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Under Pressure: Connor Hellebuyck

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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.

[Jets Day: 2017-18 Review | Breakthrough | Three Questions]

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.

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.

Roberto Luongo retires after 19 NHL seasons

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As the Florida Panthers prepare to be “aggressive” when the NHL free agency market opens next Monday, they’ll now definitely be in need of a goaltender after Roberto Luongo announced his retirement on Wednesday.

In an open letter to fans, the 40-year-old Luongo said he listened to his body and felt that now was the right time to walk away.

I love the game so much, but the commitment I required to prepare, to keep my body ready, has become overwhelming. Since I had my hip surgery a couple of years ago, I’ve been showing up two hours before every practice and three hours before every game to work out my hip. Even at night, whether it was the night before a game or even a night off, there I was rolling out, doing strengthening exercises. My entire life revolved around recovery, strengthening and making sure I was ready to go the next day.

As May rolled around, I was looking at the calendar and I found myself dreading getting back into my routine. My offseason workouts always start in the third week of May and I wasn’t looking forward to getting back in the gym. There’s a lot of work and effort required and I found my body telling me that it didn’t want to go through it.

Then thinking about getting onto the ice in late July, for the first time in my career, I wasn’t excited about it. That was the sign for me. It’s not that I don’t love playing hockey anymore, but I had to listen to my body. I’m at the point where my body was telling me it just needed a rest. It didn’t really want to get going.

The fourth overall pick in the 1997 NHL Draft by the New York Islanders, Luongo finishes his 22-year career with 1,044 games played (second-most by a goaltender) and 489 wins (third all-time) and 77 shutouts (ninth all-time) between the Islanders, Panthers and Vancouver Canucks. He’s also one of only three goalies to have played 1,000 games in the NHL. He won a Jennings Trophy and was three-time finalist for the Vezina Trophy (2004, 2007, 2011), a finalist for the Hart Trophy (2007) and was a finalist for the Bill Masterton Trophy (2018).

More to come…

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Flyers re-sign Brian Elliott for one year

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Another day, another roster transaction for the Philadelphia Flyers.

The team announced on Wednesday afternoon that it has signed veteran goalie Brian Elliott to a one-year contract, keeping him in Philadelphia for another season.

He will make $2 million during the 2019-20 season.

“Brian has played well for us the last two seasons,” said general manager Chuck Fletcher in a statement released by the team. “He is a proven, quality goaltender who competes and battles hard every time he has the net. We are excited to have him rejoin our team.”

The expectation here is that Elliott will serve as the top backup to Carter Hart who looks poised to take over as the team’s No. 1 goalie and, hopefully, bring some consistency to a position that has plagued the Flyers organization for decades.

Elliott spent the past two seasons with the Flyers and is coming off of a 2018-19 season that saw him record a .909 save percentage in 26 appearances. He was one of eight goalies to appear in a game for the team this past season, an absurd number even for a team like the Flyers that is always burning through goalies at a ridiculous rate.

The team had also reportedly been interesting in re-signing Cam Talbot, acquired at the trade deadline in a trade with the Edmonton Oilers, but with Elliott back in the mix it would seem as if Talbot will be headed to the open market as an unrestricted free agent.

Elliott’s career has been all over the map with some individual seasons that have placed him near the top of the league, and other seasons where he has badly struggled. At 34 his days as a starter are probably behind him, but if all goes according to plan with Hart the Flyers won’t need him to be anything more than a capable backup.

Related: Flyers’ Fletcher continues to be the anti-Hextall

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.

Devils eager for offseason splashes to help deliver wins

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VANCOUVER — The New Jersey Devils entered the off-season with one marketing plan. After April 9, the night they won the NHL draft lottery, those plans changed. Two and a half months later, the morning after they selected Jack Hughes with the No. 1 overall pick, they acquired P.K. Subban in a trade with the Nashville Predators. Those plans changed once again.

“The news over the last 24 hours will challenge our marketing and content team and everyone else to ramp it up,” Devils president Hugh Weber told NBC Sports during draft weekend in Vancouver. “But we’ve been preparing behind the scenes, adding resources and getting things in place preparing for success, preparing for more demand. The team will be ready. What that actually looks like in terms of campaigns and all that other stuff, I’m not sure yet. Ray’s not done yet.”

Weber was the first person in the organization to know that the franchise had won the lottery and the right to make the first overall selection. The lottery process played out behind closed doors hours 90 minutes before the television broadcast announced the results. There, Weber and the other NHL team representatives were sequestered watching as the ping pong balls were pulled and the unique combinations were drawn. 

Through the excitement of knowing the Devils would be picking first, Weber couldn’t share in that joy as the reps were forbidden from leaving the room until the broadcast ended and he certainly was going to withhold his exuberance in front of the teams that lost out on the top spot.

Once the lottery knew became public, Devils fans were eager to look toward the 2019-20 NHL season. Post-lottery, the franchise moved into the top 10 in the league in new ticket sales. After drafting Hughes and later acquiring Subban, they had sales staff working to capitalize on the excitement.

“I haven’t gotten numbers but there’s been a lot of activity and I think you’re going to see in a week’s time we anticipate an acceleration of not only people who were on the fence that didn’t renew yet, were kind of waiting to see, but also those that have been with us over a long time who said, ‘OK, I get it now, you guys are using that cap space just as you said you would and let’s get after it,'” Weber said.

[MORE: Jack Hughes and the impact of USA Hockey]

While they’ve had time to prepare a plan for introducing Hughes to the market, Subban is his own marketing team. With over one million Twitter followers and 900,000-plus more on Instagram, his personality and work in the community will help sell the Devils.

