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EDMONTON — There was no red carpet for Connor Hellebuyck to walk, no glitzy awards ceremony on the Vegas strip as is typically the case. Just a quiet steak dinner with family at his Michigan home Monday evening followed by a virtual announcement that his spectacular season had ended with a Vezina Trophy.
It may not have been as he dreamed it, thanks to COVID-19, but it didn’t dull the occasion one bit. The Winnipeg Jets star was named the NHL’s best goaltender in a ceremony prior to Game 2 of the Stanley Cup final.
"It was just one of those moments where I couldn’t believe that it actually happened. Everyone had a big smile on their face and they were all clapping. It was just a proud moment," Hellebuyck said on a Zoom conference call shortly after the announcement was made.
It’s the first time a Jets netminder — from either the 1.0 or 2.0 eras — has won the award, and the first major individual trophy for any Jet since Teemu Selanne won the Calder for rookie of the year way back in 1993.
"It's great. It almost feels like getting a little bit of a monkey off my back after saying that. Now I’m really looking forward to the next one and the next (goal) is going to be glorious. That’s winning a Cup." — Connor Hellebuyck after winning the Vezina trophy
"It’s great. It almost feels like getting a little bit of a monkey off my back after saying that. Now I’m really looking forward to the next one and the next (goal) is going to be glorious. That’s winning a Cup," said Hellebuyck.
"It’s not going to be easy and it’s not going to be just me. There’s going to be a whole team in front of me that are all going to have to buy in, kind of like we did this year, and just battle and grind. We have the locker room for it, it’s only going to get better and I’m really excited for that grind."
Hellebuyck received 19 first-place votes, eight seconds and two thirds of the 30 ballots that were cast, meaning one NHL team’s general manager somehow left him off entirely. He had 123 voting points, ahead of second-place Tuukka Rask of the Boston Bruins (99 points). Andrei Vasilevskiy of the Tampa Bay Lightning ranked third with 31 points.
Hellebuyck also finished sixth in voting for the Hart Trophy, awarded to the league’s MVP and won by Edmonton’s Leon Draisaitl, and was named a first-team all-star.
The 27-year-old Michigan product was clearly tops at his position after leading the league in shutouts (six), games played and shots faced. Overall, he had a 31-21-5 record with a 2.57 goals-against average and .922 save percentage — all while playing behind a blue line that lost veterans Dustin Byfuglien, Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot during the off-season and at times resembled an AHL outfit.
"Tears of joy here. So happy for him," his agent, Ray Petkau of Steinbach, told the Free Press moments after the announcement.
"Proud moment!" added Joe Clark, his former junior goalie coach and general manager from Odessa, Texas, who has maintained a long friendship. "He’s well-deserving of this award. I know he put the work in, and it’s gratifying for everyone involved with Connor to see him recognized with the Vezina."
Hellebuyck thanked both of them personally, along with trainer Adam Francilia, who helped revamp his game three years ago and Jets goalie coach Wade Flaherty.
"So many people that go into this. This wasn’t built overnight. I could waste all your time today just thanking people. I was very lucky to have all the people around me that I have at a very young age, so I was able to build this early in my career. And now that we’ve gotten into a good spot, we can only continue to grow. And I feel like the growth is exponential and that’s what’s very exciting about the future," he said.
"I think my whole game has kind of sculptured itself. I’ve tightened up a lot of things. I think the biggest and most important part is my mind and my mental game. It’s gotten a lot calmer. I only care about the things that I need to care about and I focus on the things I need to focus on, and I got some experience under the belt. I don’t let my mind and the roller-coaster happen too big."
"So many people that go into this. This wasn't built overnight. I could waste all your time today just thanking people. I was very lucky to have all the people around me that I have at a very young age so I was able to build this early in my career." — Connor Hellebuyck
Hellebuyck’s season began with a whimper, surrendering five goals on 31 shots in an opening-night loss to the New York Rangers. Backup Laurent Brossoit got the next two starts, creating rumbles of a potential goalie controversy, but it was short-lived. Hellebuyck was stellar in his next start, a win against the Pittsburgh Penguins, and never looked back.
There’s no question Nov. 1 in San Jose was the highlight of his season, a sparkling 51-save effort in a 3-2 victory against the Sharks that was nothing short of grand larceny by the badly outplayed visitors.
Hellebuyck was Winnipeg’s most valuable player and is the main reason the Jets were in a playoff position at the time of the COVID-19 pause in mid-March, which led to their inclusion in the NHL’s 24-team return-to-play tournament this summer.
Winnipeg lost to the Calgary Flames in the qualifying round, but Hellebuyck wasn’t to blame. The Jets lost stars Mark Scheifele and Patrik Laine in the opening game and couldn’t recover.
"Right now, we’re really going to analyze everything that happened this year, really try to improve on anywhere that I feel like I can stop a couple more pucks. It might be my new areas, but those are going to go a long way. It’s going to be about tightening my game and making it even more complete," said Hellebuyck.
This was the second time Hellebuyck has been a Vezina finalist, coming up short against Pekka Rinne of the Nashville Predators following the 2017-18 season.
"It’s very rewarding. Almost a little bit of a sigh of relief because I was so close last time. I wanted it so badly. This year was such a mental grind, but also so fun. I would have liked for the playoffs to go a little better, but when I’m looking back on this year, I’m going to say that we did some great things," said Hellebuyck
"What I can say is that I’m not going to back down from it and I look forward to the fight to get back into the Vezina talks next year. And I’m going to enjoy this while I have it."
Updated on Monday, September 21, 2020 at 6:38 PM CDT: Fixes typo.
7:29 PM: full write through, adds quotes.
7:38 PM: Removes extra word from quote
9:24 PM: Updates to final version
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