The Winnipeg Jets expected a lot from prospect Connor Hellebuyck. After a dominate collegiate career at UMass-Lowell, where he won a Mike Richter Award as the NCAA’s top goaltender in 2013-14, and followed up that season with a .921 save percentage in his first professional season with the AHL’s St. John’s IceCaps, he was quite easily living up to those expectations.
But now, Hellebuyck is exceeding them.
Hellebuyck was called upon to fill the void Ondrej Pavelec left when he went down with a knee sprain. The call up was Hellebuyck’s first NHL experience, and within his first three games, he has been a stud. He has a .965 save percentage and a 0.97 goals against average. He has won each game he’s played in, and the wins aren’t just coming against cupcake teams, Hellebuyck has beaten the Minnesota Wild, the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Washington Capitals.
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He is making it practically impossible for Winnipeg to send him back down to the NHL. And while that’s not his fault by any means, he is putting the Jets in a really tough spot.
Pavelec isn’t expected to be back from his injury by the end of December, so that will allow Hellebuyck to see several more NHL games. So when Pavelec comes back, the Jets will have he, Hellbuyck and Michael Hutchinson on the roster. It doesn’t make much sense to keep three goaltenders on the roster, so if Hellebuyck continues his dominance, what exactly are the Jets supposed to do?
Their simplest option? Send Hellebuyck down regardless of how well he is doing. Hellebuyck is the only waiver-exempt goaltender on the roster, meaning the Jets won’t risk losing him by sending him back to the AHL. He’s just 22-years-old, and the Jets understandably may not be ready to give the reigns to a goaltender with such little NHL experience.
But if the Jets are happy enough with what they have seen with Hellebuyck in his first month as a NHL player, and want to keep him on the roster, it makes sense to part ways with either one of Pavelec or Hutchinson.
A larger market would be willing to trade for Hutchinson than Pavelec. At just 25 and in the final year of his two-year, $1.15 million contract (in which he becomes a restricted free agent this offseason), Hutchinson gives a team a cheap goaltending option who has potential to be a low-end starting goaltender in the NHL.
And the Jets would run a major risk by trading Pavelec today. While he may not necessarily be the Jets’ franchise goaltender of the future, the Jets would put their full trust in two relatively inexperienced goaltenders under the age of 26. And with another year remaining on a contract that carries a $3.9 million cap hit, is there even a market for the 28-year-old average goaltender?
If Hellebuyck continues to dominate, the Jets will have three goaltenders in their organization that believe they are NHL-caliber players. And while the easiest decision to make is to send Hellebuyck back to the AHL, he also might give the Jets the best chance to win. So if that’s the case and Winnipeg sends Hellebuyck back to the Manitoba Moose, what does that say about the organization? That they are willing to put a hold on winning for the sake of prolonging an ongoing issue that is suddenly developing a little bit sooner than they anticipated?
If the Jets truly trust Hellebuyck, and he hasn’t given any reason for Winnipeg not to during his brief stint with Winnipeg, the Jets have a pretty big decision on their hands.