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Rebound goalie: Hellebuyck's great start shows he could be Jets' answer in net after all

Connor Hellebuyck's sophomore struggles prompted the Jets to sign Steve Mason in the off-season. Through the first month of the campaign, though, Hellebuyck has shown he can be the No. 1 that Winnipeg needs.

Everything about Connor Hellebuyck’s situation in Winnipeg this season screamed “show me,” and, quite frankly, with good reason.

In 2016-17, Hellebuyck had what was arguably the most disappointing season of any sophomore in the league. After a stellar rookie campaign, one in which he was far and away the best netminder in Winnipeg, boasting a .918 save percentage and 2.34 goals-against average, Hellebuyck posted numbers that put him among the league’s worst goaltenders. His .907 save percentage was the fifth-worst among the 32 netminders to play at least 40 games, his 146 goals against the 11th-most and his SP mark at 5-on-5, a lowly .918, was better than only four of the 28 goaltenders who played at least 2,000 minutes.

His play was poor enough at times that Hellebuyck, who has long been heralded as the future in goal for the Jets, even lost the crease at times during the campaign. Early on, it was to Michael Hutchinson. Later, when Winnipeg was desperate for someone, anyone, to make a stop, Ondrej Pavelec saw action. And with Hellebuyck tail-spinning in goal, the Jets missed the playoffs in large part due to their inability to keep the puck out of the net. Winnipeg was the only team with a top-15 goals-for total to also post a negative goal differential. That was almost solely due to the Jets finishing with the fourth-worst 5-on-5 SP and third-worst SP at all strengths, and Hellebuyck was no small part of the problem.

So, when the off-season rolled around, the Jets went out and made a splash in free agency, signing veteran goaltender Steve Mason to a two-year, $8.2-million contract. Then, rather than signing Hellebuyck long-term, Winnipeg inked him to a one-year, $2.25-million deal. When the season began, it was Mason, not Hellebuyck, who was given the green light on opening night. And even after the season opener, which saw Mason surrender five goals on 20 shots in 40 minutes of work, Hellebuyck started the next game on the pine. It wasn’t exactly a vote of confidence for the 24-year-old.

After a second disappointing start by Mason, however, Hellebuyck was given the crease and the chance to answer the Jets’ need for stability in goal, his chance to show the Jets last season was nothing more than a blip, an aberration for a goaltender who still had what it took to be a true No. 1 in the NHL. And has he ever delivered.

On base statistics alone, Hellebuyck has been exceptional. One season after finishing among the league’s worst, Hellebuyck finds himself in the same company as the league leaders through the first month of the campaign. His eight wins put him fifth in the league, his .936 SP is third behind only Corey Crawford and Jonathan Quick, while Crawford, Quick, Martin Jones and Pekka Rinne are the only qualifying netminders who have a lower GAA than Hellebuyck’s 2.12 mark. Hellebuyck’s underlying numbers shed even more light on how solid he’s been for the Jets, though. At nearly 500 minutes played at 5-on-5, Hellebuyck has posted the best SP of any goaltender in the NHL, boasting a .949 mark through his 11 appearances.

One major factor in Hellebuyck’s success has been the Jets’ ability to be a more limiting team defensively. That may not show in shot attempts against, where Winnipeg faces the 11th-most attempts per 60 minutes at five-a-side, but the Jets are giving up most of those shots from the outside while protecting the key scoring areas. Winnipeg ranks 14th in scoring chances against at 5-on-5, allowing 27.9 per 60 minutes, and 10th in high-danger chances against at 5-on-5, giving up only 10.3 per 60 minutes. How has that impacted Hellebuyck’s numbers? Well, among the 40 netminders to play 400 minutes, he has seen the fifth-highest rate of shots from low-danger areas, but ranks 31st and 33rd, respectively, among the same group in medium- and high-danger shots against. All told, he’s facing the seventh-fewest shots against per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 of any goaltender with 200 minutes played.

Even when the workload increases, though, Hellebuyck has managed to show improvement in the early season. On the penalty kill, for instance, Hellebuyck has been among the busiest netminders, facing a shot total that works out to roughly 85.3 per 60 minutes, the second-highest rate behind Roberto Luongo. Yet, Hellebuyck’s shorthanded SP is .886 thus far, including a perfect rate from low-danger areas and .974 mark from mid-range. It’s a vast improvement — .026 total, .034 on low-danger shots and .082 on mid-range attempts — from where Hellebuyck was last season.

The result of Hellebuyck’s play is a script that has been flipped dramatically. Thought to be coming into the season as the 1B behind free agent signee Mason, Hellebuyck has instead taken over the top job. In fact, even when it has seemed the crease would change hands back to Mason for a night, Jets coach Paul Maurice has given Hellebuyck the nod. Case in point, Hellebuyck started three games in five nights from Nov. 2-6, downing the Dallas Stars twice and dropping an overtime outing to the Montreal Canadiens along the way. Since those first two outings, Hellebuyck, who has yet to lose in regulation, has only surrendered the blue paint twice.

So, a show-me season for Hellebuyck? Consider the Jets, at least through the first month of the campaign, shown. And if he can keep this up and propel Winnipeg back to the playoffs, it’ll be Hellebuyck who’s asking the Jets to show him that he’s earned their faith.

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