A Nov. 21 game against the Arizona Coyotes at the MTS Centre was the start of a new chapter in the Winnipeg Jets’ goaltending story.
At the time, Ondrej Pavelec and Michael Hutchinson were tending the Jets’ net, with Connor Hellebuyck and Eric Comrie handling the goaltending duties for the Manitoba Moose of the AHL.
Late in the second period, Arizona forward Shane Doan drove the Jets’ net and there was a collision with Pavelec. The 28-year-old goaltender got some attention but finished the period. He did not come out for the third with what would eventually be termed a “significant” lower-body injury.
Hutchinson, coming off a great rookie season, was thrust into the starter role, while Hellebuyck was summoned from the Moose.
Both have paid their dues. Hutchinson, initially a Boston draft pick, his long route to the NHL included bouncing between the AHL and ECHL. He was the AHL playoff MVP in 2014. At times last season, he was the starter. It went from Pavelec starting the majority of games, to a rotation, to Hutchinson seeing the bulk of the games from late December to early March. Then Pavelec got the net back, and was a major factor in the Jets clinching a playoff spot.
Hellebuyck went from high school to the NAHL with Odessa Jackalopes, where he was goaltender of the year. Then it was on to the NCAA where he put up terrific numbers for UMass Lowell. In 2014 he won the inaugural Mike Richter Award as the most outstanding goaltender in NCAA. A fifth-round selection of the Jets in 2012, his rookie season in the AHL last year was a good one, but the best part of his 2014-15 season was yet to come.
In the spring of 2014, Hellebuyck was Team USA’s third goaltender at the World Championship in Belarus. He was there purely for the experience. A year later, at the worlds in the Czech Republic, he was given the opportunity to be the starter. He went 7-1, with a 1.37 goals-against average, a .947 save percentage and two shutouts – his second coming in the bronze-medal game in Prague against the host team.
On Nov. 27, with the Jets having trouble finding wins and the injured Pavelec on the shelf, Hellebuyck got his first NHL start in Minnesota. The Jets came away with a 3-1 win and Hellebuyck went on to start seven of the next eight, winning his first four.
It hasn’t all been smooth sailing — in Edmonton on Monday Hellebuyck didn’t finish a game for the first time in his young NHL career — but the signs are promising.
Jets’ goaltending coach Wade Flaherty describes Hellebuyck as “relaxed and efficient,” and a netminder without a lot of extra movement who “lets the puck come to him.”
Hellebuyck insists he has not changed his style much over the years.
“[I’ve] pretty much stayed the same,” he said. “In junior I held my glove a little differently. Then in college I became a bigger goalie.”
While the speed of the game has increased as Hellebuyck has worked his way through the Jets’ system, he says hard work and preparation remain his foundation.
“If you do everything you can to be ready for the next step, it’s not that big of a jump,” he said. “But it’s still a learning curve.”
Many observers felt that at some point in the season Hellebuyck would get an NHL look. He says he kept his focus on the things he could control.
“I never really looked at what the plan might be. I just went out every day wanting to get better and try and be my best,” he said.
“Every day there’s a possibility you may get called up and be given a chance. I was just letting the process take place. I felt I was ready after camp, but wasn’t upset about going to the AHL. It was a matter of going down and being the best goalie I could be. Now that I’m here, it’s work hard every day to stay.”
An opportunity for Hellebuyck at the NHL level has also meant an opportunity for Comrie to be the starting goaltender for the Moose.
“It’s been amazing for a 20-year-old to play this number of games in the AHL,” Comrie said. “It’s exciting. I’m happy for Helly that he got the chance to go up. So now I must take advantage of the opportunity. I had a heavy workload in the WHL so I’m good with the extra games, but this is a faster pace.”
The AHL is not new to Comrie. He had two short stints in the league at the conclusion of his last two WHL seasons, playing two games for the St. John’s Ice Caps in at the end of the 2013-14 season and three games at the end of the 2014-15 season.
“That has really helped me this year,” Comrie said. “I’m happy for the trust they have in me to do the job. Now I just keep working to get better every day.”
The next chapter begins with Pavelec is ready to return. The Jets will not carry three goaltenders. So does Hellebuyck simply go back to the Moose, or has he seen the last of the AHL? Stay tuned.
THORBURN SETS FRANCHISE MARK
Chris Thorburn is now franchise leader in games played, surpassing Ilya Kovalchuk. Thorburn played down the achievement, but did admit it’s special. Last year he became the franchise leader in penalty minutes, surpassing Eric Boulton.
Head coach Paul Maurice perhaps described Thorburn the best, saying, “He is one of those guys that has a relationship with the entire team. If you asked players to name their three best friends in the room, everyone would have Chris on their list.”
“It’s a difficult thing for a role player to stay with one team, especially now with how the salary cap works and how resources are allocated to the best players. Those role guys get moved around an awful lot. So you have to be valued not just for your play, what you do in the organization, what you do in the room and the community. And Chris has been a great example of that.”