For the past four NHL seasons, Connor Hellebuyck of the Winnipeg Jets has been one of the league’s most active netminders in the “high volume of shots” category. And then there is the degree of difficulty involved with many of those opposition scoring chances.
So it should come as no surprise that the item at the top of GM Kevin Cheveldayoff’s to-do list this summer was to find a way to ratchet down the number of games Hellebuyck has to stand on his head this coming season.
Certainly, the addition of top-four caliber defensemen Brenden Dillon and Nate Schmidt was a huge skate stride in the right direction. But the day after Wednesday’s 3-2 preseason win over Calgary, Hellebuyck told reporters he feels the team’s expectations of being a top ten team this season go beyond the acquisitions of Dillon and Schmidt.
“I’m not going to say that this team’s all of a sudden ten times better because we made a few additions. I think the additions are going to be great pieces,” said the former Vezina Trophy winner following Thursday’s practice. “I think it’s more of the system we’re implementing and the guys buying in – the fact that we’re coming in with these expectations. We know what to expect out of each other and where to be; there are no growing pains.”
In his first two preseason starts, a 5-1 win over Edmonton and Wednesday night’s 3-2 decision over Calgary, Hellebuyck faced just 18 shots in each game. Head coach Paul Maurice is hopeful that will be the norm, and not the exception, with the understanding that far tougher tests are yet to come in the regular season.
“We’d love for him to get bored in the net some nights,” said the veteran bench boss. But Maurice also cited an example of former Ranger great Mike Richter’s win-loss record when he faced more than 40 shots. “It’s incredible. He’d get into a rhythm on high-volume shots and win. So I think when you get a lot of action, especially early, you get into a rhythm. You get really focused and really sharp. And if you don’t, that’s tough.”
A prime example was Wednesday’s game which saw the Flames credited with just three shots on goal. And Hellebuyck admits, he was thinking after the game he may have to take on the role of the proverbial Maytag Repairman, where there’s a lot of watching and waiting for something to actually break down.
“I’m going to have to get used to games like this because of the style that we’re playing and the team that we’ve built is different than previous years,” said the leading candidate to start in goal for Team USA in the 2022 Olympic Hockey Tournament in Beijing next February.
“I might not be needed as much, but I’ve got to be ready when I am. I thought the guys playing in front of me were great. The team defense was awesome.”
It was the first time in the preseason Winnipeg went with what was an NHL defense. The one absentee was Logan Stanley who is nursing what Maurice has described as a minor lower-body injury, so he was replaced on the third pairing for that game by Nathan Beaulieu.
The Jets blocked 19 shots and forced Calgary to shoot off-target on another 14 occasions – a level of execution that pleased the coach, but again with the caveat that two points in the standings were not yet at stake.
“It’s not a direct line, so we don’t walk in and say we’re not going to give up any shots and become this defensive juggernaut. I don’t think that would utilize our talents,” explained Maurice. “But there’s enough experience on this team that we can show an interest in heart and compete when we don’t have the puck. That takes a little bit of maturity.”
And so does the willingness and understanding that improvement is a daily process. Hellebuyck, who confirmed he and his partner Andrea are expecting their first child, said he is looking for that extra edge in every practice.
Connor Hellebuyck builds one heck of a crib.
(📸 IG/ andrea_fancy) pic.twitter.com/ggaOUHyb2p
— NHL (@NHL) October 6, 2021
“We have tinkered with something every single day. I don’t mean big changes – I mean maybe a glove; we get more aggressive here; making sure my shoulders are in the right position when I push across,” said the veteran netminder in preparation for his seventh NHL season. “The more efficient I can get, the better I can play in the long game. I can play more minutes, I can make more comfortable saves, and I can control more rebounds. Little things you’re constantly fixing.”
Hellebuyck will make his third and final tune-up start on Friday night at the Scotiabank Saddledome in Calgary ahead of Wednesday’s season opener in Anaheim. And Paul Maurice confirmed that a familiar face will be on the bench at the Honda Center with associate coach Jamie Kompon returning for that one game after missing all of training camp and the exhibition schedule.
“I appreciate the respect for his family,” said Maurice. “Tina Kompon has been battling breast cancer for over six years now and things changed a little bit about three weeks before camp. They kinda have a new challenge that they’re battling and they need to be in L.A. with their doctors and Jamie needs to be there.”
Kompon, who was a member of the coaching staff of the 2012 and 2013 Stanley Cup champions in Los Angeles and Chicago, has been in charge of the Jets powerplay since arriving in Winnipeg for the start of the 2016-17 season. Maurice says he has been in direct communication with the Thunder Bay native on a daily basis, and the players have been in contact with Kompon as well. “The technology that we have now, to send video back and forth. Work ethic is not an issue for the man. He’s putting in a lot of time still on the hockey. And it’s good for him I guess.”
The Jets take a 2-2-1 preseason record into Calgary for Friday night’s finale.
Because of a scheduling conflict with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, who host the Edmonton Elks at IG Field on Friday night as well, the Winnipeg Jets Curtis Carpets pregame show starts at 6 p.m. on CJKR-Power 97. That will be followed by the game broadcast with Paul Edmonds and Jamie Thomas at 8 p.m.
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