Winnipeg Jets’ goalie Connor Hellebuyck may see his incredible 2019-20 season go to waste due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The NHL season is currently on pause due to the coronavirus with no timetable for a potential return.
At the time of the pause on March 12, 2020, Helleybuck ranked second among all NHL goalies in wins (31) and first in shutouts (6). His .922 save percentage was seventh-best in the league, while his 2.57 GAA was 14th-best. As a result of Hellebuyck’s stellar play, the Jets were occupying a playoff spot at the time the NHL went on pause.
We need to take a closer look at Hellebuyck’s performance in 2019-20 to really get an idea of how special it was and to see just how valuable he has been to Winnipeg.
Overcome Major Defensive Loss
Almost every expert projected the Jets to take a major step backwards in 2019-20 after the team finished second in the Central Division the year prior and lost in the playoffs to the eventual Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues. The big reason people weren’t confident in the Jets heading into this season were some major losses on the blueline.
The Jets lost three of their top defenseman in Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers and Dustin Byfuglien during the 2019 offseason. Trouba was traded to the Rangers in exchange for Neal Pionk and a first-round pick draft pick, while Myers was a UFA and decided to sign an expensive five-year, $30 million contract with Vancouver. Trouba led all Jets blueliners in scoring in 2018-19 (50 pts) while also ranking second on the team in average ice time (24:22). Myers was often a scapegoat in Winnipeg, but he was still a solid presence in 2018-19, logging over 20 minutes of average ice time and racking up 31 points.
OFFICIAL: #NYR have acquired defenseman Jacob Trouba from the Winnipeg Jets in exchange for Neal Pionk and the 20th overall pick in the 2019 #NHLDraft (originally from WPG). pic.twitter.com/rZTXYv4YG1
— New York Rangers (@NYRangers) June 17, 2019
The Jets also lost one of their top depth blueliners in Ben Chiarot, who signed a three-year contract with the Montreal Canadiens in 2019 free agency. Chariot wasn’t on the same level as the three other Winnipeg rearguards mentioned above, but he was viewed as a quality defender who could play on your first pair or your third pair. In 78 games for the Jets in 2018-19, Chariot averaged 18:37 of ice time, recorded 20 points and was a plus-6. He’s currently playing on Montreal’s first defensive pairing with Shea Weber.
To make matters worse, the Jets actually thought they were going to have the veteran Byfuglien on their opening night roster to help lessen the losses of the other defensemen. Byfuglien had been a machine ever since arriving in Winnipeg and was leading the team in average ice time (24:22) before suffering an ankle injury. Byfuglien caught the Jets and the entire hockey world by surprise when he failed to report to training camp and didn’t play a single game for the team in 2019-20.
Simply put, aside from Josh Morrissey, the Jets lost their three best defenseman in the 2019 offseason. Connor Hellebuyck was entering the 2019-20 season with a defense group that was unlike one he had every played behind before. With Pionk, Morrissey, Anthony Bitetto, Tucker Poolman, Dmitry Kulikov, Ville Heinola and Carl Dahlstrom making up Winnipeg’s opening night defense roster, the Jets were believed to have one of the worst defenses in the NHL when the puck dropped on the 2019-20 season.
Hellebuyck Faced Onslaught of Rubber
Considering all the major losses on Winnipeg’s blueline during the 2019 offseason, it should come as no surprise that Helleybuck was the busiest goaltender in the NHL in 2019-20. The 26-year-old made a league-high 1,656 saves on 1458 shots in 58 games during the 2019-20 campaign. Out of all NHL goalies who faced at least 1,200 shots, Hellebuyck’s .922 save percentage was the best of the bunch.
— NHL (@NHL) March 7, 2020
Despite facing an average of 32 shots per game, Hellebuyck still managed to lead all goalies with six shutouts on the season. He accomplished the feat despite playing behind a very weak and inexperienced blueline. At the time of the NHL’s pause, Winnipeg’s top-six had an average of 309 games career games played and featured no player who had ever recorded more than 31 points prior to 2019-20. This blueline pales in comparison to some of the powerhouse teams in the NHL with elite defensive talent.
