Connor Hellebuyck

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The Kids Are All Right: Penguins lead goalie youth movement

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By Will Graves (AP Sports Writer)

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Jim Rutherford knows what it’s like to be a young goaltender trying to find his way in the NHL. Rutherford went through it with the Detroit Red Wings in the early 1970s, thrust into action at 21 years old with a franchise in the middle of a bumpy transition.

Yet that’s where the comparisons end between Pittsburgh’s general manager and the two young men who will play a major role in determining whether the Penguins can become the first team in more than 30 years to win three straight Stanley Cup championships.

Matt Murray and Tristan Jarry, both 23, have everything Rutherford didn’t when he broke into the league more than four decades ago, from a true position coach to copious amounts of technology at their fingertips to the kind of advanced training techniques (both mental and physical) that Rutherford believes has the NHL’s youngest goalie tandem in position to play a vital role in Pittsburgh’s pursuit of history.

The dark ages of the ’70s – when goaltenders were typically left to sort things out on their own – this is not.

”You didn’t really think about it (back then),” Rutherford said. ”You let in bad goals or have bad games, you were kind of on your own and you had to work your way through that. Now these guys have a lot more things to help (them).”

Beginning with Mike Buckley, who began working with Murray and Jarry when they were teenage prospects and has meticulously overseen their rise from draft picks to NHL starters. Buckley spent four years as the franchise’s goaltending development coordinator before replacing Mike Bales as goalie coach shortly after Murray backstopped the Penguins to a second straight Cup last spring.

”You win two championships and make a change, it kind of seems a little odd,” Rutherford said. ”But Buck has been the guy that’s developed both these guys right from the start, so it just made sense that he would move in.”

Other youngsters are shouldering the burden, too, including 24-year-old Connor Hellebuyck in Winnipeg (16 wins, 2.44 goals-against average), 23-year-old Andrei Vasilevskiy in Tampa Bay (leads league in wins) and 24-year-old John Gibson in Anaheim (an All-Star last season).

But it’s Pittsburgh at the forefront of a goalie youth movement that runs counter to how things usually work in the NHL. While it’s not unusual for a team to invest in a young goaltender, there’s typically a proven backup at the ready just in case things go awry, one of the reasons the average age of an NHL goalie is 29.

That initially was the plan this season for the Penguins.

Pittsburgh brought in Antti Niemi to play behind Murray after losing Marc-Andre Fleury to expansion Vegas in June. When Niemi stumbled through a handful of forgettable starts and was released in October, Rutherford didn’t scour the waiver wire or the trade block. He called the team’s American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and told Jarry and 26-year-old Casey DeSmith to pack their bags.

”It’s one of the things that they have a timeline and they know when you’re ready and if they think you’re ready, they’ll bring you up to play,” said Jarry, who is 5-2-2 with a respectable 2.49 goals-against average this season. ”I think that’s one of the great things about Pittsburgh over the years, they saw when Matt was ready and what he could do and I think that was one of the stepping points in helping them win those Stanley Cups.”

All Murray did as a 21-year-old in the spring of 2016 was unseat the popular, occasionally erratic Fleury, taking over early on during Pittsburgh’s playoff run and leading the franchise to its fourth Cup. By last spring Murray was the entrenched starter, though Fleury filled in admirably during the first two rounds of the postseason while Murray recovered from an injury.

Yet it was Murray, and not Fleury, who was on the ice as the Penguins surged past Nashville in the 2017 Cup Final. It was Murray, not the now 33-year-old Fleury, whom Pittsburgh chose to keep last summer. And it was Jarry the Penguins stuck with when another injury recently shelved Murray for a couple of weeks.

The Penguins say their young goaltenders have considerable mental toughness, a must when playing on a team with so much offensive firepower in superstars Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby that playing responsibly in front of its own net occasionally gets lost in the wash.

”It’s not always about technique and having your stick in the perfect position all the time,” Buckley said. ”Sometimes it’s about putting them in a position where they have to compete and battle and stay clear mentally and stay confident and put them under duress, very much like a Navy SEAL undergoes training.”

That includes things like breathing techniques they can call on during particularly stressful moments or when they’re just sort of standing there while their teammates are dominating at the other end of the rink. The tough part is getting them to do it nightly during a sprawling six-month regular season followed by what they hope is a two-month slog through the playoffs.

