by Kinsey Janke || for NHL.com
Winnipeg Jets prospect Connor Hellebuyck has logged a lot of miles on his road to professional hockey.
A native of the Detroit suburb of Commerce, Mich., Hellebuyck played a year of junior hockey in Odessa, Texas, then set up camp on the goal line at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.
“I always wanted to go to college,” Hellebuyck said. “[UMass Lowell] were the first people to come down to Odessa and see me. After I talked to their goalie coach, Cam Ellsworth, he kind of sold the school really well to me. I thought it was a perfect fit. If there was anywhere I would choose, I would choose there.”
Though Hellebuyck spent only two seasons on campus, his 53 games in a River Hawks uniform were the stuff of legend. He amassed a 38-12-2 record, and his 1.60 goals-against average, .946 save percentage and 12 shutouts all rank first all-time in school history.
Hellebuyck’s freshman year in 2012-13 concluded with Hockey East Goaltender of the Year among other honors, and as a sophomore he was the inaugural winner of the Mike Richter Award, given to the most outstanding goaltender across NCAA Division I hockey.
With that level of success, it’s hard not to be cognizant of your own play, but the 21-year-old was quick to credit his teammates.
“We did have a really good team there. Not only were we playing against some of the best players in the country, we were some of them,” Hellebuyck said. “We had two Hockey East championships, and I think we really put the name on the map there.”
He signed with the Jets and turned pro last April, and his journey now has him playing in the easternmost city in North America for Winnipeg’s American Hockey League affiliate, the St. John’s IceCaps. Picked in the fifth round (No. 130) in 2012, Hellebuyck watched the draft from his couch.
“I talked to a couple teams, but you never really know. No one told me for sure that they were going to draft me, but just having conversations with [teams] I thought there was a chance,” he recalled. “I was sitting on the couch, watching the draft, and saw my name pop up, and I just had the biggest smile on my face. It’s an unbelievable feeling.”
His first pro season with the IceCaps hasn’t disappointed. Hellebuyck is tied for fourth among all goalies in wins (16), and his .926 save percentage is third among league rookies. On top of that, Hellebuyck ranks second in the AHL in minutes played and has faced more shots than any other goalie in the league, and has been a true bright spot in a difficult season for the reigning Eastern Conference champions.
“With the lower amount of games in college, there’s always a concern to see if they can carry the workload. But we haven’t seen that,” said IceCaps head coach Keith McCambridge. “We see a guy that has been our number one guy, that has been running with it and hasn’t shown any signs of fatigue. That’s been a real strong point that we’ve been very aware of but haven’t seen any red flags pop up.”
Though it is still months from conclusion, Hellebuyck’s rookie season in the AHL is shaping up to go as smoothly as his rookie season in college. He was selected as the IceCaps’ only representative for the 2015 AHL All-Star Classic, set for Jan. 25-26 in Utica, N.Y.
“Coach called me in his office and I wasn’t really expecting any of that to be said. But then he told me that I was going to make the All-Star Game,” Hellebuyck said. “I really couldn’t believe it.”
McCambridge’s experience behind the bench as an All-Star coach – he worked the 2012 AHL event – has proved beneficial once again. Since Hellebuyck’s only knowledge of All-Star events comes from watching the NHL All-Star Game on television, McCambridge was able to explain what exactly would happen once Hellebuyck arrives in Utica next weekend.
Also helping Hellebuyck along the way has been teammate Peter Budaj, a veteran of 296 National Hockey League games. The veteran’s presence on and off the ice has been integral to a young goaltender finding a way to maintain his game while also adjusting to the mental and physical parts of professional hockey.
“A lot of guys aren’t always as nice, and they’re just kind of there for the job, but Budaj is the nicest guy I know,” Hellebuyck said. “The fact that he’s kind of taken me under his wing is something I can only thank him so much for.”
Hellebuyck is just four months shy of his 22nd birthday, and if his first half-season in the AHL is any indication, the future is only going to glow brighter.
“The potential on where he could eventually go is what jumps off the page to me. He’s a big goaltender, his numbers are strong,” McCambridge said. “When I look at Connor, his game is in a good place now, but where can it get to is the real exciting part of Connor Hellebuyck.”