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This article was published 30/3/2018 (974 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
There has been some talk in recent weeks about Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler having an outside shot at taking down this season’s Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player.
That’s not going to happen for a lot of reasons, beginning with the fact the Hart Trophy is voted upon by the media and Wheeler plays in the smallest media market in the NHL.
Is it fair that a guy who is currently tied for the league lead in assists with 66 isn’t going to get more serious consideration as the player who has done the most to help his team?
Of course it isn’t, and that’s why the media shouldn’t be selecting these sorts of year-end awards in the first place.
Full disclosure: I declined my membership in the Professional Hockey Writers Association this season for a lot of reasons, beginning with an increasing discomfort with the idea that PHWA members should be bestowing awards — some of which come with rich contract bonuses for the award winners — on the people we cover.
Major news organizations including the Washington Post, Baltimore Sun, Los Angeles Times and New York Times already forbid their sportswriters from voting for these kinds of year-end awards for that reason: your claim as a journalist to being an impartial and neutral observer comes into question the moment your vote, which the PHWA will publicly disclose for the first time this year, is the one that decides whether a player you cover gets a six- or even seven-figure contract bonus.
But I digress.
While there are plenty of bad reasons why Wheeler won’t get serious consideration as MVP, there is one good reason: Wheeler’s not even the most valuable player on his team.
The Jets’ MVP isn’t Wheeler, it’s goaltender Connor Hellebuyck, as we were all reminded in gruesome fashion again on Thursday night in Chicago.
With Hellebuyck getting some long-overdue rest, Eric Comrie got the start at the United Center and was awful in a 6-2 loss to the Blackhawks.
At least three Chicago goals should have been stopped, including two of the first three: a sharp-angle shot by Patrick Kane that beat Comrie five-hole to open the scoring early in the first period, and a bank shot from behind the net by Tomas Jurco that went in off Comrie early in the second period and put the Jets down 3-0.
They were bad goals that had the Jets chasing the Hawks and the scoreboard all night long.
It all looked eerily familiar to any Jets fan who can remember as far back as last season, when it was exactly those kinds of soft goals and that kind of inconsistent goaltending that doomed the playoff chances of a team that personnel-wise didn’t look a whole lot different than this season’s world-beaters.
The biggest difference between that team of also-rans and this team of Stanley Cup contenders hasn’t been the play of Wheeler, it’s been the play of Hellebuyck, who went from being the problem last season to the solution this season.
Consider the numbers: Hellebuyck has a record of 40-11-9, while the rest of this season’s backup netminders for the Jets have a combined record of, wait for it, 7-9-1.
The monumental disparity between those two sets of numbers tells a very simple story: the Jets have an overwhelming chance to win when Hellebuyck starts, but are more than likely to lose if anyone else is between the pipes.
It’s not even close, no matter what numbers you choose to examine. Hellebuyck’s save percentage (.923) and goals-against-average (2.38) are both in the top 10 in the NHL this season, while his backups have all posted numbers near the league bottom: Steve Mason (.906, 3.18), Michael Hutchinson (.907, 3.26), and Comrie (.872, 4.00).
If any member of the Winnipeg Jets deserves to receive Hart Trophy consideration this season, it’s Hellebuyck, not Wheeler.
Ask yourself: where would the Jets be if Wheeler had put together the same season he had last year (26 goals, 48 assists, 74 points) instead of the career season he’s put together so far this season (20 goals, 66 assists, 86 points)? I’d argue they’d be pretty much right where they already are: preparing for the playoffs.
Now ask yourself: where would the Jets be if Hellebuyck had put together the same season he had last year (26-19-4; .907, 2.89) this season? The Jets would be nowhere, that’s where.
So if it’s an injustice Wheeler isn’t getting more serious Hart Trophy consideration, it is even more unfair Hellebuyck is getting no consideration for the Hart in a season he also won’t win the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goaltender.
That latter trophy is almost certainly going to go to Nashville’s Pekka Rinne — and quite rightly so. The Vezina is mostly about raw numbers and Rinne’s are simply better than Hellebuyck’s: he’s got more wins (41 vs. 40), he’s got a higher save percentage (.929 vs. .923), and he’s got a lower goals-against average (2.25 vs. 2.38).
But while Rinne is deserving of the Vezina nod over Hellebuyck, I’d argue Hellebuyck has still been unquestionably more valuable to his team this season.
Rinne has a competent backup in Nashville: Juuse Saros is 9-5-7 this season, with a .925 save percentage and a 2.46 GAA. If Rinne goes down, the Preds are still a very good team. You cannot say the same about the Jets if Hellebuyck goes down or is simply given some rest.
That should be a cause for serious concern for any Jets fan looking at what everyone in town is hoping will be the long playoff road ahead. What happens to the Jets if something happens to Hellebuyck?
Head coach Paul Maurice said this week that Mason, who’s been unreliable even when he’s been healthy, which hasn’t been often, will be back from his latest injury and on the bench by next week.
That will be an improvement on Comrie, who’s demonstrated himself the last couple seasons to be a fine AHL netminder, but who also clearly needs more seasoning in the minors.
But I’m not sure Mason is an improvement on Hutchinson, and that’s not saying much. Neither man inspires much confidence — Mason with his inconsistent play as a Jet this season and Hutchinson, who’s also been hurt recently, with his inconsistent play his entire career as a Jet.
The Jets know as much, which is why this club reminds me right now of a dusty hitchhiker standing on the side of a road with a tattered sign reading: Hellebucyk or bust.
He’s carried them this entire season and the Jets will go as far in the playoffs as Hellebuyck carries them.
Wheeler is the captain and the guy getting some Hart Trophy consideration but it’s Hellebuyck who has put the Jets on his back this season since Day 1. That’s why Hellebuyck’s not only the most valuable player on his team, he’s the most valuable player in the NHL this season.
Consider some of the other Hart candidates: the Edmonton Oilers would still be lousy without Connor McDavid, the Tampa Bay Lightning would still be good without Nikita Kucherov, the Pittsburgh Penguins would still have Sidney Crosby without Evgeni Malkin, and the Boston Bruins would still be unlikeable — although slightly less so — without Brad Marchand.
But the Jets? They’d be losing — and lost — without Hellebuyck.
He won’t win the Hart for a lot of bad reasons and a few good ones, but Hellebuyck might, just might, win this town its first Stanley Cup since 1902.
With that, he’d win a lot of hearts.
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.