One of the major reasons Hellebuyck started all but 15 of Winnipeg’s 71 games in 2019-20 is due to the lacklustre play of backup Laurent Brossoit. The Jets’ backup goaltender got torched for 13 goals in his first three appearances of the season and the team clearly didn’t have much confidence in his abilities. The Jets were relying on their starting goaltender on almost a nightly basis to bail them out. To illustrate just how valuable Hellebuyck was to the Jets, consider that Winnipeg only outshot their opponent in nine of Hellebuyck’s 31 wins in 2019-20.
Hellebuyck’s Elite Advanced Stats
When you take a closer look at Hellebuyck’s advanced stats, you can see why he was going to be a serious contender for the 2020 Vezina trophy. A great stat to measure goalie performance is 5-on-5 save percentage. When you take away the slam dunk power-play goals and narrow in on an equal playing field, you can get an idea of just how good a goaltender really is. Out of all goalies who faced at least 1,000 shots in 2019-20, Hellebuyck’s .929 save percentage at 5-on-5 was tops in the NHL. It ranks fifth in general among all goalies with at least 30 games played.
Hellebuyck led all NHL goalies with a 115.62 XG Against in 2019-20. GSAA is a stat that calculates the number of goals allowed by a goaltender compared to the number of goals that would have been allowed by a league average goalie. Hellebuyck recorded an incredible 14.33 goals saved above average in 2019-20, which ranks third behind only Anton Khudobin (18.62) and Tuukka Rask (19.69).
Hellebuyck also faced a very large amount of high-danger chances in 2019-20. The Winnipeg starting goalie faced a league-high 412 high-danger shots against this season. No other goalie even faced 400 high-danger shots. Hellebuyck led the league with 347 high-danger saves and also recorded a .842 high-danger save percentage, which ranks fourth among all goalies who faced at least 300 high-dangers shots. Rask’s .876 HDSV% is tops in the league, but he only faced 186 high-danger shots behind Boston’s elite defense group.
Jets Could Have Made a Run
What is most disappointing about Hellebuyck’s incredible season is that it may be all for nothing. Even though many remain optimistic the NHL will be able to find a way to hand out the Stanley Cup in 2020, it’s becoming more and more likely with each passing day that the season will be cancelled due to COVID-19. So how far could Winnipeg have gone in 2019-20?
At the time of the NHL’s pause, Winnipeg occupied the first Wildcard spot in the Western Conference with 80 points in 71 games. According to Power Rankings Guru, the Jets’ remaining schedule at the time of the hiatus was the fourth-hardest in the entire NHL. All but one of Winnipeg’s remaining 11 games were against teams in a playoff position, including two clashes with the high-powered Avalanche. Could Hellebuyck have continued his superb play against these elite opponents and led the Jets into the playoffs? All the signs point to yes.
At the time of the hiatus, Hellebuyck was arguably playing his best hockey of the season. He was on a four-game win streak that included a shutout against Vegas and consecutive 38-save victories against Edmonton and Arizona. Who was next on the schedule? Stops in Calgary and Vancouver. In his career against the Flames, Hellebuyck owns a stellar .932 save percentage. He’s also dominated Vancouver in his career with a 7-1-1 record and insane .952 save percentage in eight games against the Canucks. There was a great path in place for Hellebuyck path to continue his incredible season, lead the Jets into the postseason and capture the Vezina Trophy.
What you’ll often hear about the NHL playoffs is “just get in”. It’s a best-of-seven series and any team can beat another team. We’ve seen it time-and-time again, including as recent as 2019 when the eighth-seeded Blue Jackets upset the top-seeded Lightning in the first round. The Jets have been a playoff team for two straight years and made it to the Conference Final as recently as 2018. When you have an offense loaded with talent such as Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler, Patrik Laine, Nikolaj Ehlers and Kyle Connor, to go with a goalie who is arguably the best in the entire league at his position, there’s no telling just how far you can go in a 16-team playoff.
If the 2019-20 NHL season is cancelled, we can’t forget what Connor Hellebuyck did in the Winnipeg Jets’ crease. He entered this season with a defense that could barely be considered NHL-caliber. Despite all the offseason losses on the blueline and the lack of defensive talent in front of him, Hellebuyck posted some absurd stats and had the Jets occupying a playoff position before the NHL went on pause due to COVID-19. He was the busiest goaltender in the league in 2019-20 and could have led this team on a special run in the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs.