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Contract question complicates Hellebuyck trade

Connor Hellebuyck Connor Hellebuyck - Getty Images

With the Detroit Red Wings acquiring Alex DeBrincat from the Ottawa Senators this weekend, the pool of available impact players – be it through trade or free agency – continues to dry up.

But that pool isn’t empty. One of the outstanding deals we still anticipate happening is the trade of Winnipeg Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck – a premier puck-stopper in the National Hockey League, and a player coveted by virtually every team in the league.

The looming Hellebuyck trade is fascinating for several reasons. Chief among them is the complexity with this trade as it relates to his contract. Hellebuyck is on a digestible $6.1-million contract through 2023-24, but will command an extraordinary raise at the end of the year. Some teams may be interested in a one-year rental for the league’s best goaltender, though I suspect the majority of suitors wouldn’t dream of such a significant trade without confidence in a long-term extension.

And then there’s the open question of how much a team may be willing to play a 30-year old goaltender with about 500 games of NHL mileage in the books.

What teams are ultimately weighing is the obvious reward of acquiring a player like Hellebuyck, and the downside potential in any deal – especially one where Hellebuyck is extended on a long-term deal. If we frame it as reward versus risk, we can frame how organizations are weighing a potential trade.

Let’s talk about the reward first. Hellebuyck is an elite goaltender, rivalled only by a handful of peers (Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy and Nashville’s Juuse Saros immediately come to mind). Since entering the league in the 2015-16 season, he’s first in total workload and fourth in save percentage (91.6 per cent).

But what’s remarkable in Hellebuyck’s resume is how dominant he’s been under routine pressure, playing behind perennially weak defensive teams in Winnipeg. When you look at the shot profile every goaltender faced, Hellebuyck looks even better – by goals saved versus expectations, Hellebuyck’s only been beaten by that of Saros, and it’s a razor-thin margin:  

Eighty-seven goals erased from the Winnipeg Jets goals against column is obviously extraordinary, but it’s also notable in the context of what you can expect even from quality alternatives found around the league.

It’s also notable how consistent Hellebuyck has been – absent a weak 2016-17 early in his career, Hellebuyck has generally ranged from good to unbeatable. And if you were betting on which goaltender would lead the Vezina Trophy race next season, or the year after, you might make it one or two names before saying Hellebuyck.

But there is a catch.

We know Hellebuyck has put together an all-time great resume in the first half of his career. But teams aren’t paying for the first half of his career. They are lining up to pay for the second half. And while prior play absolutely informs us as to a player’s production baseline and what we might be able to reasonably expect going forward, it’s not a smoking gun.

What’s going to keep teams at bay, to some respect anyway, are the market dynamics at the goaltending position. Not only is it easier than ever to find a workable goaltending platoon (at a fraction of the cost in most cases) owing to an increase in talent at the position, but the goaltending position is inherently volatile, and front offices have increasingly preferred to spend their cap space on positions with more predictable performance (i.e. forward).

Why is that the case? Well, we have seen any number of spectacular goaltender blowups. Two that immediately come to mind were two of the best before Hellebuyck entered the league – Montreal’s Carey Price, and Columbus’ (subsequently signed by Florida) Sergei Bobrovsky, who also happen to carry the two biggest cap hits at the position today.

When both signed their deals, they, much like Hellebuyck, had controlled the league. But since the extensions, both have seen precipitous declines in play.

Bobrovsky’s game fell apart after relocating to the Florida Panthers. Price’s issues were on the health and durability side, specifically on ailing knees. Ironically, both – amidst a sea of poor play and durability concerns – have been a major part of notable Stanley Cup bids, with Price briefly recapturing the magic in 2021-22, and Bobrovsky this past season.

But it’s impossible to ignore the reality the Florida Panthers and Montreal Canadiens paid an awful lot of money to lock in a goaltender who no longer exists – the red line indicates where each goaltender signed his respective extension:

Does this mean Hellebuyck will invariably follow the path of Bobrovsky or Price? Of course not. There are competing examples – Henrik Lundqvist in New York immediately comes to mind – of veteran goaltenders staying unbeatable late into their careers.

But every player’s future is, to some degree, an unknown. While Hellebuyck is a game changer of the highest order today, teams must reflect on the degree of risk they are willing to carry on their books to make this trade happen.

Florida and Montreal both agreed that a massive deal for a premier goaltender made sense at the time. With the benefit of hindsight, we know these deals didn’t work out as planned.

Data via Natural Stat Trick,, Evolving Hockey, Hockey Reference