Editor’s note: Former professional goaltender Rob Gherson offers a bird’s eye preview on both netminders in the upcoming Oilers/Jets series. Today, he turns his attention to Jets starting goaltender Connor Hellebuyck, the expected opponent in Edmonton’s series.
Connor Hellebuyck is one of the best goalies in the NHL. He won a Vezina last season and although his individual stats weren’t quite as good this year, he’s going to be in the “best goalie” in the world conversation for the foreseeable future.
Oilers fans will be reminded of Mike Smith’s depth in his crease. Hellebuyck, like Smith doesn’t challenge a ton, mostly staying in the blue paint unless it’s a breakaway. This allows him to keep his game simple. Lots of pucks will hit him in the chest and when there are rebounds or cross ice passes, he won’t have to move very much to get to them.
Lets get to some video and you can see what I mean.
This 1 on 1 save against the Leafs is as routine as they come. Hellebuyck starts with his toes at the top of the crease and lets the play come to him. By starting deep like this, Hellebuyck gives opposing shooters a different look than they might be used to, from other goalies who will come out and challenge and back in as the puck gets closer to them. Shooters against Hellebuyck may see more net when they cross the blue line and get towards the tops of the circles, but as they get closer, that net disappears as Hellebuyck doesn’t retreat. This tends to confuse shooters, leading to a lot of shots into the chest, wide of the net or forced extra passes when they don’t see any better options.
This 2 on 1 is another great example of what it looks like when Hellebuyck is at the top of his game. His biggest strength is his patience and willingness to stand his ground and let the play come to him. I call plays like this “aggressive patience.” He starts (toes at the top of the crease) where he wants to finish on the play (toes at the top of the crease) and he shuffles laterally to stay centred and square to the shooter. The pass option is largely irrelevant as he trusts his defence to take that away. If you’re seeing a lot of “perfect” 2 on 1s like this, Hellebuyck is in the zone.
In terms of save selection, Hellebuyck tends to primarily use his big butterfly to block. In scramble situations, instead of pushing with his skates to stay centred with the puck, Hellebuyck will reach with his arms and legs, and end up on his stomach. This is an area where opponents can take advantage of rebounds by crashing the net, or open him up by changing the angle and sliding it five hole.
Here’s another example of him reaching for pucks instead of pushing to get his body there. Because he reaches with his arm and leg instead of pushing to get his body in the way, holes open up and it makes it tough for him to be square to the puck on this play. That’s why the shooter was able to bank it in off him.
Where teams can take advantage of Hellebuyck is on plays that start behind the net. Hellebuyck has a tendency to use RVH in all situations when the puck is behind the net. RVH gets a lot of criticism when goalies overuse it. As shooters have begun to understand what goalies are doing, they’ve been able to beat goalies up high from bad angles. That’s not really the issue with Hellebuyck. He’s big enough to fill the top part of the net and does a good job of getting his head into the top corner to fill that hole. The problem Hellebuyck has is he tends to get very puck focused when he goes into RVH. Most plays from behind the net don’t end up as shots. They end up being passed towards the front of the net. This is where Hellebuyck loses his awareness of opponents. It doesn’t always hurt him, but a high skilled team that uses the back of the net to change sides can take advantage. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. With the puck behind the net, Hellebuyck goes down and gets lost on this play. He finds the puck just in time to make a save, but a team keying on this could take advantage.
Here’s another example of what I’m talking about. As Auston Matthews takes the puck around the net, watch Hellebuyck’s head. There’s no shoulder check to see who’s in front of the net. When Matthews passes the puck out to the point, Hellebuyck isn’t ready for the one timer because he wasn’t aware of who was at the point and what hand they shoot. The puck ends up trickling through for a goal.
It’s never easy to score against a goalie as good as Hellebuyck, but these are a few ways teams might be able to generate some offence against him.
Rob Gherson is a former professional goaltender from Toronto. He was drafted in 2002 by the Washington Capitals and played 5 years of pro hockey in various organizations. He won the Calder Cup in 2008 with the Chicago Wolves. He played 4 years in the OHL. He is currently a goalie coach in Toronto and recently founded Conscious Goaltending, a company with the goal of simplifying and improving goaltending knowledge across the hockey universe from the hardcore goalie nerd to the rookie shooter.