The additions of Hughes and Subban not only upped the excitement levels in the Devils’ fan base, but the New York Rangers’ acquiring Jacob Trouba and drafting Kaapo Kakko second overall revived a rivalry between the two franchises. The Devils have long been on the outside in a crowded New York metropolitan market and they’re hoping this past weekend, plus whatever happens during the free agency period, will allow them to gain ground on their regional rivals.

“When hockey is competitive and the rivalries are strong in New York, I think it’s good for the NHL,” said Weber. “The Islanders are no slouches, they have a good core coming. You’ve got Lou [Lamoriello] and you’ve got the Rangers and us, even the Flyers now with [GM] Chuck Fletcher, there’s some good narratives happening in and around the Metropolitan, and we’re glad. If you stack up the teams in the East, it’s going to be tough. It’s going to be a very competitive conference. I think that’s just going to push us all. But generally, those types of rivalries, those types of stories are good for business.”

The Devils missed the playoffs last season coming off a surprising 2017-18 campaign that saw them play postseason hockey for the first time since 2012. Last season wasn’t necessarily a step back in Weber’s eyes. He viewed the playoff year as playing with “house money” and, according to their plan, the franchise is ahead of schedule.

“We never saw this as a linear progression,” Weber said. “We looked at are we making progress, are our prospects and our pipeline making progress, are they developing a team, does [head coach] John Hynes have a foothold on the culture here, is there a plan that we can continue working at? The answer was yes, which is why we extended Ray [Shero], we extended John, we extended the coaching staff, we extended virtually everybody on the hockey staff because this part of a linear, longer plan. We believe that patience in sports is one of the great arbitrage because too often teams and/or partners and owners get too impatient and want to make a change just for change’s sake. 

“I wouldn’t say the lottery pick did anything more than to say it kind of accelerated a little bit because when you have the potential of the fifth or sixth pick, you might not see that player on your roster for a few more years, where now you have an impact player, an elite player that’s going to potentially contribute right off the bat. It helped us accelerate our plans and put things in place, not to rush anything. We’ve said over and over again there are no shortcuts to the top. There are shortcuts to the middle, but we don’t want to be in the middle.”

Keeping stability in the organization is key to the Devils in seeing progress. They believe that Hynes has helped create an identity for his team and that despite a playoff-less season, he kept them competitive through the end of the 82-game schedule. When Shero was hired in 2015 he made it a goal to ensure the franchise was respected again. A draft weekend splash certainly got people talking and excited about the on-ice product for next season. There’s still the Taylor Hall extension to take care of and then more work to be done when free agency opens, but the organization sees itself on the right track. But in the end the results will speak for themselves.

“In terms of fans and how fans have seen us, we have to earn that and it’s going to take some time to have the consistency,” Weber said. “Now moves like we did [this weekend], those are big splashes and they’re great stories, but unfortunately great stories don’t win games. It’s going to come down to team performance. We’ve been bullish, even without the additions that we’ve had, is that to see the progression of these prospects coming up and watching them being close to it. We think there’s going to be a few offshoots out of there that will surprise some people as well.”

MORE DEVILS COVERAGE:
Devils take Jack Hughes with No. 1 overall pick
Shero on Subban trade, Hall’s future with Devils
Devils-Rangers rivalry gets boost thanks to Hughes, Kakko

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Vegas faces offseason moves to get under salary cap

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LAS VEGAS (AP) — The Vegas Golden Knights answered one offseason question when they signed William Karlsson to an eight-year contract.

Now they have to get under the salary cap before the start of next season.

Per Capfriendly.com, the Golden Knights’ projected cap hit is currently $89,024,999. The NHL recently announced next year’s limit will be $81.5 million, up $2 million from last season. That means the team needs to shave a little more than $7.5 million to clear the cap.

”It can get cumbersome for some teams in the middle of the summer, but typically it doesn’t matter once you get to the season,” Golden Knights president George McPhee said before the start of the team’s development camp on Tuesday. ”The plan was to build a team the best we could. Every once in a while, you get tight on the cap in this business. We’re there now, we’ll manage it and we will hopefully be in a much better place going forward with lots of cap space if we ever need it.”

McPhee said he tendered qualifying offers to each of the team’s restricted free agents, and now it’s a wait-and-see approach. He added he isn’t worried about the lingering David Clarkson contract, and ”really isn’t the issue that people think it is because you can just replace that salary at the right time.”

The Golden Knights agreed to take on Clarkson’s contract from Columbus, which parted with a first- and second-round pick in exchange, while negotiating for Vegas to pick Karlsson in the 2017 expansion draft. But Clarkson’s NHL career is likely over due to a chronically injured back, and the Golden Knights will create some cap space when he goes on injured reserve.

Brandon Pirri, Ryan Carpenter, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Deryk Engelland are eligible for unrestricted free agency. Young forwards Pirri and Carpenter may no longer fit in Vegas’ scheme with Alex Tuch signed through the 2025-26 season, and Erik Haula expected back after missing much of last season with a knee injury. Bellemare and Engelland have expressed interest in staying in Las Vegas, but could be headed elsewhere.

Then there is forward Cody Eakin and defenseman Colin Miller, who have garnered plenty of attention from other teams.

Eakin, who is coming off a career season, is due to make $3.85 million next year, while Miller, who struggled toward the end of last season, is due $3,875,000.

”We are going to have to make a few moves,” McPhee said. ”We’ve planned for that; we are going through that exercise right now. When we’re done, we’ll talk about it and explain it.”

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