Boy, that escalated quickly. In less than an hour, we went from having the lovely and talented Ken Wiebe mention how Ondrej Pavelec had hit "the next point on (his) road to recovery", to timelines across the Twitterverse filling up with this Winnipeg Jets Retweet:
#NHLJets activate Pavelec from injured reserve, and re-assign Hellebuyck to the @ManitobaMoose. pic.twitter.com/9eNpKLg0V0— Winnipeg Jets (@NHLJets) February 12, 2016
Responses across the internet ran the gamut of reaction, including but not limited to sarcasm, bewilderment, acceptance and possible seizure. With all due respect to the first two on that list, there are good reasons beyond tanking as to why reassigning Connor Hellebuyck is the right move.
Everything is not hunky-dory
When Connor Hellebuyck first arrived on the scene, he astounded and excited the Jets fan base by providing a level of goaltending not seen since three games in April. Since his first start on November 27th, Hellebuyck's NHL career now spans a grand total of 26 games played, featuring a 13-11-1 record and .918 SV%.
If we split Hellebuyck's 26 GP into halves of 13, we're left with an interesting picture. Over Hellebuyck's first 13 games, he posted four sub .900 SV% efforts. Over the latter 13, that number doubles to eight. Unsurprisingly, there is a significant difference in records between these two halves: 9-4-0 versus 4-7-1. Looking at a narrower slice, of Hellebuyck's five "Really Bad Games" (games with a SV% below .850), four have come in his last six outings.
This is not to question Hellebuyck's status as "franchise goalie of the future", nor is it to pin all of the blame on him. Among other issues, this is a team which takes the 2nd most PIMs per game, while owning the 27th ranked penalty kill. They are 26th out of 30 in the standings, dead last in the Central and only two points up on Edmonton. The 2015-16 Winnipeg Jets are not very good, is what I'm trying to say.
But for at least the last month or so, Connor Hellebuyck has largely not been part of the solution. A chance to step back from NHL competition and dominate lesser foes in the AHL may be just what the doctor ordered.
@mremis Got some negative feedback for this tweet. Turns out I was right.— M Remis (@mremis) February 12, 2016
The US cavalry arrives
Connor Hellebuyck was recalled from the AHL on November 22nd. Since then, Eric Comrie has played in 31 games for the Manitoba Moose, and started 30 of the last 33. Contrast this against the six appearances by Jussi
Ochocinco Olkinuora over the same duration. In Hellebuyck's absence, Comrie has been an absolute workhorse.
For the 2015-16 season, this entails playing in front of hot garbage night after night. The Manitoba Moose are dead last, not only in the Western Conference but the entire AHL. They rank 30th out of 30 in Total Goals For and 29th out of 30 in Total Goals Against. Their leading scorer has 27 points in 47 games, and their top five scorers a combined 121 points. By contrast, the Toronto Marlies leading scorer has 48 points in 48 games, and their top five scorers a combined 204 points. Matters probably aren't helped by the fact that Manitoba's already underwhelming roster has been occasionally plundered to fill holes at the NHL level.
McCambridge has spoken w Comrie to reassure the young goalie that he has a long career ahead of him. The problems aren't on him. #AHL— PATRICK WILLIAMS (@pwilliamsNHL) February 5, 2016
Within this context, it's unsurprising that Comrie's save percentage has steadily declined, going from .927 to begin December, to .912 at 2015's end and finally the .907 he currently sports. Couple this story with the aforementioned six appearances by Olkinuora, in which he's posted just two efforts over .900 while most recently failing to provide Comrie a much deserved break. In the absence of a trusted backup, Winnipeg's other highly touted goalie prospect is being run into the ground. Enter Connor Hellebuyck.
Comrie is by all accounts a supremely level-headed kid, but it likely remains a good idea to alleviate the physical and mental burden of the last 2+ months. With Hellebuyck returned to the Moose, expectations would be of a 50/50 split between them, if not an arrangement leaning towards the Michigan native. Comrie, a 20-year-old playing in his first professional season, might benefit from the chance to breathe.
