Connor Hellebuyck isn’t waking up in a cold sweat with visions of being under siege as a barrage of vulcanized rubber comes his way.
But the No. 1 Winnipeg Jets goaltender admits there could be some challenging nights on the horizon, thanks to an extreme makeover on the blue-line that could put even more pressure on him to hold down the proverbial fort.
“It absolutely could be the case because we’re going to have some new guys coming in, learning our system and getting the chemistry going,” Hellebuyck said Monday following his skate with the majority of his teammates at Bell MTS Iceplex in advance of the start of training camp later this week.
Defencemen Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot are all gone via trade and free agency, representing half of Winnipeg’s top six when everyone was healthy last year. Returning regulars Dustin Byfuglien, Josh Morrissey and Dmitry Kulikov will be joined by Neal Pionk, Nathan Beaulieu, Sami Niku and Tucker Poolman.
“(Trouba, Myers and Chiarot), you definitely don’t want to see them go but it’s the nature of the business. I’m happy for them, because I want them to be happy, but at the end of the day we’re going to make the best team possible and grow together and do what we have to do,” Hellebuyck said.
“I think you’ll see some guys step up. Maybe my game might be a little harder for the first couple games but I’m very prepared for that. I had a great summer, my mind’s right and I’m ready to go battle. I know the guys… are ready to do the same and we’re going to build this together.”
Yeah, hockey is indeed a team game. But how Hellebuyck responds to the challenges ahead will be one of the key storylines of this coming season, as his play is going to go a long way to determining the ultimate fate of this squad.
Will the 26-year-old Michigan product regain his Vezina Trophy-finalist form of the 2017-18 season (44-11-9, 2.36 GAA, .924 save percentage), one in which he set all kinds of franchise records and helped get his team to the Western Conference final? Or can we expect the Hellebuyck of last year (34-23-3, 2.90 GAA, .913 save percentage), the one who struggled with consistency and seemed to take a big step back, as did many of his teammates?
The always-confident Hellebuyck is betting on himself to rebound quite nicely, thank you very much.
“Oh, absolutely. I’ve already improved,” he insisted. “I already see it in the video. Every year I like to go back and watch a little bit of video and I can already tell this summer has already made a huge improvement.”
So what went wrong last year? In addition to long-term injuries to Morrissey and Byfuglien, Hellebuyck admitted that increased expectations — both internally and externally — and a six-year, $37-million contract extension he signed last summer began to take a toll as the season went from a red-hot start to an ice-cold finish.
Coach Paul Maurice described Hellebuyck’s struggles as something all young goaltenders typically go through once they are handed the starting reins. And Hellebuyck agreed that it was a painful, but perhaps necessary, step.
“Now I’ve gone through it and now I understand the mental side of it, of having a big contract and being leaned on a bit. And now I’m extremely prepared. And you know what? I’m really excited for it,” he said.
“I thought early in the year I had a great start, and then I started expecting too much out of myself and gripping it a little too tight, wanting to do more and more and more. And then once I sat back and realized that I just need to do my job and do my thing — I’m good enough, I just need to put in the work, just go and play — that’s when my mind really got at ease and I was able to get ahead of the game.”
Hellebuyck was speaking for the first time since his team was eliminated from the playoffs in the opening round last April; he didn’t appear days later when most of the players met the media for a final time before going their separate ways for the summer.
He admits he was still stinging from the abrupt end to the season, which he’s used as motivation for his off-season training.
“I went a little heavier in the gym. Had a really good summer. Skated well. The mind was right and the confidence was there. So I’m excited to get after it,” he said.
He’s also excited to have a couple of his closest friends back in the fold. Laurent Brossoit re-signed with the Jets and will continue to work in a supporting role as the backup pushing for increased playing time. And Eric Comrie inked a new deal last weekend to provide depth on the farm with the Manitoba Moose.
Hellebuyck, Brossoit and Comrie all attend the same summer training program.
“We all get along so well. We golfed a lot and we all had a blast. That helps, it takes the mental grind off of it,” he said.
And while he’s happy not to have to worry about his own contract situation, Hellebuyck admitted he’s keeping a close eye on what’s happening with young snipers Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor. Both remain unsigned with training camp set to officially begin Friday, and their potential absence looms large.
“It’s kind of the nature of the business. If you ask me, would I love to have those guys here? Absolutely. I would love to see them here. But it’s a business and they need to be happy, they need to sign the right deals. Once they’re here I know they’re going to step right in,” he said.
With so much uncertainty about the roster, the Jets are no longer seen as a top pick to win the Stanley Cup, as they were a year ago. Now, many pundits figure they’ll be in a fight just to make the playoffs.
That suits Hellebuyck just fine.
“Maybe it gives us a little bit of motivation. I try to stay out of the media and the nitpicks. People are just breaking down our team way too much. It all comes down to how is this locker room going to come together and how mentally prepared are the guys,” he said.
The difference between a dream season and the stuff of nightmares.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.
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