”I think the biggest challenge is finding consistency because they’re so young, they’re still learning because they’re so young,” said Buckley, who worked with Los Angeles star Jonathan Quick and Boston goaltender Tuukka Rask early in their careers. ”There’s a lot of ups and downs, even for an older goalie, but for a younger goalie it’s more exaggerated.”

Pittsburgh’s offseason choice will come into stark relief on Thursday when the Penguins visit Fleury and the surprising Golden Knights. Moving on from Fleury was difficult but pragmatic. The kids can play.

”To be honest with you we don’t really have a choice,” Buckley said. ”We’ve embraced that challenge … we’ll be better in the long run for it.”

Is it a slump or is regression setting in for the Winnipeg Jets?

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Might regression be hitting the Winnipeg Jets at the moment?

It’s a question Jets fans are asking themselves after a three-game road trip that produced just a single point and a goose egg in the win column.

It’s the first time the Jets have lost three straight all season. In year’s past, this wouldn’t have come as much surprise, but the Jets have thrown the status quo out the window this season and have sung a different tune.

The analytics would suggest the Jets were due for a fall back to earth.

For most of the season, they’ve been near the bottom of the league in terms of Corsi, with only recently climbing up that ladder with a help of a very lopsided game against the Ottawa Senators.

Regression in goal is also starting to happen, and a lot of Winnipeg’s early-season success had to do with how well Connor Hellebuyck had been playing.

Hellebuyck has been sensational most of the season and his 15-3-4  record supports that. But his save percentage has been trending in the wrong direction lately. In five of his past six starts, Hellebuyck has only achieved a .900 save percentage or better once, and that came in that 5-0 shutout against the Senators.

Nov. 27 vs MIN: .895
Nov. 29 vs COL: .885
Dec. 1 vs VGK: .871
Dec. 3 vs. OTT: 1.000
Dec. 5 vs DET: .844
Dec. 9 vs TBL: .857

The Jets give up a lot of shots, so the odds that Hellebuyck’s early season numbers would survive throughout the year were low.

The sky is by no means falling in Winnipeg. The Jets showed they can go toe-to-toe with the league’s best on Saturday. Overtime has just been the bane of their existence this season with a 0-5 record in free hockey.

The Jets touched the summit of the Western Conference last week, a pipe dream around these parts in recent times. They also possess two of the league’s top point-producers (Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler) and one of the league’s top goal scorers (Patrik Laine), not to mention having a rookie just outside top 10 in rookie scoring (Kyle Connor).

Prior to the road trip, Winnipeg’s power play had scored eight times in 19 attempts.

The Jets have also been largely healthy. Defenseman Toby Enstrom is the midst of an eight-week spell in the press box — and there’s a pending diagnosis coming for Dustin Byfuglien after he left Saturday’s game in Tampa Bay with a lower-body injury — but the Jets gotten by relatively unscathed thus far and managed well when Mathieu Perreault and Adam Lowry missed several games.

The Jets have made too many strides this season to regress too far away from where they are right now. Asking a team to go from outside the playoff line to tops in the division might be asking a tad too much. But with that said, the Jets are simply a good team these days and stacked with high-level talent.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

For the Florida Panthers, Michael Hutchinson could be the perfect fit

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If the Florida Panthers are in the market for a goaltender — and they are, according to reports  — Dale Tallon might want to give the Winnipeg Jets a call.

The Jets hold the keys to the top goaltender without a job in the NHL this season. His name? Michael Hutchinson (a man feared by Chicago Blackhawks fans).

If one thing has become abundantly clear early in this current NHL season, it’s that organizational goaltender depth is something every team should be grooming.

Many teams have, or are currently, figuring out where they stand in this department. The Vegas Golden Knights have been hardest hit, so much so they had to use an emergency recall on a goaltender still trying to find his way in the Western Hockey League earlier year.

But the likes of Carey Price, Matt Murray and, most recently, Roberto Luongo, have given their respective teams no option but to look within (or claim Antti Niemi off waivers, which two of those three teams have done this year). The Canadiens found relief in Charlie Lindgren and Tristan Jarry has been a stud for the Penguins.

