Injury opens NHL door to top rated goaltending prospect
Odds are Ondrej Pavelec has never heard of Wally Pipp. That’s probably just as well, given that he may have had his Wally Pipp moment.
A history lesson: Back in 1925 Pipp was the starting first baseman for the New York Yankees when his injury—he was beaned by a pitch—opened the door for Lou Gehrig to step in and begin one of the most legendary careers in baseball history.
Pavelec himself is on the IR indefinitely after a run-in with Arizona’s Shane Doan left him hobbled. His injury opened the door for the recall of top prospect Connor Hellebuyck from the AHL to man the pipes with veteran Michael Hutchinson.
And that may mean we}ve seen the last of Pavelec in a Jets uniform.
Despite putting up solid fancystat numbers, the Jets have seen their playoff chances hobbled by lousy goaltending. They’re allowing 3.09 goals per game in the early going, far worse than last season’s 2.49 and ahead of only Columbus (3.23) and Calgary (3.52) this season. Pavelec’s been a big part of the problem, ranking 29th among starters with a .906 save percentage and 30th with a 2.82 goals-against average.
Hellebuyck might not be hockey’s answer to Gehrig, but everything in his past suggests that he’s up to the challenge of stepping in and becoming a difference maker for the Jets.
In 2013-14, his final year at UMass-Lowell, he posted a 1.79 GAA and .941 save pct. on the way to winning the inaugural Mike Richter Award as the most outstanding goaltender in NCAA hockey. Last season, his first as a pro, he played a career-high 58 games with AHL St. John’s, going 28-22-5 record with a 2.58 GAA and a .921 save pct.
It hasn’t been as easy for Hellebuyck this season as the backstop for an inexperienced Manitoba Moose club, but he’s been far better than his 2-7-1 record suggests. In fact, his box car numbers have actually improved (2.41 GAA and .927 save pct.) even as he’s faced a greater challenge.
The 22-year-old’s growth has caught the eye of Jets coach Paul Maurice.
“If [Pavelec is out] any kind of duration, I want Hellebuyck to play,” Maurice said on the team’s website. “The games I’ve seen this young man play, I think he can help us win games … When they left camp I thought, ‘I’d like to see this guy play NHL games.’”
Maurice is not the only believer. This summer, InGoal magazine ranked Hellebuyck as the top goaltending prospect in the world.
“Hellebuyck is huge in the net, but is not saddled with many of the issues that are commonly associated with large goaltenders,” their assessment reads. “He is a strong skater, and takes advantage of that by being smart about his butterfly usage. He does not sit back and rely on his size do the work. His lateral pushes are explosive but he stays within himself due to an understanding of the type of positioning that works best for a goalie of his size. It’s very rare to see Hellebuyck scramble out of position, which is a sign of a goaltender that knows his limits and is in complete control.”
Another scout agreed, saying Hellebuyck is the goalie prospect he’s “most excited to see in the NHL.”
“[He] brings an ideal mix of size, athleticism and technique,” the scout told SI.com. “He plays with a consistency and a confidence that carries over to his teammates. He has that ability to raise his play when it matters most.”
That's a quality that caught the eye of Team USA management. Hellebuyck already has represented his country twice at the World Championships. Although he was relegated to the press box in 2014, he was a key member of the club last spring, going 7-1 with a 1.37 GAA and .948 save pct. to lead the understaffed Americans to a stunning third place finish.
Fittingly, he knocked off Pavelec and the Czech Republic in the bronze-medal game with a 39-save shutout, one of two he earned at the event on the way to being named to the tournament All-Star team.
That performance hasHellebuyck in the mix to be one of the three netminders named to Team North America for the upcoming World Cup. But with fellow contenders John Gibson and Malcolm Subban still in the AHL, a strong run of play in Winnipeg would make Hellebuyck the favorite to start for the U-23 squad.
With the Jets playing back-to-back games on the road this weekend, his first chance to impress shouldn’t be far off.
The numbers game
• The Rangers (16-3-2) are off to their best 21-game start to a season in the franchise’s 89-year history. They also have won nine home games in a row for the first time since Nov. 10 to Dec. 15, 1971 (9-0-0) but still have five wins to go to tie the franchise mark for the longest such win streak set from Dec. 19, 1939 to Feb. 25, 1940. And we all know what happened that season.
• Meanwhile Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist’s 351 career wins have tied Hall of Famer Terry Sawchuk for the third-most victories in NHL history by a netminder with one franchise. The others with more: Martin Brodeur (688 with the Devils) and Tony Esposito (418 with the Blackhawks).
• Boston netminder Tuukka Rask is now 13-3-1 for his career in regular season tilts against the Maple Leafs, the team that drafted him 21st in 2005. He also has a 1.80 GAA, a .937 save pct and two pails of whitewash against his former club.
• Islanders Hall of Famer Bryan Trottier writes about his career for The Player's Tribune. Naturally, that infamous clip of him mercilessly chirping Brian Bellows comes up.
• The son of one of hockey’s greatest legends talks about his own NHL dreams.
• This was one of those great moments you just have to see: TSN analyst Ray Ferraro interviewing his son, Landon during his first game as a Bruin.