Connor Hellebuyck could not have been more direct when asked on Wednesday at Winnipeg Jets training camp about what’s next for him to conquer following his Vezina Trophy-winning season in 2019-20.
“Now the only thing that matters is the Stanley Cup,” said the 27-year-old Michigan native very confidently during a zoom call session with the media.
“I’d love to win another Vezina, that would be great. But it’s time. I’m in my prime. The team is in its prime. It’s time to win a Stanley Cup. Every day has to be building toward that.”
While most prognosticators don’t quite see the Jets having that kind of a season in 2020-21, Hellebuyck is seen as the great equalizer for his team’s 5-on-5 defensive deficiencies, according to the evidence provided by analytics. And while Hellebuyck accepts the significant role he will have to play, he also put the onus on each of his teammates to play at the top of their games if the Jets are to defy the experts.
“Because at the end of the day, that’s how it works. If you bring the best version of yourself — and it doesn’t have to be every single day — but if you bring it the majority of the days out there and the guys that might be tired, a little more fatigued, then you start picking up the slack and vice versa,” said a guy who is building a resume to be considered one of the best ever fifth-round selections in the history of the NHL draft.
“I think everyone on this team needs to feel they are bringing their best version of themselves every day, and continuing to improve that best version. When Stanley Cup time comes around, we should have a good unit built together.”
Hellebuyck says he doesn’t mind seeing a lot of shots. It’s what he thrives on. And while earlier in his career he might have occasionally shown some frustration in getting scored on in practice drills, that is clearly no longer the case.
“I want to keep improving every day. I want to keep failing out there,” Hellebuyck admitted following his White team’s 3-2 loss to Team Blue in Wednesday’s scrimmage.
“You don’t learn from your success. You learn from your failure. So the more these guys score on me, the better I am going to become.”
Still to be sorted out is how many of the 56 games this shortened season the Jets’ workhorse netminder will play. He said 40-45 is the range he’s looking at. Since taking over as Winnipeg’s number one keeper over the past four seasons, Hellebuyck has played in 244 of the 317 games, which works out to just under 77 per cent. In a 56-game schedule, 43 games would be the equivalent.
“There’s a lot that goes into that, just based on play and fatigue levels,” explained Hellebuyck. “We’ve briefly talked about it and I’m a guy who likes to play a lot. But who knows what’s going to happen. I could get even hotter and I could go even more. Or LB could be very hot and we could be in a playoff spot and then we start riding him a bit to give me some rest.”
LB — backup goalie Laurent Brossoit — would certainly not mind if the latter scenario was to play out/. He said he’d like to see action in 20 or so games. And Brossoit qualified that as a number he just picked out of his head and really hadn’t discussed with anyone.
“There comes a lot of challenges when you play behind a Vezina winner. But it’s how you take the situation and there’s a lot of positives in a situation like this,” said the 27-year-old former junior star with the WHL’s Edmonton Oil Kings.
“I can learn from watching a Vezina winner day-to-day and see what it takes. And seeing that I’m not far off, and that it’s quite possible — and I can compete on the other side of the ice with him in practice. I like that challenge. And if there’s someone you want to end up being better than, it’s probably the guy that everyone’s considering to be the best right now.”
Jets Head Coach Paul Maurice says he leaves figuring out the goaltenders’ schedule to position coach Wade Flaherty. But he thinks that process might be a little more straightforward than usual because of the condensed schedule.
“You go back two years ago, we had a spread-out schedule at the start and Connor — his complaint was he didn’t feel like he could get into a rhythm,” Maurice said.
“There almost weren’t enough games for him. I’m trying to fit LB into games — and I know that Connor felt healthy and he wanted to play those games. I didn’t want LB sitting out too long. The point is, in a condensed schedule your number one goalie can take the day off and totally feel like he’s still in the rhythm the next time he goes into the net.”
Maurice did share there is one portion of the schedule very early on where he could rotate his goalies on an alternating basis. That’s from Jan. 18-26, when the Jets play six times in a nine-day stretch. But as always, the coach found some humour in the situation when asked about Hellebuyck’s preference for games to get into this season.
“I’m surprised he dropped it to 45 to be honest with you.”