We come to our first goalie in the Winnipeg Jets Top 35 Under 25. The problem with goaltender prospects is that even the blue chips end up being a crapshoot. While Connor Hellebuyck has had two back-to-back successful years, there are many who have accomplished similar or greater accolades that still end up as a bust. This is why it is wise to keep expectations in check when evaluating goalie prospects.
However, with a lack of depth of serviceable goaltending in the professional level, hopes and needs lift Hellebuyck to our 12th ranked player under the age of 25.
Previous Rank: NR
Prior to his NHL draft season, Connor Hellebuyck was playing for a Div-2 US High School team. Hellebuyck did well enough to be awarded an All-State Honourable Mention twice and play for Team Minnesota. However, Connor was not scouted much, likely due to where he played. He had hoped to get drafted in either the USHL or NAHL but was passed by both leagues. One NAHL team did invite Hellebuyck to training camp, where he ended up winning a regular spot on the expansion team the Odessa Jackalopes.
As an expansion team, the Jackalopes were far from a contender, yet Hellebuyck accomplished a 26-21-5 record with a third best in the league save percentage, with the two above only playing half as many games. Poor GAA and win record while having such a high save percentage is commonly indicative of solid goaltending on a weak defensive team. Connor's success did not go unnoticed, as he was nominated for NAHL All-Star South Division Team, All-Rookie Team and All-Star Team. He also shared both the Goaltender and Rookie of the Year awards. But, most of all, he was selected by the Winnipeg Jets in the 5th round in 2012.
Expectations were very low for Hellebuyck the next season. Moving to the NCAA, in arguably the second strongest division, as a freshmen goalie meant he was likely to see very minimal game time. UMass Lowell's coach Norm Bazin said he gave Hellebuyck a bit of opportunity and the large goalie ran away with it, never looking back. On a team spotting only two other NHL draftees, Connor Hellebuyck posted a NCAA high save percentage of 0.952 and a 20-3-0 record. To compare, the goalie he stole the starter position Doug Carr posted a 0.897 and a 8-8-1 record. Connor was again laden with awards, being nominated for Hockey East All-Rookie Team, All-Star Team and Tournament MVP. He also won the Hockey East Goaltender of the year award.
The best Junior and NCAA scorers don't always become the best NHL scorers. The best Junior and NCAA defenders don't always become the best NHL defenders. But, the more successful amateur players tend to translate that success at the professional level far more often than the ones who are not successful spontaneously become successful in pro.
Save percentage is an even more extreme case. The problem with amateur save percentage is the confidence levels are really low due to the small sample size. It took two seasons at two different levels for Hellebuyck to reach a combined 77 games.
We can incorporate the two seasons together gaining a 0.936 Sv% with a sample just under 2500 shots on goal, which looks promising... but that is all that it can be currently, promising. The biggest problem is the NCAA sample size, which is the more important and indicating of the two, is only 666 shots against.
Future #1 or Future ECHL Netminder?
As Connor Hellebuyck's own coach stated, "I'm happy he's had a little bit of success, but the proof for me will be the consistency he shows over a couple of years, and then I'll know what we have."
It is the same for Jets' fans and management. Yes it is exciting that they have a goaltender who has had some success in the NCAA. Still Connor Hellebuyck has a long way to go to prove he can be a pro player, let alone a potential number one goaltender.
The more promising prospects, the greater the chance of success. The Jets' management have truly improved goaltending depth from where it was since the move. Hopefully this trend continues.