Rush job is not what Hellebuyck needs

He’s been great for IceCaps, but still isn’t NHL-ready

Robin Short
Published on March 16, 2015

St. John’s IceCaps goaltender Connor Hellebuyck, Manchester Monarchs forward Ryan Horvat (centre) and IceCaps’ defenceman Brenden Kichton (right) follow the play during Saturday night’s American Hockey League game at Mile One Centre. The Monarchs won 4-1, giving them two wins and five points from a three-game visit to St. John’s.

Photo by Keith Gosse/The Telegram

Lost in Saturday night’s stinker at Mile One Centre, a game that saw the St. John’s IceCaps slip further away from a playoff spot in the American Hockey League, was the fact Peter Budaj played pretty well.

Budaj and JC Lipon, who scored the only St. John’s goal in a 4-1 loss to the Manchester Monarchs, the second time in three games the IceCaps lost by that count to the AHL’s best team.

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The Monarchs skated into Mile One and took two of three games from the IceCaps, who fell to 29-27-6-2 and are five points out of eighth place in the Eastern Conference, the divide between playoff and non-playoff clubs.

Budaj, the nine-year NHL veteran still looking for a win as an IceCaps, stopped all 18 shots he faced in subbing for super rookie Connor Hellebuyck, who was lifted 5:19 into the second period after the Monarchs scored their fourth goal on their 18th shot.

Not that anyone was pinning this one on the Detroit area native. Not a chance.

We all know by now this 2014-15 season, which will likely end with the IceCaps outside looking in at the Calder Cup playdowns, would have been a lot longer and more hard to stomach if Hellebuyck hadn’t been around.

“We’ve been kind of counting on him to win us game after game after game,” captain Jason Jaffray. “He’s been our best player all year.”

Hellebuyck leads the league in minutes played and saves, and is right up there in wins and save percentage.

And he doesn’t turn 22 until May.

He’s displayed enough to be regarded as the Winnipeg Jets’ goalie of the future. He also showed Saturday night he’s not ready now.

There have been cries in Winnipeg, where the Jets were reeling prior to Saturday night’s win over the Tampa Bay Lightning, and suddenly find themselves in a playoff dog fight, to call up Hellebuyck for a look-see.

It’s easy to forget Hellebuyck is fresh out of college hockey, where he played 24 and 29 games prior to arriving in St. John’s. This season, he’s at 51 and counting.

“Ideally, letting him build off what’s he accomplished this year would be the ideal development scenario,” IceCaps coach Keith McCambridge said. “Let him enjoy the season he’s had, let him continue to have success, play heavy minutes.

“Ideally, that’s what you would look at from a development point of view. But management makes those decisions.”

From Jan. 14 to Feb. 21, Hellebuyck made 16 straight starts. Except for last Wednesday’s game against the Monarchs, he’s started the last seven.

“The Jets are fighting for a playoff spot,” said Jaffray, “so it’s probably not the right time to give anybody an opportunity up there. They’re fighting tooth and nail, so it’s probably not the right situation for him.”

Jaffray played two seasons with Cory Schneider on the Manitoba Moose, when the latter was lighting up the AHL after three years at Boston College. Schneider had two seasons in the minors before getting a crack with the Vancouver Canucks. Even then, it was foreight games.

Schneider played a third year in the American league before reaching the NHL, where he’s since remained.

“I think with a lot of goalies, they need a year or two in the minors to really stand on their head and play 40-50 games in a season to get used to the pro game,” Jaffray said.

“There’s no point in rushing Hellebuyck.”