But Luongo’s injury might just force the Panthers in a different direction. James Reimer hasn’t been the model of consistency this season and has failed to take the starter’s reins in Florida and run with them. With Luongo on the shelf for the long-term and the fact that looking within isn’t likely to help in the Sunshine State, perhaps a phone call to Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff could help turn the Panthers’ fortunes.

Hutchinson has been on a tear with the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League, where he ranks first in save percentage with a whopping .951 and is second only to Toronto Marlies netminder Garret Sparks in goals-against average with a 1.73. In 11 games played, Hutchinson has lost just once in regulation and holds a 9-1-1 record and his rich vein of form earned him AHL’s goalie of the month honours for November.

Hutchinson has played so well that when Steve Mason went down with a concussion last month, there was a low chance that Hutchinson would be recalled. He simply wouldn’t clear waivers when Mason makes his eventual return and the Jets would be out an asset that looks increasingly likely to garner a decent return.

‘Hutch’ certainly fits the Panthers’ criteria, suggested by TSN insider Bob McKenzie: He’s 27, a young netminder that comes with 99 games of NHL experience including some meaningful action when he helped the Jets secure a playoff spot during the 2014-15 season when Ondrej Pavelec went down with injury, winning 21 games in what was his coming out party.

Hutchinson has cooled off over the past two seasons, playing second fiddle to Pavelec in 2015-16 and then Connor Hellebuyck last season. When the Jets signed Steve Mason on the first day of free agency in July, it was all but assured that Hutchinson would start the season in the AHL and ride out the final year of his contract.

It’s become clear in Winnipeg that Hutchinson didn’t like being sent down. Most don’t. He has yet to give an interview to scribes this season.

But despite being upset, he’s handled it (mostly) the correct way: take it on the chin and go out and be a professional on the ice.

It could end up being the right fit at the right time for both parties. The Panthers need someone to steady the ship. Hutchinson, in the final year of a two-year contract, needs some NHL games to make his case for a spot on an NHL roster next season.

And the Panthers aren’t bringing Niemi back.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

PHT on Fantasy: Backup plan

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A lot of things baffle me about the NHL, but like many, you just eventually let it wash away for the sheer sake of enjoying the game.

While I consider myself both bemused and annoyed by Matthew Tkachuk, essentially the Bart Simpson of the NHL, it feels like the NHL doesn’t even ask him to write things on chalkboards with these slap-on-the-wrist suspensions. Boosts in scoring almost always come down to a) young talent forcing improvements by sheer skill and will and b) actually calling a handful of infractions that should have always been penalties in the first place. And, of course, the debilitating normalcy of work stoppages.

Yeah, there’s a lot of things you just need to do the shrug emoji toward and just keep moving along.

The things that still baffle me, though, are the decisions that cost teams wins and, arguably, money. NHL GMs sometimes skimping on backups has regularly confounded me, to the point that I can’t just look away.

Consider this. Aside from the Oilers turning Cam Talbot into the hockey equivalent of a running back who received too many carries or a pitcher who logged too many innings last season, most teams pencil their starting goalies in for about 60-65 regular-season games per year. Things get fuzzy when you add postseason starts, especially when you remember that the repeat champion Penguins started at least two goalies for significant chunks of their runs both times.

That generally leaves your backup starting 17-22 games per season, and that’s if you’re lucky with your number one guy’s health.

So, it boggles my mind a bit that the pursuit of a backup is frequently treated with the indifference you’d show in acquiring a bottom-pairing defenseman or depth forward.

[Rotoworld: Looking at the week ahead with Michael Finewax]

Sure, “goalies are voodoo” and maybe there’s even more noise with number two guys, but it still bewilders me that the Pittsburgh Penguins would really think Antti Niemi was a likely fit last summer, and that all these teams with shaky backups didn’t even bother claiming Calvin Pickard. And so on.

Before this devolves from rant to hyper-rant, allow me to shift to the point of this column: a lot of starters are on the shelf right now, so how have their backups been doing, and how much should you trust them to continue to succeed?

In this latest fantasy column, I’ll look at goalies who are currently thrust into situations, and maybe sprinkle in a few scenarios that just ended or experienced quite a bit of disruption.

Note: This isn’t a comprehensive list. Also, this column ended up running long. Sorry.

***

Coyotes – So, it looks like Antti Raanta is healthy, but it’s been a bumpy ride.