The answer to that is to find an AHL back-up or tighten up defensively, not to send down your NHL number-one. https://t.co/wwhzimu3Jn— PATRICK WILLIAMS (@pwilliamsNHL) February 12, 2016
NHL.com correspondent and all-around nice guy Patrick Williams points out how this is not the answer to Manitoba's problems, and he's right. With that said, I'm resigned to the abysmal and probable reality that the Moose are unlikely to even moderately improve this season. Yes, in any sort of split there are legitimate concerns over playing time. But given Manitoba's current roster, both Hellebuyck and Comrie are certain to see a lot of action. Rather than leaving one prospect high and dry on a nightly basis, they can now share the load:
At the very least, misery loves company, does it not?
Four points out of last
"This is not a bad year to be a bad team", Mike Futa, Vice President, Hockey Ops & Director of Player Personnel, Los Angeles Kings. #NHLJets— Philip Iver (@PhilipAIver) January 29, 2016
These are the wise words of Mike Futa, perennial candidate for NHL GM openings and a key cog in the Los Angeles Kings scouting machine. Let's be clear: this upcoming draft is more than Auston Matthews. Beyond him are noteworthy options such as Patrik Laine, Jesse Puljujärvi, Matthew Tkachuk, Olli Juolevi, Jakob Chychrun, Alexander Nylander, Mikhail Sergachyov, Clayton Keller and Pierre-Luc Dubois.
Which highly touted draft eligible player is best for the Winnipeg Jets and projects as having the highest ceiling? I haven't the slightest idea. This is why the organization employs amateur scouts, to go and check these kids out for themselves and come to their own conclusions. But one thing is for sure: they are not lacking for choice in the top-end of the upcoming draft.
For several years now, the Winnipeg Jets fan base has heard tales of the organization's much vaunted prospect pool and the scouting staff behind it. A poorer finish in the standings better enables that scouting staff to work their supposed magic. In a year now without realistic postseason aspirations, this is a desirable end.
As such, #TankNation will celebrate the diminished ability in net which comes with Connor Hellebuyck's demotion. A tandem of Ondrej Pavelec and Michael Hutchinson could very well solidify Winnipeg's place among the league's bottom five.
It should be noted that Hellebuyck has the best save percentage of all Jets goaltenders this season.— PATRICK WILLIAMS (@pwilliamsNHL) February 12, 2016
But wait, there's more!
For those bemoaning Connor Hellebuyck's demotion, fear not. With words such as "short term" and "near term" being tweeted, this all has a very temporary feel to it. There's the possibility Kevin Cheveldayoff & Co. are working on a trade, however unlikely it sounds. Or perhaps one of Ondrej Pavelec or Michael Hutchinson are not long for the NHL, and will shortly be placed on the waiver wire. Given the eternally opaque vision of management, rampant speculation is all too easy.
Maurice said Hellebuyck going to Moose in the "near term" and that Pavelec, Hutchinson would be getting starts in early portion of road trip— Ken Wiebe (@WiebeSunSports) February 12, 2016
But if this arrangement is indeed temporary, that could be a genuine shame. In light of diminishing returns from Connor Hellebuyck and Eric Comrie, the time was right to give both a shot in the arm. Hellebuyck's reassignment does just that.
Over the last 2+ months, Hellebuyck and Comrie have experienced being "the guy" at the NHL and AHL level, respectively. Now, both have the chance to step back from that burden, in order to hopefully decompress and build upon it. Removed from the very real pressure of performing at the NHL level, Hellebuyck has the opportunity to re-establish his dominance (and perhaps tweak his rebound control) against lesser competition. As for Comrie, he may simply benefit from no longer being the only thing standing between the Manitoba Moose and nightly 15-1 embarrassments.
Yes, this reassignment likely aids "the tank", but the tank is secondary here. Hellebuyck can take his NHL experience and learn from it at the AHL level. He is fallible, and there are still improvements to make.
Suddenly seeming closer to Patrik Laine is just an added bonus.