In a perfect world, the Winnipeg Jets’ 2019-20 season would have ended Saturday night in Glendale, Ariz.
Of course, it’s not a perfect world and the Jets season actually ended on March 11 in Edmonton — a night when Winnipeg went to Edmonton and won their fourth straight game with a stunning 4-2 victory.
That night, the Jets were outshot 38-25, but hey, no problem. The Jets had Connor Hellebuyck in goal.
With the win that night, Hellebuyck’s record improved to 31-21-5 in 58 appearances (56 starts). He finished the season with a goals against average of 2.57 and a save percentage of .922. More importantly, because Hellebuyck was so good, the Jets finished the season with a record of 37-28-6, which left them in the No. 1 Wild Card spot in the West, just two points out of third place in the Central Division.
Sadly, there will be no playoff run for the Jets this season and those who think there might be some sort of “playoff tournament” in August or September are thinking wishfully.
Still, it’s very likely the NHL will hand out its 2019-20 Awards – on-line, of course – and considering the way things finished, I have little problem touting Hellebuyck for not only the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goaltender, but for the Hart Trophy as most valuable player, as well.
Yeah, yeah, I know, the Hart Trophy is being reserved for Edmonton’s Leon Draisaitl or Connor McDavid or Boston’s David Pastrnak or Brad Marchand or Colorado’s Nathan McKinnon. I get that. But one thing is certain. The Winnipeg Jets would not have been close to 80 points in 71 games without Hellebuyck. Not even close.
Now, full disclosure: We at Game On Hockey do not get a vote when it comes to the awards. The Vezina is voted on by the league’s general managers (we do NOT qualify) while the Hart is voted on by the members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association, which I’m sad to report, is more like a seventh-grade clique than an actual association of hockey writers.
However, that being said, we will carry on.
Hellebuyck is not only the best goaltender, but also the most valuable player for plenty of reasons. No. 1, the Jets defense, at its best, was a patchwork of two good players – Josh Morrissey and Neal Pionk – a rookie, two has-beens and four never-weres. There were nights when Hellebuyck was left out to dry and while he was anything but perfect, he did save the day more often than not. Although he didn’t make the Top 10 in GAA (14th) and was seventh in save percentage (although he made more than twice as many saves as the league leader), he led the NHL in shutouts with six and was No. 1 in shots against (1,796) and saves with 1,656.
He was also second in wins (31), tied for first in appearances and was second in total minutes played. He finished 10 games above .500, which has been pretty much the gold standard for the past 40 years.
And the other thing about Hellebuyck, the thing that makes him a winner, is an intangible: He’s a lot like Hall of Famer Grant Fuhr, a guy that shocked the young numbers freaks when he was inducted because he didn’t have great numbers. That’s Hellebuyck.
And Jets fans know this: There will be nights when Helle gives up a handful of goals. There will be nights when he’s left out to dry by a defense that was ravaged by free agency and the selfishness of Dustin Byfuglien and there are nights when he’ll give up a few that he knows he shouldn’t, but when it matters, he’s there. He makes big saves, game-changing saves, the saves that playoff heroes make. He stops breakaways in the third period of 2-2 games. He shuts out rivals. He stops 36 shots on the road when the Jets absolutely must win.
He is the best goalie in the NHL and despite all those big scorers around the league, he’s also the most valuable player to his team.