Raanta’s played 13 games, Scott Wedgewood appeared in 12, Louis Domingue was banished after seven, and others have picked up some scraps. While I believe the Coyotes are more competitive than their record indicates, I also think that it’s better to travel the road of least resistance in fantasy.

There are a lot of bumps on this desert road.

Bruins – Yeah, I know Tuukka Rask is getting older, but it’s still perplexing that Anton Khudobin has objectively been the better goalie with each guy getting 10+ games played. This is weird and not good, but credit Khudobin for rekindling some of his early-Boston magic.

(Honestly, as happy as I was to see David Backes score two goals last night, I’m generally of the mind that the Bruins offer little beyond a terrifying top line and some promising young blueliners. At least in fantasy.)

Flames – Good grief, it’s really Mike Smith or bust, isn’t it?  Enjoy footage of not-Mike-Smith getting a goal scored off of his mask:

Blackhawks – So far, Anton Forsberg is 1-4-3 with a .906 save percentage as Corey Crawford is on the mend.

For so long, Chicago was the place where backup goalies would do so well, they’d often get chances to be full-time starters. Sometimes those guys ended up being legit, while others were propped up a bit. Now the Blackhawks’ leaky defense instead trips their goalies and pushes their faces in puddles. Or whatever the opposite of “propping up” is. Knocking your crutches/walking cane out of your hand? I don’t know, someone help me out.

You really need to be desperate to roll with Forsberg, is what I’m saying.

[The Rotoworld Hockey Podcast]

Stars – Ben Bishop is dealing with a back issue, opening the door for Kari Lehtonen to already eclipse 10 games played before the calendar hits 2018. This should go about as well as things went on this hideous shorthanded goal (which wasn’t really on Lehtonen, mind you).

On a similar note, I like some of the Stars players and generally Ken Hitchcock as a coach, but not together. It’s basically a peanut-butter steak in Dallas.

Oilers – In my head, I thought Laurent Brossoit was doing kind of OK with Cam Talbot on the shelf.

In reality, Brossoit’s been even worse, with an ugly .877 save percentage so far this season. If I didn’t know any better, I’d wonder if the Oilers were pretty bad at everything beyond employing Connor McDavid.

Panthers – Roberto Luongo‘s injury could be substantial, which is bad news since he’s been playing so well and James Reimer‘s been off his game. Still, Reimer’s been a 1B and analytics darling for ages now, so if anyone can run with a chance like this, it’s Reimer.

Considering the comedy of errors that is Panthers management, this isn’t a perfect situation, but Reimer’s a decent enough choice if you’re needing a goalie and have limited options.

Kings – Darcy Kuemper playing well so far might, stealthily, be the most surprising thing about these surprising Kings.

Canadiens – Kudos to Charlie Lindgren, who might be a goalie to monitor, yet we don’t really need to belabor the “Carey Price is important” point, do we?

Islanders – A tricky situation with Jaroslav Halak and Thomas Greiss splitting things like a true platoon, at least so far. Halak’s been getting the reps lately, it seems. While the Islanders seem like they’re a true playoff team, their goalies are probably not worth the trouble, unless one of them is maybe your alternate option.

Note: I’m the type who prefers the ease of certainty instead of the tedium of tinkering.

Penguins – Coming into this season, Tristan Jarry generated strong work in the AHL in 2016-17, managing a .925 save percentage. The Penguins wanted to leave in there to marinate for some time, but with Matt Murray hurt, Jarry’s pressed into action, and he’s shining pretty nicely. He’s 5-1-2 with a nice .921 save percentage in eight games.

As a second-rounder (44th in 2013 vs. Murray, a third-rounder who went 83rd in 2012), you could argue that Jarry might actually have the superior pedigree.

Jarry is currently 59 percent owned in Yahoo, so there’s still a chance you can get him. While the Penguins’ defense might leave him vulnerable at times, Pittsburgh is playing well, Murray might be week-to-week and Jarry is solid. You could do worse than to give him an audition.

Golden Knights – ¯_(ツ)_/¯

With Marc-Andre Fleury showing some progress, there’s risk beyond the already-comical risk of taking on Vegas goalies, but let’s give Malcolm Subban credit for revamping his career prospects.

As with most Golden Knights things, I really don’t know what to tell you, other than “Yes, they seem better than we all expected, and no, I still don’t know what happens next.”

