Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Winnipeg Jets.
The Winnipeg Jets probably should have made the playoffs more than they have over the past eight years, and they probably should have had more success once they got there. The biggest thing holding the organization back has always — always! — been goaltending. They probably stuck with Ondrej Pavelec for too long, and when they didn’t they were never able find a suitable replacement to challenge him for playing time or to take the job and run with it.
They finally found someone to do it this past season when Connor Hellebuyck put together one of the finest seasons in NHL history for an American-born goalie. He finished with the league lead in wins (44), recorded six shutouts, owned a .924 save percentage, did all of that over a league-high 67 regular season appearances, and earned himself a second-place finish in the Vezina Trophy voting behind only Nashville’s Pekka Rinne.
His development was probably the single biggest reason the team took the massive step forward it did and reached the Western Conference Final. Remember, the Jets were the sixth highest scoring team in the league the year before and allowed an almost identical number of shots on goal. Despite that they still missed the playoffs by seven points and finished 27th in the league in goals against, mostly because nobody in their net could stop the puck with any regularity.
Hellebuyck changed that this past season (helping the Jets improve by 27 points in the standings and climb to fifth in the league in goals against) and carried that regular season performance over to the playoffs.
So why is he the one under pressure in Winnipeg this season?
For starters, if the Jets are going to make another deep run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs he is going to have to play a significant role in it and probably come close to matching what he did a year ago. No team in the NHL knows how much a poor goaltending performance can sink the entire team the way the Jets do, and even with their dynamic offense they showed the previous year that they still need a strong goaltending performance to compete.
Then there is the six-year, $37 million contract extension he signed over the summer as a restricted free agent. That is a massive investment to make in a goalie (it makes him the sixth-highest paid goalie in the NHL) when we’re still not quite sure what he is as a goalie.
Projecting goalie performance from year-to-year can be a maddening task for even the best and most experienced talent evaluators, and at this point here is what we know about Hellebuyck:
- He has been excellent at every level prior to the NHL, including the NCAA where he owned a .945 save percentage at UMass-Lowell, and the American Hockey League (better than .920 over two years).
- His brief NHL track record includes a promising, 26-game debut during the 2015-16 season, a big regression in 2016-17 in his first year receiving the bulk of the playing time, and a great season in 2017-18.
Even with his great NCAA and AHL performance there is still some mystery here as to what he is as an NHL goalie because we have seen a little bit of everything from him in each of his first three seasons in the league.
For all of the talent the Jets have throughout their lineup (and there is a lot of it) there is probably no player on the roster that will have a bigger hand in how far they are able to go in the playoffs than their starting goalie, who also has to prove he is worth the $37 million contract he just signed.