Connor Hellebuyck’s first season as a full-time NHL netminder didn’t quite go as planned.
After establishing himself as the future of the Winnipeg Jets’ crease with a strong performance across 26 starts in 2015-16, Hellebuyck struggled early this past campaign and wasn’t able to get back on track by the time the season closed. He posted a meager .907 save percentage and a .917 SP at 5-on-5, both of which were the fifth-worst marks among goaltenders who played in at least 41 games.
But one tough season this early in the 24-year-old’s career isn’t about to change the Jets’ minds about the netminder, and Winnipeg ensured they avoided arbitration with the young keeper by inking Hellebuyck to a one-year contract worth $2.25 million on Monday. If the two sides hadn’t been able to reach a deal, an arbitration hearing was set for Aug. 1. And despite signing veteran Steve Mason to a two-year, $8.2-million deal on July 1, Winnipeg still has hope that Hellebuyck can still challenge for the top job.
However, even if the Jets project Hellebuyck to be their starter by the time this team is ready to compete on a consistent basis, signing a one-year deal at this point makes all the sense in the world for both Winnipeg and Hellebuyck.
From the team’s perspective, signing a one-year deal likely helps keep the price down. The Jets have rarely been a team to make big financial splashes and, with Hellebuyck now signed, Winnipeg now has more than $8.25 million in breathing room under the cap this coming season. That’s about where the franchise has been comfortable over the past few seasons, but it’s not solely about comfort. Having that breathing room can also come in handy later in the campaign, especially if the Jets young guns happen to all click at the same time and Winnipeg gets into playoff position as the trade deadline approaches. In an incredibly difficult Central Division, any cap space GM Kevin Cheveldayoff has come the deadline can be flipped to bulk up the roster, which could be the difference between earning a playoff berth and falling short for a third-straight season.
Also, quite frankly, there was no reason for the Jets to hand out a long-term deal to Hellebuyck, as he didn’t play well enough this past season to warrant such a deal. And it’s not as if there’s any mistaking that was the case. Goaltending was the problem in Winnipeg in 2016-17. The offense was among the most potent and the defense, while not the same calibre as the absolute best in the NHL, was more than serviceable, but the play between the pipes left much to be desired. As noted, Hellebuyck finished among the five worst goaltenders in save percentage at all strengths and 5-on-5, but he also finished as the 10th-worst penalty killing netminder, finishing with a .860 SP. There was no situation where Hellebuyck was relied upon greatly that he came through this past season.
Of course, none of this is to say he can’t improve upon that, which is why the one-year deal makes boatloads of sense for Hellebuyck, too. If he were to sign long-term this summer, he would likely take a cut rate given his most recent performance. If he can come into training camp this season, push Mason for the starting job, take the gig at some point in the campaign and prove he has what it takes to be a true No. 1, imagine the deal he could be in line for if Winnipeg seeks to lock him up long-term next summer? Far more than he would have earned on a similar deal this summer, to be sure.
Hellebuyck believes he can prove last year was nothing more than a blip on the radar, too. “I have a whole lot more to give,” Hellebuyck said following the signing, according to the Winnipeg Sun’s Scott Billeck. “I got more to offer than what I showed last year. I look forward to doing that this year.”
Finally, strategically, signing the one-year deal also makes sense for both sides because depending on Hellebuyck’s performance this coming season, the netminder and, more importantly, the Jets are going to need to find a way to work him into the team’s salary structure. At present, Winnipeg is slated to have $33.7 million in cap space next season, but Cheveldayoff is going to have his work cut out for him, even with the considerable amount of wiggle room.
All told, including Hellebuyck, the Jets are set to have 10 roster regulars become restricted free agents next summer, more than any other team in the league. Among those set for new deals are Nikolaj Ehlers, Jacob Trouba, Adam Lowry, Josh Morrissey, Joel Armia and Marko Dano. A number of those deals, especially those for Ehlers, Trouba and Lowry, could be incredibly pricy, eating into the cap space Winnipeg has available. Add Hellebuyck’s contract into the mix and Winnipeg could find that cap space disappearing in a hurry, and that’s even without considering a potential contract for UFA-to-be Bryan Little.
Thus, keeping Hellebuyck on a one-year deal allows Cheveldayoff some time to see what he can do to get other integral members of the franchise under wraps, and when he starts chipping away at contracts for his RFAs, he can get a better picture of the future salary structure in Winnipeg. Then, if Hellebuyck still looks like the long-term option, Cheveldayoff can decide how the netminder will fit.
For now, though, the Jets will simply be pleased to give Hellebuyck another chance to prove that when the time comes and the Jets are ready to seriously contend, he can shoulder the load between the pipes.
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