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Why the Jets' Connor Hellebuyck should be considered a Vezina Trophy frontrunner

The Jets were expected to take a big step backwards, but the play of netminder Connor Hellebuyck has kept Winnipeg in the win column. And with one-third of the season over, it's time to consider him a frontrunner for the top-goaltender honor.

By the very nature of the beast, the NHL’s Three Stars of the Month list is bound to fail to give a player or two their due. Hey, that’s what happens when you need to pare down the league’s top performers through an entire month to three and three alone. Truth is, too, that there are few who are going to have gripes with the selections made in November. Connor McDavid, the league’s scoring leader and Edmonton Oilers superstar, was named the first star with a 13-goal, 26-point performance. Nathan MacKinnon’s 10 goals and 25 points for the Colorado Avalanche earned him second-star honors. And Patrick Kane brought up the rear with an 11-goal, 24-point performance that saw him find the scoresheet in every single game the Chicago Blackhawks played in November.

So, again, a player or two is bound to be left off the list. It’s going to happen. And in the case of Winnipeg Jets netminder Connor Hellebuyck, it appears November was his turn to come oh-so-close to landing among the top three. Simply put, there’s no netminder in the league who was better than the 26-year-old last month. And that’s not an incredibly difficult case to make.

Throughout the month of November, Hellebuyck took the blue paint in all but three of the Jets’ outings, appearing in 11 games and turning in an 8-2-1 record. It should be noted here, though, that one of his wins came in less than a dozen minutes’ work. Backup Laurent Brossoit did most of the heavy lifting before being forced out of the crease due to cramping. Hellebuyck entered, Winnipeg snatched a late game-winning goal against the Columbus Blue Jackets and the win was attributed to the 11-minute man. Even still, Hellebuyck picked up more victories than all but one netminder last month. It's all but three if you’re one of those who wants put an asterisk beside his win total and only give him credit for seven.

Hellebuyck’s performance goes well beyond a somewhat-muddied win total, though. Consider that he faced 341 shots in November, more than all but three netminders. He also turned aside an incredible 322 of those shots, also the fourth-most of all goaltenders in November. Add to it a .944 save percentage, which ranked second among all keepers with at least a pair of starts and tops among the 38 who saw seven or more games, and a 1.85 goals-against average, which is third among the first aforementioned group and again the best among the second, and you get a clearer picture as to why Hellebuyck was deserving of ending up in the three-star discussion. That he added a shutout on top of his effort could have been the proverbial cherry on top.

Maybe most notable about Hellebuyck’s performance in November, however, is that it marked not a continuation of but an improvement on his level of play from the month prior. In October, Hellebuyck was Winnipeg’s backbone. He turned in modest 5-5-0 record, but did so with a solid .921 SP, 2.63 GAA and one shutout. He kept the Jets competitive through the opening month of the campaign. And it’s inarguable that Hellebuyck should indeed receive full marks for his performance behind a Jets team, and particularly a Winnipeg blueline, that has faced as much adversity as just about any in the NHL.

After trading Jacob Trouba, losing Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot to free agency and beginning the season without Dustin Byfuglien to a retirement rumor-turned-team suspension situation that doesn’t appear as though it will be resolved any time soon, the backend was thrown into a state of disarray. The only mainstays from last season have been top-pairing blueliner Josh Morrissey and depth defenseman Dmitry Kulikov. But despite losing the majority of the blueline, losses that may have hamstrung other outfits and tanked another goaltender’s performance, the Jets have managed to maintain their level of play in a number of 5-on-5 statistics and Hellebuyck has stood tall all season long.

In fact, he’s done so to such an extent that maybe a monthly honor would be selling Hellebuyck short. Maybe it’s end-of-season silverware we should be discussing. Hellebuyck is most certainly deserving of being in the Vezina Trophy conversation, too. With one-third of the NHL campaign in the books, his numbers are commensurate with, and in some cases better than, his counterparts.

At all strengths, the Jets keeper currently finds himself second in the league with a .933 SP, sixth with a 2.23 GAA and one back of league shutout leader Pekka Rinne with two blank slates this season. What illustrates Hellebuyck’s excellence this season more, though, is his five-a-side play. Among the 40 goaltenders with at least 500 minutes played at 5-on-5, Hellebuyck is tied for second with a .941 SP, only a hair behind Semyon Varlamov’s league-best .942 mark. Meanwhile, Hellebuyck leads the league with a .77 goals-saved above average per 60 minutes and 12.4 GSAA at five-a-side. And Hellebuyck’s performance is all the more impressive when you consider he’s quite a bit unlike the others who’ve put up similar numbers.

For instance, Hellebuyck’s 39.2 expected goals against total this year is higher than all but four of the 500-minute goaltenders and the highest of any goaltender who has a top-15 SP among that group of 40 keepers. Hellebuyck also has the 10th highest expected goals against per 60 minutes at five-a-side. His 136 high-danger shots against at 5-on-5 – he ranks 11th per 60 minutes – are likewise the fifth-most among that cohort and more than any other keeper with a top-10 SP. But his .860 SP against high-danger shots, 10th-best among the 500-minute netminders, is proof positive that he’s been turning away such shots with aplomb. It should also be said that only four netminders are facing more shots against per hour at five-a-side. The only who is making more saves per 60 minutes is Robin Lehner.

More than the deep statistics or the surface SP and GAA totals, what should put Hellebuyck in the top-goaltender conversation as we skate past the first third of the season is that he’s putting up the one number that Vezina voters seem to prize most: wins. He’s tied for the league lead with 13 victories, and his performance has been such that a Jets team some expected to take a sizeable step back are instead staying in lockstep with the cream of the crop in the Central Division.

And if you were to ask Hellebuyck, you can rest assured he’d say that – not his contention for a shiny addition to his mantle – is what matters most.

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