Connor Hellebuyck isn’t quite yet the household name that his performance at the 2015 IIHF World Championships suggests; however, expect much from him in the near future.
With an outstanding performance in the tournament, the UMass-Lowell alum and Winnipeg Jets prospect could thrust himself into the limelight next season and form part of a very competitive goaltending squad that includes an impressive Michael Hutchinson and a resurgent Ondrej Pavelec; though with Hutchinson a restricted free agent, look for either Hellebuyck or Hutchinson to become expendable.
There are arguments for and against Hellebuyck becoming the next Winnipeg Jets backup for a couple years before being handed the reins: Hutchinson performed admirably as backup to Pavelec, and even powered the Winnipeg Jets into the playoffs on the stretch where Pavelec faltered, with stats comparable to Pavelec (2.39 GAA, .914 SV%; comparable to Pavelec’s 2.28 GAA and .920 SV%); while Hutchinson backstopped the St. John’s Ice Caps into a playoff miss; however, the 22-year-old from Commerce, Michigan posted a 2.58 GAA and .921 SV% en route to a 28-22-5 record. Arguably, Hellebuyck is capable of much more with an improved defensive corps, showing it by leading all goaltenders at the 2015 IIHF World Championships with a GAA of 1.37 and save percentage of .948, while posting 2 shutouts. While it is likely in Hellebuyck’s best interests to remain for another year at the AHL to sharpen his skills further, he could easily wedge himself into the Winnipeg Jets lineup, as he has shown to be prepared for big minutes, especially by emerging victorious against Ondrej Pavelec and the Czech Republic in the Bronze Medal game.
In addition to his bronze medal, Hellebuyck has a track record of excellence, being chosen to the Hockey East all-tournament team for both years he played in UMass-Lowell, with a first team selection and an All-American selection in his last year with the River Hawks. He also backstopped the River Hawks to consecutive Hockey East titles, with consecutive shutouts at the TD Garden last year, and an impressive performance the year prior to give UMass-Lowell their first ever appearance at the Frozen Four.
Team Russia could face some serious sanctions by skating off the ice prior to the playing of ‘O Canada;’ with some sources indicating that former NHLer and captain Ilya Kovalchuk was urging teammates to join him off the ice. With the broadcasting of the post-game celebration being cut short by NBC, not many American viewers noticed several Russian players leaving the ice prior to the Canadian national anthem, though several remained behind, among them Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin, Pittsburgh Penguins forward Evgeni Malkin and Kovalchuk’s SKA St Petersburg teammate Viktor Tikhonov.
While Team Russia’s actions have already drawn the ire of the IIHF and many others, including a traditionally vocal Don Cherry, it is noteworthy that despite the fact that he joined late, Alex Ovechkin showed much more leadership than Ilya Kovalchuk and much more sportsmanship. For a player who had earned a reputation of acting in an unsportsmanlike manner, most notably his “stick on fire” celebration, Ovechkin understood the importance of sticking to the IIHF “protocol” and to face the loss in an honorably fashion.
This show of class from Ovechkin and company is a far cry from an Ovechkin who dedicated himself to carving out the “Lucky Loonie” in the 2008 edition of the tournament. Credit where credit is due, this season, Alex Ovechkin has shown the type of leadership that flies in the face of Don Cherry’s traditional “Europeans are selfish” narrative.
In a related topic, Team Canada’s victory sees the twenty-sixth inductee to the Triple Gold Club: Sidney Crosby. The Triple Gold Club is a select group of players that have accomplished a World Championship gold medal, an Olympic gold medal, and a Stanley Cup; a club that includes the likes of Mats Naslund, Peter Forsberg, Brendan Shanahan, Jaromir Jagr, Chris Pronger, Henrik Zetterberg, Nicklas Lidstrom, and Jonathan Toews. Crosby is an especially noteworthy addition, though, as he is the first member who has captained his team in every “component” required of the Club.
With the uncertainty surrounding NHL participation at the next Olympics in Pyeongchang, the Triple Gold Club is in serious jeopardy of becoming a thing of the past. The NHL has been blessed with the past two olympics taking place in traditional, hockey-crazed markets in Canada and Russia; however, the same cannot be said of South Korea. Here is hoping that the NHL consents to a traditional best-on-best showcase in a non-traditional market; it will go a long way into growing the sport to a wider audience. As a comparative study of sports, the 2002 FIFA World Cup in Korea and Japan was highlighted by the brightest stars of the sport at the time – David Beckham and Ronaldo; international exposure breeds national attention, fueling the fire of homegrown talent, making the Triple Gold Club an even more impressive achievement.
– The Philadelphia flyers have hired head coach Dave Hakstol; Hakstol has never coached at the NHL level, but has seen much success coaching the University of North Dakota the past 11 years, amassing a 289-141-43 record en route to seven Frozen Four appearances and one championship.
– The Edmonton Oilers are rumored to have hired head coach Todd McLellan, coming off his success in coaching Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle in the World Championships. McLellan is the San Jose Sharks’ winningest coach in franchise history, having taken the Sharks to the playoffs every season behind the bench except this season; his last one behind the bench in San Jose.
– The San Jose Sharks are rumored to be speaking with former Pittsburgh Penguins coach Dan Bylsma regarding their bench boss position. Bylsma never missed the playoffs with the Penguins en route to one Stanley Cup in his rookie coaching season, while amassing a 252-117-32 record before being fired prior to the start of the 2014-15 NHL season.
– The Mike Babcock Sweepstakes could be settled as early as Wednesday, as the sought-after coach is supposedly delivering his decision; with the Oilers rumored hiring of Todd McLellan, it seems as if the Red Wings, Leafs and Sabres are, in order, the likeliest decisions for the veteran coach.