Entering the gates of Hell-ebuyck

IceCaps goaltender proving invaluable in Jets pipeline

Winnipeg jets logoGraphic by Caroline Norman

The 2014-15 season is proving to be an impressive campaign for Winnipeg Jets goaltenders. Starter Ondrej Pavelec’s form has reached commendable heights through the first half, posting the best numbers in his career.

Michael Hutchinson has been giving Pavelec a run for the starter’s job and is arguably the better of the two goaltenders, ranking in the league’s top three for both goals against and save percentage.

As the Jets inch closer to the playoffs, Pavelec and Hutchinson will duel it out to be Paul Maurice’s number-one man; however, observing the Winnipeg depth chart, Jets prospect Connor Hellebuyck will likely offer both goaltenders even more competition in the near future.

While Hellebuyck may not be a household name in Winnipeg, the 21-year-old cut his ties from NCAA hockey this season and turned pro with the St. John’s IceCaps. After just his maiden month of AHL experience, the inaugural winner of the Mike Richter Award recognizing the NCAA’s most outstanding goaltender, he had ousted NHL veteran Peter Budaj from the starter’s position in St. John’s.

His outstanding performance in November 2014, highlighted with two shutouts in a five-day span, earned AHL player of the week honours on Nov.24.

Heading into the New Year, the Michigan native’s strong presence in the IceCap net, along with Budaj’s inability to collect his first win of the season despite collecting 13 AHL appearances, has the pendulum fully swinging Hellebuyck’s way for the rest of the AHL campaign.

Despite the IceCaps’ Eastern Conference-worst 135 goals against and losing record midway through the season, Hellebuyck has undoubtedly emerged as one of the best goaltenders in the AHL, compiling a winning 17-11-2 record with three shutouts, and a 2.39 goals against average and 0.927 save percentage. Not too shabby for an AHL rookie.

Hellebuyck’s maturity and transition into pro hockey appear flawless, considering the130th overall selection in 2012 took part in the Jets’ training camp last season and the rookie camp in the last two years.

In front of the likes of St. John’s head coach Keith McCambridge and Jets goaltending coach Wade Flaherty, Hellebuyck impressed with his upright butterfly style, taking advantage of his six-foot-four frame to comfortably absorb high pucks into his body. His weakness with the puck is the only area where the former attendee of the University of Massachusetts Lowell needs improvement.

While it may be ludicrous to say that Hellebuyck’s stardom in the NHL is for certain, his performance so far this season in St. John’s illustrates his rich potential for dominance.

In early January, Hellebuyck was bestowed yet another honour, his inclusion to the Eastern Conference roster for the 2015 AHL All-Star festivities, a potential foreshadowing of what’s to come as he inches closer to the NHL.

While the Jets continue to favour Pavelec as their starting option, GM Kevin Cheveldayoff is surely aware of Hutchinson’s ability to fill a larger role and of the justifications for Hellebuyck’s NHL call-up.

After all, Eddie Pasquale’s draft-day trade to Washington opened the floodgates for Hutchinson’s full-time stint in the NHL, and Hellebuyck’s promotion into the IceCaps’ lineup.

Helle may have not frozen over the MTS Centre just yet, but his already exceptional spell in St. John’s may soon enough earn him a much-deserved landing in Winnipeg.