A promising rookie campaign followed by significant sophomore struggles resulted in Connor Hellebuyck inking a one-year, $2.25-million, show-me deal last summer. But after a bounce back season saw Hellebuyck set Winnipeg’s franchise wins record, guide the team to its first Western Conference final and come oh-so-close to taking home the Vezina Trophy, the Jets are the ones showing him the money.
One week after it was announced that Hellebuyck, a restricted free agent, had filed for arbitration, the Jets have come to terms with the 25-year-old netminder on a six-year, $37-million contract. Hellebuyck’s new $6.167 million annual salary, which will kick in this coming campaign, will give him the sixth-highest AAV among all netminders. Only Tuukka Rask, Pekka Rinne, Sergei Bobrovsky, Henrik Lundqvist and Carey Price carry a higher cap hit, while Hellebuyck’s new deal pushes him ahead of Braden Holtby, Corey Crawford and Cory Schneider on the annual earnings list.
Hellebuyck has more than earned the right to be paid among that class of netminder. His performance throughout 2017-18 was exceptional, and he faced a not-so-subtle challenge from the Jets head on. After his disappointing second season, the Jets went out and inked free agent goaltender Steve Mason as their projected 1A option. And while the veteran was handed the reins on opening night, he was relieved by Hellebuyck before the night was through and by the third game of the season, the crease was Hellebuyck’s to lose. And lose it, he did not.
Aside from a few brief hiccups, Hellebuyck’s SP remained at or above the .920 mark for the entire campaign, and his end-of-season .924 SP was fifth-best among netminders to play at least 41 games and second only to Anaheim Ducks netminder John Gibson (.926) among goaltenders to see at least 60 games last season. Hellebuyck’s underlying numbers were equally impressive, too. At 5-on-5, Hellebuyck’s .931 SP ranked eighth among 2,000-minute goaltenders and his .903 SP on the penalty kill was fourth among netminders with at least 200 shorthanded minutes. “I felt my game improve a ton last year,” Hellebuyck told THN ahead of the NHL Awards in June. “Every day I was taking steps. In the middle of the summer I built a new foundation...and I think that foundation is what really structured me.”
Hellebuyck’s strong performance continued on into the post-season, where he posted back-to-back shutouts to close out the Minnesota Wild in the opening round before out-duelling Vezina winner Rinne and the Nashville Predators to help send Winnipeg on to the conference final. The third round saw Hellebuyck have his toughest run of play, posting three consecutive games with a sub-.900 SP, but he allowed no more than three goals against in any of the outings against the Golden Knights in a series Vegas won in five games.
There’s reason for the Jets to have faith in Hellebuyck being able to maintain his level of play across all six years of his deal, as well. His style doesn’t lend itself to much wear and tear and, by his own admission, Hellebuyck is boring in goal. That’s the way he prefers it, too. He's a studious, thinking-man's goaltender instead of the road-hockey style, jump-about goaltenders who offer more excitement. The strength of his game is reading the play before it gets to him. “If you can get ahead of it, you can get position a bit,” Hellebuyck told THN in June. “Just studying the game and understanding the true angles of the puck and how they actually go in gives you a better understanding of how important positioning is and how little space shooters can have.”
None of this is to say the contract isn’t without its risks. Goaltending can be witchcraft at the best of times, as witnessed by the fact Montreal Canadiens all-world netminder Price is coming off of a .900 SP and 3.11 goals-against average season after clean-sweeping the NHL Awards with Vezina, Hart Trophy, Ted Lindsay Award and William M. Jennings Trophy wins in 2014-15. But the Jets have given Hellebuyck all the tools for continued success over the next six seasons with a high-scoring forward group and an underrated defensive corps that will insulate the crease. It helps, too, that the team as a whole is awfully young, meaning this group can grow and stay together for the foreseeable future.
Ticking Hellebuyck’s contract off the off-season to-do list doesn’t mean the Jets’ summer is complete, however. Far from it. It could be argued that locking up Hellebuyck, Winnipeg’s backbone and last line of defense, was the most important bit of business of which to take care, but there remain six RFAs who suited up regularly for the Jets last season still without contracts, including four who have filed for arbitration. Getting Hellebuyck locked up to a deal that could very well be a few hundred thousand dollars cheaper than some expected can go a long way in that regard, though, as Winnipeg now has $20.7 million to spend. That's of note given at least two of those yet-to-be-signed deals could come with a significant price tag.
The most expensive deal remaining is undoubtedly that of Jacob Trouba, whose two-year bridge deal expired following this past season and sets him up for a healthy raise. The 24-year-old rearguard is likely looking in the $6 million to $7 million-range on a new, long-term contract, particularly as he’s grown comfortably into a top-four role and is arguably the second-most impactful blueliner in Winnipeg behind Dustin Byfuglien. And after Trouba, focus has to shift to Josh Morrissey, who has become as consistent a defenseman as there is in the Jets’ stable. The 23-year-old doesn’t have arbitration rights and could be ripe for a bridge deal, but if Winnipeg wants to go long-term and get cost certainty on Morrissey, his contract could realistically rise into the $5 million-range. This is to say nothing of new contracts for Adam Lowry, Tucker Poolman and Marko Dano, either.
For the time being, though, those are concerns for another day. Hellebuyck is locked in for six more years, and if the past season was a sign of what’s to come, the least of Winnipeg’s worries will be what happens in goal.
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