WINNIPEG – The Winnipeg Jets’ starting goaltender position is Ondrej Pavelec’s job to lose, but Connor Hellebuyck remains an intriguing possibility for a team looking to bounce back after another disappointing season.
The top goaltender in the NCAA before he decided to turn pro in April, Hellebuyck is tabbed to play with the Jets’ AHL farm team in St. John’s, N.L., although right now he’s attending his third training camp with the club that drafted him in 2012.
“I’ve been working really hard all summer along with all the other guys in the room and I think it’s starting to pay off,” he said Friday.
Hellebuyck, 21, hasn’t seen any pre-season game action with the Jets. So far only starter Pavelec and backup Michael Hutchinson have played in net during the team’s first two pre-season games.
The six-foot-four native of Commerence, Mi., isn’t on the list for Saturday’s game in Minnesota, although he doesn’t sound too worried about when he’ll play.
“That’s up to the coaching staff,” he said. “I just want to give my best in practice every day.”
Hellebuyck’s size and skill helped earn him a spot—along with Winnipeg’s Jacob Trouba—on the American team at last spring’s world hockey championship in Belarus.
Hellebuyck was a steal for the Jets, who owe their scouts a bonus for spotting him early. They picked him up in the fifth round, 130th overall, in 2012.
He then finished two stunning seasons at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell. After earning the starting spot in his first season, he had a 38-12-2 record in 54 games along with 12 shutouts, a .946 save percentage and 1.60 goals-against average.
For the 2013-’14 season, he won the inaugural Mike Richter Award as the top goaltender in college hockey.
But at 20, the lure of the professional ranks and a three-year, two-way deal worth an average of just under US$1 million a year, ended his college career.
Goaltending has been an Achilles heel for the Jets as they struggle to earn a playoff berth, but so far the team has refused to lay the lion’s share of blame in front of Pavelec’s pads.
As camp got underway this year, coach Paul Maurice said the whole team needs to learn how to play a steadier defensive game before it’s even possible to assess Pavelec’s level of responsibility.
But his numbers—the most goals allowed in the league last season along with one of the worst save percentages—have earned him plenty of critics.
This is the first season since the former Atlanta Thrashers relocated to Winnipeg in 2011 that the team hasn’t brought in a veteran backup. Instead they’ve elected to stick with Hutchinson—at least for now.
Like Hellebuyck, Hutchinson, 24, is from the Jets’ system. He won two of three games in Winnipeg late last season after splitting the campaign between the ECHL and AHL.
Hellebuyck has yet to play a game in the AHL and said he knows he’s got a lot to learn.
“As long as I’m improving every day I’m happy,” he said. “I don’t want to go out there and have a bad day and not take something from it.”
It’s something he says he’s learned from watching other goaltenders like veteran Tim Thomas, who started for the U.S. national team in Belarus. Hellebuyck was third on the depth chart and didn’t see any action as the U.S., like Canada, was eliminated in the quarter-finals.
“You’re always a student, til the day you retire.”