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Winnipeg Jets Have Goaltending Questions Behind Hellebuyck

The Winnipeg Jets, over the past few seasons, have done a good job of establishing more depth in their roster to fill voids exposed in the playoffs by their opposition. In 2020, the Calgary Flames knocked out Mark Schieffle and Patrik Laine in Game 1 of that qualifying round, leaving the Jets scrambling up front, and never recovered losing the series 3-1.

Last season, they got their bottoms spanked by the Montreal Canadiens who exposed them and took advantage of their weakness on the blueline.

Connor Hellebuyck Winnipeg Jets
Connor Hellebuyck, Winnipeg Jets (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

However, there remains one unanswered query that could possibly cost the team some points this season, and you’re not gonna believe me when I say the problem lies in goal.

The Offense is Set

The Jets have, both through the development of draft picks and trades have addressed those issues and look to make a deep playoff run in the upcoming 2021-22 season, and have every right to think that. Since the turn of the calendar year Jets’ general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff has taken a very un-Jets-like approach and threw his conservative tendencies out the window and replaced it with some enterprising action. He acquired Pierre-Luc Dubois from Columbus for Patrick Laine in a what some called a career-defining move. It really wasn’t… it was a deal that had to be made, and the Jets are now looking for a big return on that investment this season. Then this summer he acquired both Brenden Dillon and Nate Schmidt through trade, two top-four defensemen, without altering the existing Jets roster. A move lauded by many in the hockey world.

Those three moves are anticipated to help bolster and solidify the squad in its attempts to keep pace with the heavily favoured Colorado Avalanche in the Central Division. A roster that was already like Grandma’s cupboard…stocked full. Lead by centre Schieffle, a candidate for Canada’s Olympic team, the Jets’ offence which was solid but the middle of the pack last year, promises to be better this winter.

With the likes of Kyle Conner and Nikolaj Ehlers (both Olympic shoe-ins for their respective countries) who were both in the point-per-game range last year, scoring will not be this team’s Achilles heel in 2021-22. The Jets were 12th in the league in scoring last season and seventh on the power play. Both numbers that suggest putting the puck in the net this season with the talent up front should not be an issue.

The Defense is Better

Much has been already made of the increased stability of the blueline. Dillon, Schmidt will bring defensive leadership to a group drastically needing just that. Josh Morrissey and Neal Pionk will most likely pair with the newcomers, while Dylan Demelo and Logan Stanley will round out the top six, which on paper is a very solid defensive group, whose major job will be to stay organized in the defensive end and transition the puck into the capable hands of the offense.

The real question is in the crease. Now, if you’re a Jets fan you’re likely to say, “Wow, this guy has zero clue!”. Connor Hellebuyck is arguably the best goaltender in the NHL, and no one is contesting that here. The Jets’ last line of defence has proven himself as one of the most reliable netminders in the league who happens to be a workhorse and is now going to play in front of a better defensive unit which, in theory, should make his job easier. All of which is correct.

Winnipeg Jets Connor Hellebuyck
Winnipeg Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

So let’s take a quick recap… better than average offence, solid defence, and in the most important position on any hockey team you’ve got one of the best, who also happens to have his name on the Vezina Trophy. So the pieces are in place and the Jets are a very balanced hockey club going into training camp. What’s the problem?

The Backup Situation

The problem is… with the most critical position on the team, what happens when Hellebuyck isn’t playing? Then what? The Jets lost Laurent Brossoit to the Vegas Golden Knights via free agency, leaving them without an established backup goaltender. Last season, in his 14 games played and 11 starts last season, Brossoit had a 6-6-0 record with a 2.42 goals against average, a .918 save percentage, and one shutout. That’s pretty solid considering he was playing in front of a less than stellar defensive unit.

Which then bears the question, who replaces Brossoit? Currently Eric Comrie seems to be penciled in for that role, a member of the Jets’ American Hockey League affiliate Manitoba Moose on and off since the 2015-16 season. And herein lies the oddity which seems a bit puzzling. The front office has bolstered and balanced the squad, but the insurance policy for their most important player has only played in 9 NHL games of experience since entering professional hockey six years ago, and his NHL stats aren’t mind blowing. I’m not going to say he’s not good, because he is. He was a member of Canada’s World Junior team that won gold in January of 2015, he had a fantastic Western Hockey League career with the Tri-Cities Americans, and he’s put up excellent numbers with the Moose throughout his time in the AHL.

If anything, he’s resilient! He’s been living on the waiver wire for the past four years, being put on then later claimed by the Jets on two different occasions. He spent time in Arizona, Detroit and New Jersey, and yet has never stopped pursuing the thought of making an NHL roster with a full-time spot.

I’m not saying Comrie’s not capable of filling the back-up spot, I’m saying he hasn’t proven himself to be capable yet, and with the optimism and predictions of major improvement in the club’s play this season, the biggest fear in the Jets’ front office should be, “What if?”. What if Hellebuyck sustains an injury? What if Hellebuyck can’t play? He’s been a workhorse for the Jets’, but is Comrie the guy you’re investing your insurance money into in the event he isn’t available?

The backup goaltender does not need to be spectacular, only solid when asked upon. ‘Solid’ often comes from experience which is the major absence in Comrie’s resume. He certainly has earned a spot in training camp with his work ethic, determination and overall play with the Moose. By all accounts is the current front-runner to take the spot. But, it’ll be interesting to see how this unfolds in the fall as there will be opportunities out there for the front office to do some shopping. Unfortunately for someone like Comrie, the Jets’ window for success is not a large one and they have put themselves in the conversation for the Stanley Cup. So if he’s not “the guy”, they won’t wait long to find someone who could be. That is worth keeping an eye on.

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