‘If I’m going to complain, I might as well make a difference.’ How Connor Hellebuyck became the philosopher king of NHL goalies

      Whether he's stopping pucks, visualizing future success or assisting the competition committee, Hellebuyck's brain fuels his contributions to the sport.

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      Don’t forget to ask him about The Secret.

      No need. Connor Hellebuyck brings it up before I can even broach the topic. Stories have been written before that briefly touch on his devotion to The Secret, a 2005 documentary described on IMDB as “interviews with self-proclaimed authors, philosophers and scientists, with an in-depth discussion of visualizing your goals.” But I didn’t realize just how important it was to the Winnipeg Jets star goaltender until I asked him where he got his trademark swagger, which emanates from him almost daily whether he stands on his head in a dominant victory or lets in a softy.

      Hellebuyck, 29, acknowledges he “definitely has” that confidence. He describes it as “where preparation meets determination” and says he knows himself so well that he understands what to expect from himself as a goaltender. But he really does feel it was a career-altering moment when he first saw The Secret. What did he take away from it aside from supreme self-belief?

      “It’s more like, you have to believe something’s going to happen, and truly believe it, and it affects every decision you make,” Hellebuyck told Daily Faceoff. “So if I truly believe I’m going to win the Stanley Cup, it will affect every decision from here on to the main goal of winning the Cup. And it will help me pursue it, the decisions you make to train hard, to train smart and the off time and everything else that goes in with it. It just affects your decision when you truly believe that the end goal is going to happen.”

      Being so mentally sound has helped Hellebuyck become one of the sport’s most consistently excellent netminders. Since 2017-18, his breakout season, he’s won a Vezina Trophy and finished second and fourth in two other votes. He’s been a first- and second-team all-star. Over the past six seasons, he’s first in the NHL in games started, second in wins and second in shutouts.

      But the power of visualizing his success can’t fully explain what’s happening this season. He’s levelled up. His .928 save percentage is the highest of his career. He leads the league with three shutouts. In 5-on-5 play, he grades out second among all goalies in save percentage and goals saved above average per 60. The Boston Bruins’ Linus Ullmark ranks first in both categories but, given Hellebuyck’s larger workload, he has just as strong as a claim to 2022-23 Vezina frontrunner status as the calendar turns to January.

      In Hellebuyck’s mind, the difference this season is…more help. A more harmonious Jets club under new coach Rick Bowness has done a better job limiting the number and quality of the chances in front of their star stopper.

      “The guys around me are just playing great hockey, and my life’s a lot easier, so I don’t have to worry about making as many big saves,” Hellebuyck said. “I can just focus on a few and really pile on the details. With more shots, you get in a rhythm and you maybe feel better, but sometimes that isn’t the best way to get results. I like whatever’s going to help this team win. It’s a good balance. Some games you’re needed more and some games it’s a team game.”

      Hey, it’s nice for Mr. Hellebuyck that he believes he’s had more help. But…it’s just not true. The Jets are relying on him to carry them as much as ever. Among the 23 ‘bellcow’ starters who have played at least 1,000 minutes at 5-on-5 this season, Hellebuyck has the seventh-highest expected goals against per 60. He sees the fifth-most shots and seventh-most high-danger shots per 60. He’s once again the team’s MVP, posting league-best numbers despite enduring one of the harder nightly workloads.

      Here’s a glance at how Hellebuyck’s workload difficulty has graded out relative to his peers over the past six seasons:


      He’s actually seeing his most shots per 60 this season, and that includes plenty of high-danger looks. So maybe Hellebuyck is just being modest. It’s the same as it ever was: he’s a workhorse goaltender thriving when he’s extremely busy.

      Workhorse might not do him justice, however. Hellebuyck is the workhorse. He currently leads the NHL in shots faced and saves for the fifth consecutive season. He has started 21 more games than the NHL’s second-busiest goaltender over the past six seasons. In an era of load management and fewer goalies than ever crossing the 60-start threshold, Hellebuyck has done it three times – and, really, would have done it five years in a row if not for pandemic-shortened seasons.

      “I’m essentially a rhythm player, I like to play a lot, but it’s all relative,” he said. “There are different situations everywhere in the league. There are probably other goalies who can handle it to that don’t need to. It’s just kind of how this team’s built. I’m grateful for it.”

      You don’t just have to be good to play as often as Hellebuyck does. You have to be healthy, and he’s managed to accomplish that for the majority of his career thus far. Most athletes attribute their health to stretching, diet and other methods of keeping their bodies as temples, but for Hellebuyck, knock on wood, the good health comes from good style. He’s not an athlete who stretches for desperation saves like Jonathan Quick in his prime. Hellebuyck uses his 6-foot-4, 207-pound frame to cover a lot of net while remaining economical in his movements. He wasn’t yet a student of the game when he copied goalies’ movements watching TV as a kid in Commerce, Michigan, but he thinks it built him an unconscious base of what to do right. It baked natural concision into his game by the time he got serious about hockey as a pre-teen. And always arriving at the puck on time is a great way to preserve the body.

      “Oh definitely,” he said. “When I’m watching video and watch myself, and when the game looks like, ‘Oh that was an easy save, that was an easy save,’ that’s when I know I’m on and doing the right thing. That’s what I like to see. Nothing flashy. It’s just…efficiency is easy.”

      Efficiency is easy. You can almost hear Hellebuyck preaching it to fellow goalies, their long hair and beards blowing in the breeze during a summer retreat. All while sharing nuggets of wisdom like this one he tells Daily Faceoff: that a goalie mask design very personal, that it lets the fans in on his life. He has become, in a sense, the NHL’s philosopher king at his position. And with that thoughtfulness comes, in his mind, a responsibility to speak out when he feels something isn’t right with the sport – which he has channelled toward becoming a staple on the NHL/NHLPA competition committee. It comes less from a place of passion – he doesn’t envision himself in a high-ranking NHLPA gig after his career – and more from a place of duty.

      “I never really cared that much about (an NHLPA job), I just play the game for fun, but I found myself complaining a little bit about things, and I didn’t like it,” Hellebuyck said, “So I thought, ‘If I’m going to complain about something I might as well try to make a difference.’ And that’s how that all started and I got into that. And I like it, because now I don’t feel like I’m complaining. I’m actually absorbing information and I’m being heard and I hearing other people and we’re working some issues that I see out in the league.”

      Hellebuyck spoke earlier this season about the need to blow plays dead as soon as a goaltender loses his mask. He felt the officials put him in danger during a tying third-period goal in a loss to the Dallas Stars in November. But his biggest rule bugaboo? It’s goalie interference, of course. What part of it? Um, yeah, exactly. The inability for anyone to accurately define it is something he wants to remedy.

      “I’d like to help make it more black and white, which I’ve tried,” he said. “Hopefully I helped a little bit… It definitely has something to do with the crease and the white area and forced contact and unforced contact. I made a big list for the committee, and I hope it went well. It’s hard to make it black and white, but that’s definitely somewhere I think it could help. Because no one wants to sit around and wait for a review for five, 10 minutes.”

      Will his work lead to some changes to the NHL rulebook? We’ll see. Or, better yet, he’ll see, assuming he’s applying his Secret visualization technique. It wouldn’t be a stretch to envision another Vezina Trophy coming his way this June. But what about that Stanley Cup? Whatever happens, the 2022-23 Jets, holding down second place in the Central Division, offer the best chance in several years.


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