Jets – There are warning signs that the Connor Hellebuyck train will slow or even come to a screeching halt, but sometimes fantasy success is about being willing to laugh and enjoy hot streaks while they last.

Just be careful to look for escape routes in case that tunnel is actually just a painted-on boulder, Roadrunner-style.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Winnipeg Jets have finally arrived

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After relocating from Atlanta prior to the 2011-12 season the Winnipeg Jets’ existence has been the definition of mediocrity.

It’s also been painfully dull.

A snails pace rebuild (if you want to even call it that) with almost zero trades of consequence and no free agent signings of significance has meant that the results on the ice have been a continuation of the mediocre results they produced during their time in Atlanta. There are still Not quite good enough to be a playoff team. Not quite bad enough to be an embarrassment or land a top draft pick to net a franchise player (though, that changed when their number came up in the draft lottery to get Patrik Laine … but more on that in a bit).

They have just sort of … existed. This is an organization that is still, 18 seasons into its existence, searching for its first ever postseason win. Not postseason series win. Postseason win. Period.

Since moving to Winnipeg it has been a bizarre team to watch from the outside, especially in recent seasons.

There has been a lot of individual talent on the team. When you look at the roster on paper and see what some of the players have produced, especially in recent seasons, it’s baffling to see how little team success that has all translated to. They should have been better.

So far this season, the results are starting to show up.

After their 7-4 win over the Vegas Golden Knights on Friday night the Jets enter Saturday with the best record in the Western Conference and are off to one of the best starts in franchise history.

They are looking like they might be for real and that their time as a legit contender may have finally arrived.

How did it finally happen?

Let’s start with the big one: They are finally getting decent goaltending.

One of the biggest factors in the Jets’ mediocrity over the past eight years has been a constant void in net. They committed to Ondrej Pavelec for too long, never really tried to find a better solution, and were consistently sunk by sub-par goaltending on a nightly basis.

They signed Steve Mason this summer, but the job has been taken over to this point by Connor Hellebuyck with a .923 save percentage entering play on Saturday.

Just to give you an idea as to how much of an issue goaltending has been, and how much of a difference it is making this season, consider where the Jets have ranked in team save percentage since the start of the 2011-12 season.

2011-12: 25th

2012-13: 21st

2013-14: 24th

2014-15: 12th (only playoff year)

2015-16: 27th

2016-17: 28th

When you get goaltending like that you’re not even giving yourself a chance to compete.

The thing about this Jets roster is that with the way it is currently constructed and the talent that it has up front they don’t need elite goaltending to have a chance. Even if Hellebuyck sees a slight regression in his performance as long as he is able to avoid being one of the bottom-10 goalies in the league they should still have a chance.

Which brings us to the other big factor in the Jets’ improvement: They are finally being rewarded for their patience.

Since being named general manager of the team Kevin Cheveldayoff has taken a “build from within” approach. Wanting to build through the draft isn’t exactly a unique thing. Every team wants to do that. But the Jets have taken it to the extreme, so much so that in the seven years he has been in charge of the team he has only made two trades that involved NHL players going in each direction.

Combined with a lack of significant free agent moves and it has been an astonishing level of inactivity for an NHL team.

But the drafts are finally starting to pay off and the Jets actually have a core of young, talented players that can be organizational building blocks for a long, long time.

Four of the team’s top-five scorers right this season are age 24 or younger, including three (Patrik Laine, Nikolaj Ehlers and Kyle Connor) that are age 21 or younger.

Since the start of the 2015-16 season Mark Scheifele (currently the team’s leading scorer) and the criminally underrated Blake Wheeler have been two of the top-eight point producers in the NHL.

Only six players have scored more goals than Laine since the start of last season (Laine’s first in the NHL), while Ehlers is on pace for his second 60-plus point season before his age 22 season.

These are all top-line players and currently some of the most productive in the entire NHL. And other than Wheeler, they are all still young enough that their best days might still be in front of them.

Put all of that together and you have a team that has been one of the best offensive teams in the league for two years now and one that probably still has a chance to get better.

Winnipeg fans waited a long to get an NHL team back, and for six years the team they were given was just a rebranded version of the Atlanta Thrashers that just happened to be playing in a different city.

It’s taken a long time, and a lot of patience, but they finally have a team that is worth getting excited about and a team that might actually be worthy of being labeled as a contender.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.