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Central Intelligence: Hellebuyck has Jets flying high

Goaltender helps turn Winnipeg's fortunes, has Jets sitting near top of division early

by Dan Myers @1DanMyers /

One of the early-season surprises in the NHL has been the play of the Winnipeg Jets.

In a deep and talented Central Division, with plenty of postseason pedigree among the contenders, the Jets have put themselves in quality position as the regular season hits the quarter pole. Winnipeg began Friday in second place in the Central, four points behind the division-leading St. Louis Blues and one point clear of the defending conference champion Nashville Predators.

After the Jets finished fifth in the Central last season, seven points back of Western Conference wild cards Nashville and Calgary, one main reason for Winnipeg's brisk early start is quite simple: goaltender Connor Hellebuyck.

The former University of Massachusetts Lowell star is one of 11 players aged 24 years or younger on the Jets roster and, like many of those 11, is considered the future of the team at his position.

Among the troop of young players making an impact -- and there's plenty of them in Winnipeg -- are Patrik Laine, Nikolaj Ehlers, Kyle Connor, Mark Scheifele and Jacob Trouba. Along with veterans Blake Wheeler, Dustin Byfuglein and Bryan Little and Tyler Myers, the Jets have one of the most promising lineups in the NHL.

Offense wasn't a problem for the club last season. Winnipeg finished seventh in the NHL with 246 goals scored, a number that ranked second among Central Division teams (Minnesota scored 263 goals). 

The issue was on defense, and more specifically, in goal. Despite its lofty ranking among league offenses, Winnipeg actually finished with a minus-9 goal differential, giving up 255 goals -- fourth-most in the NHL.

Enter Hellebuyck, who has rebounded nicely after a sophomore slump that placed him near the bottom of the League statistically last year. Hellebuyck's 2.89 goals-against average and .907 save percentage last season simply weren't good enough.

Veteran Ondrej Pavelec, the franchise's leader in nearly every statistical category for goalies, spent a bulk of the season in the AHL, starting just eight games for the Jets and posting a 3.68 goals against and .888 save percentage. Michael Hutchinson had numbers slightly worse that Hellebuyck's in 20 starts, posting a sub-3 goals against and a .903 save percentage.

The shoddy goaltending forced the Jets' hand over the summer. Pavelec signed with the Rangers to be Henrik Lundqvist's backup, while Hutchinson is back in the American Hockey League. 

To push Hellebuyck, the Jets inked veteran Steve Mason to a two-year, $8.2 million contract. At a salary cap hit of $4.1 million, Mason was signed to get a bulk of the starts.

Early in the season, Mason did. He got the Opening Night nod against the Toronto Maple Leafs and promptly allowed five goals in just over two periods of action.

His next time out, he surrendered six goals to the Calgary Flames.

That's when the club turned to Hellebucyk, who has responded in a big way.

Mason has started just twice since the game in Calgary, with Hellebuyck earning 12 starting assignments since. In that span, Hellebuyck has lost just once in regulation, posting a 10-1-2 with a sparkling 2.29 goals against and a .930 save percentage, numbers that were dinged following his worst start of the season Nov. 10, when he allowed five goals to the Vegas Golden Knights in just two periods of action.

He responded by stopping 33 of 34 shots his next time out in getting back on track. 

"This was definitely my redemption game," Hellebuyck told the Winnipeg Free Press after the game. "Any time you get pulled, you have to enter strong, and I'm glad the guys played well in front of me."

With Winnipeg already boasting one of the deepest and most talented young cores in the NHL, the sky is the limit for the Jets if Hellebuyck can maintain his early start to the campaign.

"He's played very well at the start of the year. He had a tougher night there in Vegas, but it was the first time that he probably got off the ice and didn't like his performance," Jets coach Paul Maurice told the Winnipeg Free Press. "So, he comes right back and settles in. That's mentally important for him.

"Confidence; if you've got enough of a foundation in your game... goalies will always have those kind of games like he had in Vegas. The more confidence you have in that foundation, the easier it is to find it after a tough night."

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