Connor Hellebuyck

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Poll: Will Blues compete for Central Division title next season?

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This post is part of Blues Day on PHT…

The St. Louis Blues went through a number of changes last offseason. They key veterans David Backes, Troy Brouwer and Brian Elliott in free agency, and no one really knew how it would affect them on the ice.

After struggling pretty badly in January, they fired head coach Ken Hitchcock and they ended up replacing him with coach-in-waiting Mike Yeo.

At the time of the firing, the Blues were clinging to the final Wild Card spot in the West. In the end, they were able to move up to third place in the Central Division.

Thanks to some masterful goaltending by Jake Allen, they were able to knock off the Wild in five games in the opening round, but they fell to Nashville in round two.

The Blues didn’t make a ton of changes to their roster this summer. They acquired Brayden Schenn from Philadelphia at the draft and they added winger Beau Bennett in free agency.

Is it enough to come away with the Central Division crown?

Both the Blackhawks and Wild finished ahead of them in the standings last season. The ‘Hawks made some major changes to their roster, as they dealt Artemi Panarin, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Scott Darling and Marcus Kruger away. They’ve also already lost Marian Hossa for the season, too.

The Wild got off to a fantastic start last season, but they crumbled down the stretch and were no match for the Blues in the postseason.

As of right now, the biggest threat for the division crown is probably Nashville.  The Predators didn’t have a great regular season, but they managed to find a way to come together during a run to the Stanley Cup Final. They also added Nick Bonino, Scott Hartnell and Alexei Emelin this offseason. Notable losses include: James Neal, Mike Fisher and Colin Wilson.  How will a long playoff run affect the Preds going into next season?

The most intriguing team in the division might just be Hitchcock’s new team, the Dallas Stars. They spent some money upgrading their roster, as they landed goalie Ben Bishop, winger Alex Radulov, center Martin Hanzal, defenseman Marc Methot. The Stars have had a tough time keeping the puck out of their own, so if Hitchcock and his new acquisitions can help them in that area, they’ll be tough to stop.

The Winnipeg Jets have an up-and-coming roster with plenty of skilled players. They signed Steve Mason to help young goalie Connor Hellebuyck out, but will that be enough? The Jets will likely be a dangerous squad in the near future, it just might not be this season.

And as for the Colorado Avalanche, well, let’s just say they still have a ton of work to do before we can put them in the conversation for the division title.

The Blues aren’t going to be the favorites to land the Central Division crown. Of course, that doesn’t mean they don’t have a shot. The key to this whole thing might just be Allen, who has always struggled with consistency at the NHL level.

If Allen can play anywhere close to the way he did during the playoffs (1.96 goals-against-average, .935 save percentage), they’ll have a chance to do some damage.

The biggest question is, did he just catch lightning in a bottle, or is he finally starting to take his game to the next level?

Alright, it’s your turn to have your say. Vote in the poll below and leave your opinion in the comments section below.

Two decades of Paul Maurice, NHL head coach

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This post is part of Jets Day on PHT…

If a typical NHL coach listed perks of the gig, “great job security” wouldn’t make the cut very often. Even a Stanley Cup ring (or two) won’t save them from the cutting block in plenty of cases.

With that in mind, let’s take a step back and just admire the persistence of Winnipeg Jets head coach Paul Maurice. Is persistence the better word, or would it be wiser to describe his longevity as … stealthy?

It might be hard to believe, but Maurice has been employed as an NHL head coach consistently since 1995-96. No, that’s not a typo. Check out his hockeydb page if you need proof/also want to see a photo of Young Paul Maurice.

Long story short: Maurice has been an NHL head coach since before the Carolina Hurricanes and “South Park” existed.

A timeline of Paul Maurice’s career

I’ve added some notes for bigger achievements, changes, and so on. Note that this rundown lists every time his teams made it to the postseason. (If a season isn’t mentioned, it’s because he remained employed but his team missed the playoffs.)

