It has now been more than a week since Connor Hellebuyck easily handled a wrist shot from Edmonton Oilers forward Tyler Ennis in the late stages of a 4-2 victory by his visiting Winnipeg Jets, securing their season-high fourth straight triumph to jump back into a playoff spot.
That was Hellebuyck’s 36th and final save of yet another busy night at the office. It was also his 1,656th stop of the season, far and away the most saves of all NHL netminders. For a point of reference, Montreal workhorse Carey Price is next with 1,595 puck denials, and Tampa’s main masked man, Andrei Vasilevskiy, is a distant third at 1,472.
Whether Hellebuyck gets an opportunity to add to his impressive total remains to be seen. We’re in uncharted waters right now, with pro sports on indefinite hold and a return to the fun and games far down the list of priorities right now given the global coronavirus pandemic.
But if the season is truly done for good and arenas remain dark until next season, it says right here that Hellebuyck not only made a convincing case for the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goaltender, but also the Hart Trophy as most valuable player to his team.
Just where would this Jets squad be without Hellebuyck’s heroics? Forget about competing for a post-season berth with a 37-28-6 record. They’d likely be hanging with the likes of Detroit, Ottawa and the sad-sack California clubs in the race to the bottom for the best shot at the first-overall pick whenever the 2020 NHL draft is held.
Don’t just take my word for it. There are plenty of advanced numbers that bolster Hellebuyck’s bid. Perhaps most telling is this one: according to Evolving Hockey, Hellebuyck is lapping the field when it comes to a statistic they call goals saved above expectation. Essentially, this looks at the chances of a shot ending up in the back of the net.
Hellebuyck’s GSAx number for the season is 19.86. No other goaltender is even in double-digits. Let that sink in for a moment.
We knew the quantity has been there given how much rubber Hellebuyck has faced. But this speaks to the high quality of shots he’s faced, while still posting an overall save percentage of .922 that is tops among all goaltenders to appear in at least 42 games (Hellebuyck is tied with Price with a league-leading 58 appearances).
Hellebuyck has a league-leading six shutouts, and his stellar stats are even more impressive when you consider the patchwork blue-line he’s played behind at various times this season, especially when injuries began taking a toll. Eleven defenceman have suited up for the Jets, including 18-year-old Ville Heinola and waiver wire pickups Carl Dahlstrom and Luca Sbisa. Two others, Cam Schilling and Nelson Nogier, were called up from the Manitoba Moose as insurance but didn’t see game action.
None of those defenceman, of course, was named Dustin Byfuglien, Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers or Ben Chiarot, who were regulars in front of Hellebuyck last season.
Overall, the Jets are one of the worst teams in the league when it comes to expected goals for (29th according to Natural Stat Trick) and high-danger chances generated (30th). And they’re at the absolute bottom of expected goals against (31st) and high-danger chances given up (31st). That is not a recipe for any kind of success, unless you have a saviour between the pipes.
I’d need more than both my repeatedly washed hands to count how many times Hellebuyck has bailed out his teammates this season, but a 3-2 victory in San Jose on Nov. 1, when the Jets were outshot 53-19 by the Sharks, was perhaps his masterpiece and should be played on a loop for any doubters.
Sure, other goaltenders have had solid seasons, including Vasilevskiy, Tuukka Rask, Jordan Binnington, Ben Bishop and Carter Hart. But none has a resumé even close to Hellebuyck’s.
The Vezina is truly a one-man race in my eyes, a coronation at this point as Hellebuyck has taken his game to new heights.
"Connor wants to be the best. He wants to win. He does not want to be second-best. He does not want to come in second in anything," his Manitoba-based agent, Ray Petkau, told me Wednesday in a phone conversation from his home in Steinbach.
"He has a special quality in that he will do anything to be the best. It drives him."
But what about the Hart, an award that traditionally goes to a high-scoring forward? Price was the last netminder to win the coveted award following an incredible 2014-15 season in which he carried the Habs on his back into the playoffs (66 games, 44-16-2, 1.96 goal-against average, .933 save percentage). Prior to that, you have to go all the way back to 2001-02 (Jose Theodore, also with Montreal).
In other words, the odds are against Hellebuyck laying his hands on the hardware, even if he’s near the top of models that chart "wins above replacement" in terms of a player’s specific impact on their team.
Leon Draisaitl is running away with the NHL scoring race, and Oilers teammate Connor McDavid is having another big campaign despite an injury setback. Boston Bruins sensation David Pastrnak is leading the goal-scoring derby, Artemi Panarin is somehow keeping the New York Rangers in the playoff fight, and Nathan MacKinnon is leading the way for the Colorado Avalanche.
"If I had a vote, which I don’t, he would most definitely be the Hart Trophy winner. But that is a tough sell, because there are so many incredibly good players in the game now. You see the goal scorers, and goal scoring has been at a premium the last number of years since the game changed. Everybody wants to always award that award to the best offensive players, because that’s exciting," said Petkau.
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"But most valuable to his team? It’s really hard to argue against Connor."
Indeed it is. Members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association, including yours truly, are tasked with deciding a number of major year-end awards, including the Hart. I suspect the majority of my colleagues will overlook Hellebuyck in favour of the offensive stars.
But if and when it comes time to fill out our ballots, Hellebuyck will be among the five names on mine. He truly has been the Hart, and soul, of the Jets this season.
Mike McIntyre Reporter
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.
If the NHL season ended today, here’s how Mike McIntyre’s ballot would look for the five major awards members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association get to vote on. He’s also included his prediction on two other major awards the PHWA has no say in.