trophy more valuable than the Vezina.
"His No. 1 goal, without question, is to hoist that Stanley Cup over his head. We've talked about it. There are a lot of factors that go into it, but I think the Jets have tremendous weapons up front, the blue line has taken a hit, but the common denominator, the base factor here is Connor," said Clark.
"I see him doing it. And I see him doing it more than once."
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