1995-96: becomes assistant and then head coach for the Hartford Whalers, coaching 70 games.
1997-98: The Whalers become the Carolina Hurricanes; Maurice can’t get them to the playoffs for a third straight season.
1998-99: Maurice’s first team makes it to playoffs, loses in first round.
2000-01: Another first-round exit
2001-02: Hurricanes fall in the 2002 Stanley Cup Final, Maurice’s lone appearance.
2003-04: Maurice is fired 30 games into the season.

So, in his first stint with Carolina/Harford (1995-96 to 2003-04), his team missed the playoffs five times and made it three times. There were two first-round exits and that remarkable run to the 2002 SCF.

2005-06: Takes Toronto Marlies to AHL playoffs in lone season with the team … they lose in first round.

2006-07 to 2007-08: Fails to bring Toronto Maple Leafs to playoffs in two seasons.

2008-09: Second stint with Hurricanes begins with 57 regular season games. Hurricanes lose in Eastern Conference Final.
2011-12: Fired by Hurricanes 25 games into season.

2012-13: Took KHL’s Metallurg to playoffs … first-round exit.

2013-14: Misses playoffs during first season with Winnipeg, coached 35 regular-season games.
2014-15: Lone playoff appearance as Jets coach. Thrashers/Jets franchise still lacks a single playoff win.
2015-16 to 2016-17: Misses playoffs.

/wipes sweat off brow

In summary, Maurice’s teams made the playoffs five times during his NHL coaching career. Two of those runs included series wins, with five overall. His teams won two Southeast Division titles. Check the bottom of this post for more perspective on his “quantity vs. quality” career.

Young and resilient

All of that aside, the point here isn’t that Maurice is necessarily a “bad coach.” Instead, it’s meant to remark upon just how rare his situation is.

Really, you can get into a philosophical discussion about how much any coach could have managed in Maurice’s situations. The Hurricanes/Whalers faced struggles in building rosters and in their market. The Maple Leafs are the only true “big budget” team Maurice coached, and he came in during a difficult time for the franchise. Just ask Ilya Bryzgalov about how much of a free agent “lure” Winnipeg can be in the eyes of many, a factor that likely didn’t help the Jets in the often-grueling Central Division.

Maurice became the second-youngest NHL coach to reach 500 wins (at the time) in 2015, and he weathered quite the storm with the Hurricanes/Whalers early on, learning the ropes at just 28. And other coaches noticed, as San Jose Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer related to NHL.com:

“There’s only a handful of guys I know that you could stick behind a bench at [28] and they could survive and still carve out a career,” DeBoer said. “That shows you how special his communication skills are, how big of a presence he is in a dressing room.”

Maurice has two decades of NHL coaching experience, yet he’s only 50.

He’s always looking to learn, and Maurice rarely deployed star-studded rosters … and especially rarely enjoyed great goaltending.

***

Is Maurice great, bad, or somewhere in between? That’s tough to say, but give him credit for fighting hard enough to at least always be around.

If Steve Mason and Connor Hellebuyck can actually deliver steady goaltending for the Jets, we may finally get a better idea of what Maurice is truly capable of.

Bonus: More on his resounding longevity

According to Hockey Reference, Maurice has coached 1,365 regular-season games and 57 postseason contests. His regular season record overall thanks to the NHL’s shifting standings systems is: 596-569-99-101, with a points percentage of .510.*

Hockey Reference’s NHL Coach Register has some useful listings to provide some context for his career. Maurice has coached the 11th-most games according to their listings. One must reach down to Brian Sutter (1,028 games coached, .517 points percentage) to find a comparable coach.

Under Pressure: Steve Mason

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This post is part of Jets Day on PHT…

Yeah, it’s the new guy.

Goaltending has been the single biggest issue in Winnipeg ever since the franchise arrived from Atlanta seven years ago, consistently finishing near the bottom of the league in save percentage. Ondrej Pavelec wasn’t the answer, and Michael Hutchinson and Connor Hellebuyck didn’t seem to be the answer a year ago. Now the job gets turned over to Steve Mason, coming over in free agency from the Philadelphia Flyers on a two-year, $8.2 million contract.

