Is Connor Hellebuyck Building a Calder Case?
Set to make his eleventh start in the Jets past thirteen games against San Jose tonight, Connor Hellebuyck is doing his damnedest to keep Winnipeg in the play-off hunt.
Is the current sample enough to put the 22-year old in the frame for the Calder Trophy? Probably not given that tonight will be just his twelfth appearance for the Jets; but if he carries on like he has been, then the Commerce, Michigan native sure as hell should be.
Hellebuyck’s long awaited arrival in the NHL came on November 22nd, when the Jets recalled him from Manitoba after Ondrej Pavelec was sidelined with a knee injury. The former UMass-Lowell stopper secured his first NHL victory a few days later, making 14 saves in a 3-1 victory over the Minnesota Wild.
Ranked number 1 in InGoal Magazine’s Top 50 NHL Goaltending Prospects for 2015-2016, Hellebuyck has gone on to compile a 7-4-0 record in a little over a month, as Winnipeg continue to fight for a post season berth amid the toughest Division in the league.
And Hellebuyck may have been the Jets best player during that stretch, which included his first NHL shut out on December 27th, as the Jets beat Pittsburgh 1-0 with Hellebuyck making 30-saves.
The rookie goaltender’s even strength 5v5 adjusted save percentage currently sits at 95.17%, second to only James Reimer among netminders who have played at least 400 minutes this season. Hellebuyck also boasts a respectable 88.52% High Danger Save Percentage.
Expand it to all situations, and Hellebuyck still sits tenth in Adjusted Save Percentage (92.61%) and thirteenth in High Danger Save Percentage (85.71%) – the latter ranking higher than current Vezina Trophy favourite Braden Holtby.
The long and the short of it? The 6’4″ netminder seems to have passed both the eye test and the numbers test thus far.
Again, ‘sample size’ is key to the discussion at this point. Eleven games is not huge number of appearances around which to make a solid case that Hellebuyck should win the Calder ahead of Chicago’s Artemi Panarin, Red Wing’s forward Dylan Larkin, Arizona’s Max Domi or teen phenom Jack Eichel (who scored twice in a 4-3 loss to Detroit as this piece was being written). But with Pavelec still on the shelf, and an exact return date still up in the air, Hellebuyck should get plenty more opportunities between now and the big Czech’s return to stake a claim.
Heck, most would say Hellebuyck should still play even when Pavelec returns – and based on the past month you’d find it hard to argue with that assertion – but whether the Jets’ brass agrees may be the sticking point, particularly with Michael Hutchinson also in the mix (and a restricted free agent in the summer) despite a rough run this season – but I digress.
Lets assume for a minute Winnipeg does give Hellebuyck a fair crack, both now and after Pavelec returns.
The last goaltender to win the Calder Trophy was Steve Mason in 2009, who played 65 games for the Columbus Blue Jackets that year.
With 45 games left to play, Hellebuyck cannot equal that number at this point; but for comparisons sake, Mason posted an Adjusted Save Percentage of 92.47% at even strength 5v5 during the 2008-2009 season, with an 83.15% High Danger Save Percentage. These numbers move to 91.26% and 81.58% respectively if we consider all situations.
So right now, Hellebuyck is ahead – but again, small samples and all that, so it seems fair to say his own numbers will probably dip a little between now and the end of the season; though it might be equally fair to say, given how he has played, Hellebuyck could still better Mason’s rookie year – statistically speaking at least.
And to achieve these, admittedly theoretical, numbers one would assume his on ice play would back it up – ergo, we have ourselves a Calder candidate!
However, one key factor in many voters minds is whether a given players team makes the post season – this is where Hellebuyck’s case may be hurt most.
Are the Jets a play-off team in the ultra competitive Central Division? Should that even matter? Maybe not, but to some it seems to and with Winnipeg already seven points shy of a wild card spot it may already be too late for Hellebuyck in this regard.
Mason was seen as perhaps the most significant factor in the Blue Jackets making the post season the year he won the Calder, before that Andrew Raycroft’s 29-18-9 record help the Bruins secure second place in the Eastern Conference, posting a 2.05 goals-against average and .926 save percentage during the 2003/2004 season.
The catastrophic unfairness of the Central Division is likely to keep at least one good team out of the play-offs (maybe two if Colorado keep it up) as well as placing a serious black mark against Hellebuyck’s Calder candidacy through no fault of his own.
Life isn’t fair sometimes.
But Hellebuyck remains an intriguing case as the season moves on – both in terms of individual honours and the Jets future, after years of trying to find a goaltender who can provide the club with real confidence between the pipes.
Whether Winnipeg miss the cut or not, Hellebuyck stands to be one of 2016’s most interesting stories already.