The cold, hard reality is this for the Winnipeg Jets: They’re likely only going to go as far this spring as Connor Hellebuyck’s game will take them.
Is that entirely fair to the netminder? Maybe not, although coach Paul Maurice took no issue with the question Monday.
“It’s completely fair because it’s accurate. So, he’s got a long-term deal. The goaltender should be the highest-paid player in your locker room based on the importance to it. No, really. You can be fantastic and technically perfect and world-class and you lose if your goaltender isn’t.
“And the opposite is true, you can stink the joint out and win a hockey game on your goaltender. It’s the National Goaltending League, for sure,” Maurice said following his team’s practice.
Bring it on, says Hellebuyck.
I’ve always thought that I’m a pressure player. But this is fun, this is why we play the game. For this kind of pressure.” -Connor Hellebuyck
“I do like pressure. I do. I think that brings out the best in people — or it can bring out the worst. I’ve always thought that I’m a pressure player. But this is fun, this is why we play the game. For this kind of pressure,” he said.
For the record, Hellebuyck isn’t the highest-paid player on the Jets. His $6.166-million salary places him behind Dustin Byfuglien for now, and Blake Wheeler when his extension kicks in next year. New deals for Patrik Laine, Kyle Connor, possibly Jacob Trouba and even Josh Morrissey could all surpass it.
And the fact is, this has not been the season many expected from Hellebuyck, not after he was a finalist for the Vezina Trophy last year and set a record for U.S.-born goaltenders with 44 regular-season wins, then added nine more in the post-season as the Jets made it to the Western Conference final.
Just look at his numbers this season. 10 fewer wins. A goals-against average that ballooned from 2.36 to 2.90. And a save percentage that dropped from .924 to .913. Hard to view that as anything but a step back.
Of course, it would be unfair to blame the dip entirely on him. The Jets haven’t exactly put up a wall in front of him, giving up way too many shots and high-quality scoring chances with some porous defence and egregious turnovers.
Hellebuyck said he feels his game is in a good place, but what else is he going to say, really? And while there have certainly been some impressive performances even when his team looked lost at times, he’s ultimately going to be judged by what happens these next few weeks or, perhaps, months.
“I think he’s been exceptional the last 2-1/2 months. He’s been right on his game.” -Paul Maurice
“He loves this time of year. He’s excited about it and I think he’s a guy that plays at a high emotional level and critiques his game. You play 60 minutes a night, you need more, right? You need something to drive you, and he’s wired for it,” said Maurice.
“I think he’s been exceptional the last 2-1/2 months. He’s been right on his game.”
The goaltending matchup is a fascinating one here, as St. Louis will have rookie phenom Jordan Binnington between the pipes, with the usually shaky Jake Allen behind him. Binnington has gone an incredible 24-5-1 with a 1.89 GAA and .927 save percentage in 32 appearances (30 starts) since being summoned from the American Hockey League.
“He’s done what he’s needed to do. He’s played great, he’s a good goalie. But at the other end we need to worry about our game. We need to force their nights to be not as easy and not so happy,” Hellebuyck said when I asked him about his counterpart.
The big question with Binnington is whether he wilts under the spotlight. Hockey history is littered with examples of goalies who made grand debuts, only to flame out nearly as quickly. Anyone out there remember Jim Carey? (That Washington netminder, not the rubber-faced Canadian actor).
“If you’re walking in thinking rookie goalie, you’re behind it. It doesn’t matter how many games he’s got in. Those guys feel good. He’s not a rookie, he’s got some fabulous NHL numbers. We would approach him as you would Pekka Rinne. You’re not sneaking any ugly ones behind him,” Maurice cautioned.
“My mind is right. I’m ready for the battle.” -Connor Hellebuyck
Funny, the Jets would love if Binnington can follow Rinne’s lead from last year. You’ll recall the Nashville netminder was yanked three times in the best-of-seven series last spring.
As for Hellebuyck, he isn’t looking at this as a personal battle between him and Binnington, even if that’s what playoff series often do come down to.
“You can’t really think like that. We’re a team in here. And every last guy needs to come and give their 100 per cent effort. That’s really all I’m focused on, making sure I’m giving my A-plus effort,” he said.
“If you see the other guy at the other end making saves you know that your game’s got to be A-plus. That’s playoffs, you’ve got to expect that. We’re really just worried about this team and the way we play,” he said.
Maurice has said all season that part of learning to be a true No. 1 goalie in the NHL is learning to navigate the highs and lows with an even temperament. And Hellebuyck clearly believes he’s done just that.
“My mind is right. I’m ready for the battle. This is going to be a fun time of year, especially with our crowd,” said Hellebuyck, who also believes last year’s lengthy playoff run will prove invaluable.
“We’re ready for a battle. That’s the basic experience we can use, now we know what kind of battle to expect and we’re going to bring it from the second that puck drops. I don’t know if comfortable is a word I would use. Excited. I’d use that word. I’ve got a lot of energy right now. I just can’t wait to use it. I love the pressure and I love the playoff setting.”
There was a suggestion Monday that perhaps the best approach to mitigate some of the pressure is just to treat every playoff game as just another date on the calender.
Hellebuyck quickly swatted that down the same way he’ll try to glove a Vladimir Tarasenko wrister.
“I don’t think it’s just another hockey game. You need to take one game at a time, I’ll go that simple,” he said.
“But this is what we live for. This is going to bring the city together, this is going to put a lot of smiles on people’s faces. This is what our dreams are about.”
Or, for some goalies, 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.