It was a quick, intense wrestle with the decision and in the end, prime Winnipeg Jets prospect Connor Hellebuyck is confident he's ready to be a pro hockey player.

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It was a quick, intense wrestle with the decision and in the end, prime Winnipeg Jets prospect Connor Hellebuyck is confident he's ready to be a pro hockey player.

The 20-year-old goalie from Commerce, Mich., a Detroit suburb, chose late last week to leave the University of Massachusetts-Lowell to sign an entry-level NHL contract with the Jets.

It was only last Sunday that Hellebuyck's River Hawks fell one win short of making it to a second straight Frozen Four when they lost an NCAA regional tournament final, 4-3 to Boston College.

That's when the opposing forces -- to stay in school or to turn pro -- made their respective cases.

For staying?

"Definitely my coaches," Hellebuyck told the Free Press on Sunday. "They've had a strong impact on me, made me what I am today both on the ice and off it, too. I'm a more mature person now.

"My father didn't know the whole situation, but he's always been a strong believer in getting the degree. Once he heard the whole situation, he was more on my side of things, that I need to take this next step to develop."

For turning pro?

"I'd say they left me alone for the most part, let me go play, with no distractions," Hellebuyck (pronounced Hell-e-buck) said of the Jets. "After that game, they presented an offer and I gave it a lot of thought."

He also then had a one-on-one conversation with Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff, who drafted him in the fifth round of 2012.

"That was a conversation more about hearing his end of things," the goalie said. "At Lowell, of course I'm hearing the other side. I wanted to hear everything he had to say, from their side.

"I know what I'm giving up. This is a great place and I love it. They have so much to offer here. It has always been good for my career and it wouldn't be a bad thing to stay here. They have a great hockey program and a great school but now I have the full picture and I know what I'm getting."

 

Deciding factor

The development, Hellebuyck said, was likely the deciding factor to not play up to two more years of college hockey.

"I figured this is the best thing," he said. "I feel that hockey-wise, I'm ready for the next step and I understand how good the organizations are in Winnipeg and St. John's."

Hellebuyck said Sunday he will join the IceCaps soon, mainly for some exposure and a quick immersion and introduction to the pro world.

"I think I'll go for a week or two before the end of the month," he said.

But he will return to school to finish his school semester.

"I want to be able to have two years of college under my belt," he said.

Since he was drafted, Hellebuyck admitted he's become a Jets follower.

"I always keep track of them, want them to do good," he said. "I know they are a good team, I see that when I watch, but that's sometimes hard, because out east here all you see is the Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins."

The 6-4, 200-pound netminder has opened many eyes in his two college years. As a freshman, he barged his way to the front of the line for the No. 1 job, going 20-3 with a GAA of 1.37 and a save percentage of .952.

This season, he was 18-9-2 (1.79 and .941) and was a Hockey East first-team all-star.

He is not, however, the same goalie that came to Lowell two years ago.

"I could go on about that for days," Hellebuyck laughed. "The coach here has taught me a lot of things. I've changed my style a little bit. I'm more calm now. Have a bigger presence. My feet are better. My reaction time is better and my reading the play is a huge part. It's a whole different level of vision.

"Then there's the little things, like holding onto rebounds, probably the most important thing I've had to learn. Another would be an active stick."

tim.campbell@freepress.mb.ca