Over the weekend, the Winnipeg Jets did what a disproportionate number of Floridians do when in Florida – they stole something in an unusual way. In this case, the suspect in custody is Connor Hellebuyck.
Against the Panthers and the Lightning, Hellebuyck faced 83 shots, stopping 77 of them. In both games, the Jets were outshot, out-chanced (high-danger and otherwise), and largely outplayed. They lost the Expected Goals battle in both, yet they left Florida with 4 points and avoided getting burned in back-to-back contests (except for Kevin Sawyer, who has yet to discover sunscreen).
This ended a mini-drought for Hellebuyck – whose previous 5 starts had been subpar at best (relative to his standards). The Jets once again won games they had no business winning thanks to their goaltender.
This begs the question, are the Winnipeg Jets doing Connor Hellebuyck a disservice? Is there a historical framework for generational goaltending mired on underperforming teams? It is not controversial to say that Hellebuyck has been the best goalie in the NHL for the last half-decade:
As we can see, Hellebuyck’s Goals Saved Against Expected (GSAx) is second to none over the past 5 years. In that time, the Jets have reached the Conference Finals once (2017-18), and have underachieved relative to expectations.
The team seems to be acknowledging publicly, what Jets fans have known privately for years: Connor Hellebuyck is one of the best out there. The team was effusive with their praise for Hellebuyck after the Tampa Bay win, and Chevy stated it plainly in his post-deadline interview with John Lu. Given the expiration date on goaltenders, it is puzzling then to see the Jets’ lack of urgency.
Are the Winnipeg Jets in good company with hampering elite goaltending?
Connor’s situation is not unique however to the NHL. History is rife with examples of teams that have squandered prime goaltending. Here are 3 such examples of teams that failed to maximize their advantage between the pipes:
1. New York Rangers – Henrik Lundqvist
From 2007 to 2010 Lundqvist was undoubtedly the best goalie in the NHL. His GSAx total over that span was 114.97. His nearest competitors were Jonas Hiller at 36.3 and Cam Ward at 27.35 – which is mind-boggling. In that span, the Rangers topped out at making the Conference Semi-Finals in 2007-08, before losing to the Penguins 4-1. Clearly disappointing.
While Hellebuyck has not yet been as dominant as Lundquist was over that span, the comparison is apt. Both are/were counted on to shoulder a huge workload, and both fell prey to organizational ambiguity. Lundquist did finally play in a Stanley Cup in 2013-14, but the Rangers lost 4-1 to the Los Angeles Kings.
2. Buffalo Sabres – Dominik Hasek
“The Dominator” played in the era prior to the proliferation of advanced stats, so we don’t have a GSAx figure to reference. However, from 1993 to 1997 Hasek boasted a .928 save percentage, and won the Vezina Trophy in 1994 and 1995.
The Sabre’s best finish during this period was a loss in the Conference Semi-Finals (’97). It wasn’t until Hasek left Buffalo, and hitched his wagon to the Detroit Red Wings, that he won his 2 Stanley Cups.
Hellebuyck is not the dynamo Hasek was, as some label Hasek as the greatest goaltender to ever play in the NHL. That said, the point remains that it took a change of scenery for Hasek to take home the league’s biggest prize.
3. Montreal Canadiens – Carey Price
Familiar playbook here. From 2014 to 2017 Price led the league in GSAx at 60.28. Similar to Hellebuyck, he had some tight competition with Braden Holtby (55.92) and Cam Talbot (53.47) close behind.
While Price did get his shot at the Cup in 2021, the Canadiens were defeated by the Tampa Bay Lightning. Alas, it appears as though his championship window has now closed. This comparison is likely the most enduring. Both were at the top of their game during an era of excellent goaltending, and both struggled behind a sometimes porous defense.
Honorable mentions to this list include John Gibson and Roberto Luongo who were both similarly afflicted. Hellebuyck, in most circles, is not recognized with the same reverence as the goalies listed above, but statistically and humbly, he is in their company.
With Hellebuyck’s free agency looming, it is not unrealistic to think that the Jets might be without his services after 2024. If that is the case, it is not hyperbolic to state that they’ve let a generational goalie pass through their fingers. In goalie parlance – let’s stop it.