So why the pressure? Well, simply because he has to be the guy to help fill the hole that has held the Jets back more than any other in recent years. And he has to do it while rebounding from what was a down year in Philadelphia, managing only a .908 save percentage that was his lowest individual mark since he played for the Columbus Blue Jackets.

That sort of performance won’t work for the Jets because it was pretty much exactly what their two-headed goaltending monster gave them a season ago. If he can return to the form he showed during the first four years he spent in Philadelphia it would be a pretty significant boost to a Jets team that hasn’t really had anything even remotely close to a consistent, No. 1 starting goaltender in … well … ever.

If Mason can be that guy the Jets might actually have a chance to contend for a playoff spot, especially given how good their offense was this past season.

If he can not be that guy it will simply be more of the same in Winnipeg where a team with some pretty good talent and what is now a high-scoring offense gets sabotaged by goaltending.

The Jets don’t need him to be Dominik Hasek. They can score enough goals that they don’t need a goalie to steal games for them every night. They just need him to be good.

Will additions of Mason, Kulikov be enough to improve the Jets’ defense?

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Preventing goals has been a major issue for the Winnipeg Jets.

In five of the past six seasons they have finished in the bottom-10 in the league in goals against, bottoming out this past season by giving up 3.11 goals per game, the fourth-worst mark in the entire league. That has been the biggest obstacle they have been unable to scale when attempting to become a playoff team. One of the biggest issues has been in net where the likes of Ondrej Pavelec, Michael Hutchinson and Connor Hellebuyck have been unable to nail down the position with any consistency in recent years.

This offseason the team finally addressed the position in what could be a meaningful way by adding Steve Mason to take over as the primary goaltender.

Along with the addition of Mason, they also attempted to bolster their blue line by bringing in free agent defenseman Dmitry Kulikov.

Kulikov might add some depth to their defense, but Mason is going to be the player that probably makes or breaks the Jets’ season. Even though the Jets have consistently been among the league’s worst teams when it comes to allowing goals, they have always been, at worst, a middle of the pack team when it comes to giving up shots only to have sub-par goaltending sabotage their seasons. They have finished with a team save percentage over .910 just once in the past six years.

It is not a coincidence that was the one season over that stretch where they actually qualified for the playoffs.

Given the Jets’ ability to score (they were sixth in the league in goals scored this past season) and the fact they are at least an OK shot suppression team they don’t need Mason to be a superstar in net. They just need some consistency. They just need somebody to give them league average to better than league average play, and Mason has been able to do that in four of the past five seasons. Look at it this way, if he gets the bulk of the playing time (the 56 starts Hellebuyck received this past season) and faces the same number of shots with a league average save percentage the Jets would shave 12-15 goals off of their goals against total right there alone without any other improvements anywhere else. Probably not enough to make up seven points in the standings, but enough to at least maybe put them in closer contention.

Jets sign Connor Hellebuyck to one-year, $2.25 million deal

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The Winnipeg Jets took care of some important business on Monday morning, as they re-signed goalie Connor Hellebuyck to a one-year, $2.25 million contract.

The two sides were scheduled to have an arbitration hearing on Aug. 1, but as expected, they were able to hammer out  a deal before reaching that point.

After being selected in the fifth round of the 2012 draft, Hellebuyck quickly became one of the best prospects in the Jets’ system.

The 24-year-old made his NHL debut in 2015-16. He posted 13-11-1 record with a 2.34 goals-against-average and a .918 save percentage. In 2016-17, he appeared in 56 games and finished with a 26-19-4 record, a 2.89 goals-against-average and a .907 save percentage.

Even though Hellebuyck will be back next season, the Jets will have a different look between the pipes. On July 1st, they inked Steve Mason to a two-year contract worth $8.2 million.

As has been the case over the last couple of seasons, Winnipeg will continue to have a crowded crease. On top of having Mason and Hellbuyck under contract, Michael Hutchinson still has one year left on his deal at $1.15 million.

It’ll be interesting to see how head coach Paul Maurice divides starts between Hellebuyck and Mason (assuming both are completely healthy).

Mason played in 58 games with the Flyers last season and he’s making almost double what Hellebuyck is making for now.