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Playoffs or not, the Jets' Connor Hellebuyck has to be the frontrunner for the Vezina Trophy

The Jets have Connor Hellebuyck to thank for their position in the Western Conference playoff race. And while this season could end with Winnipeg on the outside of the post-season looking in, that shouldn't change Hellebuyck's status as the Vezina Trophy frontrunner.

The trio of stops won’t show up on the scoresheet with any sort of asterisk, nor will there exist any italicized indication of their importance. Instead, they’ll simply be chalked up as three of 36 shots Connor Hellebuyck turned aside in the Winnipeg Jets’ defeat of the Arizona Coyotes. Anyone watching, though, knew immediately they were of remember-that-stop quality, key saves at crucial moments that ultimately influenced the outcome of an incredibly important outing.

The first was a reactionary stop on Phil Kessel, Hellebuyck using his left pad to keep the Coyotes winger from stretching Arizona’s lead to 3-0 less than 90 seconds into the middle period. The second, which Hellebuyck looked to have made with the shaft of his stick, was on Derek Stepan on a 2-on-2 break in which the Coyotes pivot had a great look on goal. Had Hellebuyck not made the stop, it would have snuffed out the momentum the Jets had gotten little more than a dozen seconds earlier when Nikolaj Ehlers got Winnipeg on the board early in the second frame. But the third was perhaps the biggest. Less than a minute after the stop on Stepan, Brad Richardson slapped a loose puck laying in front of the Jets’ crease goalward. Hellebuyck kicked out his right leg to keep Winnipeg within one.

In the 35-plus minutes that followed the save on Richardson, Hellebuyck refused to be beaten despite being tested another 28 times. Meanwhile, the Jets received a tally from Tucker Poolman to draw level, took the lead on Cody Eakin’s first with the franchise and iced it when Mark Scheifele fired one into the Coyotes’ empty net. With the win, Winnipeg picked up a critical two points in an outing against a fellow post-season contender and moved back into the top wild-card spot in the Western Conference. And though it’s been said before around these parts, it bears repeating: that the Jets are in such a position at all is a minor miracle, and for it Winnipeg has Hellebuyck to thank.

That might not be all too evident from the base statistical numbers. Sure, Hellebuyck is the leader in shutouts, posting his league-high sixth in the Jets’ blanking of the Vegas Golden Knights this past Friday. In the other major goaltending categories, however, Hellebuyck doesn’t feature in the top five. As it pertains to save percentage, he’s close, sitting in a tie for sixth place with a .922 mark, but he doesn’t possess a top-10 goals-against average. Truth be told, he’s only barely in the top 15, his 2.58 GAA a fraction better than Semyon Varlamov’s 15th-place 2.59 mark and Joonas Korpisalo’s 16th-place 2.60 GAA.

It’s the numbers below the surface that speak volumes about how well Hellebuyck has played, however, especially his 5-on-5 metrics. And it’s the reason Hellebuyck has to be considered the Vezina Trophy frontrunner as we enter the final four weeks of the campaign.

There are 54 goaltenders who have played at least 1,000 minutes at five-a-side, and among those keepers, Hellebuyck’s .928 SP is tied for eighth-best. Admittedly, that may not seem a top-tier number worthy of calling a keeper a savior or the sole reason a club is in the playoff hunt this season, but consider that Hellebuyck has posted that mark despite being under as much or more duress than any other netminder. His 32.3 shots against per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 is the 12th-highest rate in the league, only six goaltenders – and none with minutes as high as Hellebuyck’s 2,645 at five-a-side – face a higher rate of high-danger shots than his 9.1 per 60 minutes and Hellebuyck’s expected goals against per 60 minutes is 2.57. That’s sixth-highest among the 1,000-minute keepers, no 2,000-minute keeper faces a higher rate and his 0.31 goals-saved above average per 60 minutes is eighth-highest among the 54 keepers. Measured across the season as a whole, though, his 13.7 GSAA is higher than all but two netminders.

But the real kicker might be Hellebuyck’s goals saved above expected at 5-on-5, a statistic maintained by Evolving Hockey that not only takes into account shot volume faced by a keeper, but also shot quality. It thus determines how many goals a netminder has prevented when compared to a league-average keeper under a same level of threat. And as measured by GSAx, Hellebuyck is the league's best netminder by a mile. His 18.5 mark at all strengths is – and this is not a typo – nearly 10 higher than the next-best goaltender, which is the 8.7 mark possessed by Arizona Coyotes starter Darcy Kuemper. At 5-on-5, Hellebuyck is more than eight goals clear of any other netminder, his 16.2 GSAx doubling up Corey Crawford’s second-place 8.1 mark.

Tie all of that in with the fact Hellebuyck is leading the league with 57 appearances, second in the NHL with 55 starts, tied for the second-most wins (30) and has faced more (1,758) and turned aside more (1,620) rubber than any other netminder, and his Vezina resume is overflowing.

The one wrinkle? The Jets could miss the post-season.

Despite sitting in a wild-card as of Tuesday morning, Winnipeg doesn’t have a single game in hand on any of their closest competition, which is to say their grasp on the playoff spot is tenuous. Furthermore, when measured by points percentage, the Jets find themselves 21st in the league and trailing three of the teams they are battling for a wild-card berth. And since the 1981-82 campaign, when the Vezina began to be awarded to the league’s best goaltender and not simply the one with the fewest goals against, only once has it been won by a netminder from a non-playoff team. That was then-Columbus Blue Jackets goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky in 2012-13.

Playoffs or not, though, the case can still be made for Hellebuyck. Like every Vezina winner, save the two lockout-shortened campaigns, he’s on pace to finish with a record well above .500. In fact, he’s one win away from reaching 10 games above even, and that would put him in line with all but two Vezina winners since 1981-82. In addition, Hellebuyck has exceeded the 30-win mark and is up there with the league leaders, which matters to the NHL GMs who vote for the award. Generally, wins have been one of the deciding factors, whether we agree or not. Most importantly, however, when you compare his performance to that of Bobrovsky, there’s precedent.

The Blue Jackets narrowly missed the post-season, falling short merely by a tiebreaker, and it seems Winnipeg, will fall similarly short if they do indeed miss the playoffs, perhaps by only a few points at most. During that shortened season, too, Bobrovsky had some of the best 5-on-5 numbers. He ranked second in 5-on-5 SP, first in GSAA, was ninth in shots against per 60 minutes and topped the league in GSAA per 60 minutes. However, in GSAx, Bobrovsky finished fifth at all strengths (10.6) and fourth (9.7) at 5-on-5. He was excellent, no doubt, but Hellebuyck’s game-saving – and frankly season-saving – play has arguably been at another level altogether.

We’ve seen the playoffs factor into Vezina voting before, even as recently as last season when the Anaheim Ducks’ John Gibson mustered one measly third-place vote despite outstanding numbers. But that shouldn’t be the case again. Barring an absolute implosion on Hellebuyck’s part across the next four weeks, it’s incredibly difficult to argue anyone else deserves to win the award. And if Winnipeg makes the post-season, the Vezina winner should be a no-brainer. Matter of fact, if the Jets are playoff-bound after Game 82, maybe the Hellebuyck-for-Hart conversation will need to begin in earnest, too.

(All advanced statistics, unless otherwise noted, via NaturalStatTrick)

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