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Connor Hellebuyck believes he can continue to perform as a premier NHL goalie — and he wants to strut his stuff alongside a dynamic, young core in Winnipeg for the long haul.
The Jets will start paying him like one of the league’s best, banking on the expectation his superb 2017-18 play is a sign of things to come.
The team’s No. 1 goalie, a restricted free agent (RFA) since the beginning of the month, was rewarded for his all-star, Vezina trophy-finalist performance with a six-year, US$37-million contract on Thursday.
He becomes the league’s sixth-highest-paid puckstopper. The deal, which takes him to the end of the 2023-24 season, carries an average annual value of US$6.167 million.
"I’ve always believed in myself and I have the right people around me," Hellebuyck, 25, said from Bell MTS Iceplex Thursday after a short on-ice workout. "I have the right agent, the right organization, the right trainer and the right goalie coach to help me succeed. Any time something falters, we know what to fall back on.
"I expect the most out of myself and I want everyone to expect the most out of me, because I want to bring my A-plus game every single night. And if it’s not A-plus, it’s good enough to win. That’s the key for this team, everyone wanting to do more."
Hellebuyck, who is from Commerce, Mich., hit the number on the... jersey; he wears No. 37. That’s just a happy coincidence, he said.
"I knew that question was going to come," he said, laughing. "Definitely it feels good that it landed there, but it wasn’t anything set.
"It’s an exciting time and just the hard work that we put in last year and the year before, it’s an exciting time to be in Winnipeg."
Hellebuyck had a breakout season, finishing second in Vezina voting. He posted a 44-11-9 record with six shutouts, a .924 save percentage and a 2.36 goals-against average. The 44 victories put him in a group tied for fifth place in NHL history and is the highest number ever posted by an American-born goaltender.
He played in the all-star game in January and was named an NHL second-team all-star.
But the huge strides the team took — a 52-20-10 regular-season record (second in the NHL) and playoff series victories over the Minnesota Wild and Nashville Predators before bowing out to the Vegas Golden Knights — overshadowed any of his individual accomplishments, and that’s why he agreed to a long-term contract.
He said he shares a dressing room with some of the most exciting young players in the league, and the window of opportunity to capture a Stanley Cup is now.
"I’ve settled in, the fans are great and the organization’s great. I’ve gotten along great with the team here and the chemistry’s been built. The tools are in this locker room to be a championship team," he said. "I love it here and I want to be here and I really believe this team has what it takes.
"That’s the reason we grew up playing, to have this kind of chance and go after our dream. The playoffs were so fun to be a part of, the crowd was just so fun, the street parties... I just want to get back and have another chance at it."
Getting a deal done with Hellebuyck — who had filed for salary arbitration — removes one critical task from Kevin Cheveldayoff’s job jar.
Speaking by phone, the Jets general manager said the organization had no qualms getting his goaltender locked up on an extended deal.
"I think the progression of where he’s come from and where he’s gotten to, if you look at his past history, he checks off all the boxes in terms of going through the steps of the development path and earning the opportunity to take the net last year," Cheveldayoff said. "Obviously, the training and the maturity that was in his game from the years prior to now is about becoming a pro.
"Helley’s always been projected in our mind as a No.1 goaltender and the goaltender of the future for us. And we’re very, very excited we were able to come to a long-term agreement for now and the future."
He said an agreement with significant term was always the goal.
"No. 1 goaltenders are extremely hard to find in this league and even harder to keep," said Cheveldayoff. "We could have opted to do a one-year (arbitration) deal where maybe it’s in the mid-$5 (million range) but then he’s one year from unrestricted free agency. You do it again in the mid-$5s again or even a little bit higher. So, the opportunity to get some term... during what we believe are the prime years of what he has to give for us moving forward, it was a good fit for both sides."
The Jets still have six RFAs, including four who have filed for arbitration and have dates set — defenceman Jacob Trouba (July 20) and forwards Adam Lowry (July 22), Brandon Tanev (July 25) and Marko Dano (July 30). Talented young blue-liner Josh Morrissey also needs a new contract but doesn’t have arbitration rights, while defenceman Tucker Poolman did not file for arbitration.
The Jets have about US$20.6 million in cap space left for the upcoming campaign. Trouba could be looking in the US$6-7 million range, Morrissey will likely push for US$5 million, while Lowry will seek a raise from the US$1.125 he earned the last two seasons.
The GM was asked if the news on Hellebuyck will create a domino effect.
"As far as what this means for the other guys we’re working on, everyone is different," said Cheveldayoff.
Hellebuyck said he’ll closely follow the rest of the club’s summer business.
"I want all the guys to get locked down, and, hopefully, for the long term because I really do believe that every piece that we need is in this locker room," Hellebuyck said.
Hellebuyck is in town for former goalie partner Michael Hutchinson’s wedding but will spend much of the summer in Michigan. In August, he’ll head to Kelowna, B.C., to once again work out with trainer Adam Francilia at the NET360 program.
Francilia’s clients include Jets goalie Laurent Brossoit, signed earlier this month to a one-year, US$650,000 deal. He’s now the team’s best option to back up Hellebuyck after Hutchinson, a free agent, signed with the Florida Panthers on July 1 and Steve Mason was traded to the Montreal Canadiens.
Hellebuyck and Brossoit also share the same player agent, Ray Petkau.
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"(Brossoit’s) a great guy and I think we’re going to have a blast together," said Hellebuyck. "Just the fact we do the same stuff, we train the same way during the year, there’s not going to be any hiccups. (Jets goalie coach Wade Flaherty) is going to be able to do exactly what we need and that’s going to make us both better."
Hellebuyck said he places huge value on a solid relationship with his partner.
"Having that chemistry is kind of important because during a long year things can get down and you have to remember to keep things on an even keel, not too high, not too low," he said.
Hellebuyck was on the ice Thursday with Winnipeg-born goalie Jason Kasdorf who played much of last season in the ECHL, and a pair of Winnipeggers, Nolan Patrick and Dale Weise, who both play for the Philadelphia Flyers.
Jason Bell Assistant sports editor
Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).
2. Henrik Lundqvist, New York Rangers: $8.5 million
3. Sergei Bobrovsky, Columbus Blue Jackets: $7.425 million
4. Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins: $7 million
4. Pekka Rinne, Nashville Predators: $7 million
6. Connor Hellebuyck, Winnipeg Jets: $6.167 million
7. Braden Holtby, Washington Capitals: $6.1 million
8. Corey Crawford, Chicago Blackhawks: $6 million
8. Cory Schneider, New Jersey Devils: $6 million
10. Semyon Varlamov, Colorado Avalanche: $5.9 million
The 411 on Hellebuyck
Hails from: Commerce, Mich.
How many candles?: Turned 25 on May 19
His dimensions: 6-foot-4, 207 pounds
School days: College star at UMass (Lowell). Recipient of the Mike Richter Award as the top goaltender in college hockey (2013-14)
Road to Winnipeg: Drafted in 5th round (130th overall) in 2012; played parts of two AHL seasons (2014-16) and named a league all-star in 2015
Recent history: After so-so 2016-17 season (26-19-4, 2.89 GAA, .907 S%), he made 67 appearances during ‘17-18 season going 44-11-9 with six shutouts, a 2.36 GAA and .924 S%. He posted a 9-8 record in the post-season with two shutouts, a 2.36 GAA and .922 S%
Created a buzz: His 44 wins were most-ever by a U.S.-born goalie; named an NHL second-team all-star and a finalist for Vezina Trophy as NHL’s premier goalie.