Jets’ playoff hopes alive thanks to Connor Hellebuyck

The first half of the 2019-20 NHL season went different than how the Jets expected. Injuries, slow starts offensively, and poor defense have put them outside the Western Conference playoff picture through 51 games.

Hope remains, however. Winnipeg is three points out of a wild card spot and six points behind the Stars for third place in the Central Division. The playoffs remain a reality because of Connor Hellebuyck, who was voted as Vezina Trophy winner in the Professional Hockey Writers Association’s midseason awards.

The 26-year-old Hellebuyck was in St. Louis last weekend attending his second All-Star Game. After a tough first half for the Jets, it was time for a much-needed break, which fell in line with their bye week.

Hellebuyck planned to “turn off the brain” and “put my mind on hold” and rest up for be an important final stretch. Through Thursday, he’s played the third-most minutes (2,318:40) and is the main reason why the Jets’ season hasn’t fallen apart.

“I think this break’s huge,” Hellebuyck said in St. Louis. “I wouldn’t say it’s ever been too much yet because I’ve managed it pretty well, and I’ve been turning my brain off when I need to. Definitely there’s some moments when I needed some rest and I think I got those. I think this is going to be really good for me now to just kind of wipe everything clean and come back right where I started at the beginning of the year.”

Hellebyuck for Vezina

Through 42 appearances Hellebuyck is leads the NHL in shutouts (four), is top 10 in even strength save percentage (.927) and has faced the most shots at 5-on-5 (1,030) among all goaltenders. The other stunning stat is his goals saved above average of 10.52, per Evolving Wild, which places him fifth. Of the four goalies ahead of him in that category none have come close to his 1885:25 time on ice. Buffalo’s Linus Ullmark is closest at 1572:10.

Hellebuyck’s strong stats on a mediocre Jets team are further highlighted by the fact that he’s faced the most high-danger shots against (283) in the NHL, per Natural Stat Trick. Combine them all and you could make an argument that, for the moment, he may deserve a place on a long list of Hart Trophy candidates as well.

After a down-ish year last season, Hellebuyck’s numbers are back to where they were in 2017-18 when he was a Vezina finalist and earned a six-year, $37M extension. He said he feels more patient and that there’s better balance in his game. “I feel way more on top of reads. I feel like I’m challenging very well, making more controlled saves,” he added.

No rest for the weary

As the Jets continue to ride Hellebuyck, his workload might challenge his career high of 64 starts that he made in 2017-18. He’s started 40 of Winnipeg’s 51 games and will continue to be relied upon for their playoff push.

Hellebuyck entered the break with a night off against Columbus, which came after he allowed 14 goals in three starts. He said he doesn’t feel worn down physically, but there have been times mentally he’s felt it.

“I think mental fatigue is worse than physical fatigue,” he said. “I could play 82 physically, but mentally there’s no way. There’s certain games that really drain on you mentally because you might not get a whole lot of shots but you have to read the play over and over again. Just because it doesn’t get to the net doesn’t mean it wasn’t a whole lot of mental effort just in case it did, right? I think that’s the biggest thing. 

“When you get a lot of pressure, you’re constantly making decisions. Not only that, but you’re trying to identify when is your moment, when is the moment you’re going to have to come and take a shot, and when is the moment you’re going to change the play. … That weighs on your brain, you know?”

The way Hellebuyck has continued to improve his game hasn’t gone unnoticed by his teammates. And they know just how important he is to their success.

“He doesn’t have any complacency in him,” said Jets forward Mark Scheifele. “He continues to work on his game, continues to come back every year a little better and he’s worked at it. His success isn’t just by chance or by luck he works at it. That’s something I always respect a lot is when a guy goes home and works on his game and gets better every year. That’s a very respectable quality.”

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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.

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