Monday, 6 November 2017

Helly And The Jets

Forget Benny. What we're seeing right now is the emergence of Helly, better known as goaltender Connor Hellebuyck. Hellebuyck was brilliant again in the Jets' net tonight as he led Winnipeg past the Dallas Stars by a 4-1 score, making a number of important saves along the way. For a guy who was, at times, blamed for the Jets' failures last season, Connor Hellebuyck has done more than just bounce back this season. He's literally grabbed the number-one netminding spot back from overpriced Steve Mason, and has run with an undefeated-in-regulation record to this point. While there have been other great contributions early on this season on the Jets roster, has anyone been more valuable to this point than Connor Hellebuyck?

We first got news that change may be happening back in May when Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman mentioned this tidbit in his 30 Thoughts article,
Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyck is making some off-season changes. He will spend time this summer with Adam Francilia, who has a lot of experience working with goalies. Francilia could be loosely defined as a personal trainer, but prefers “sports performance coach” because he also deals with nutrition and mental health. His first NHL client was Andrew Ladd, when Ladd was 14. That was 17 years ago, and they’ve worked together since. In the past few years, his group included Laurent Brossoit, Devan Dubnyk, Troy Grosenick, Eddie Lack, James Reimer and Justin Schultz.

Every August, Francilia and agent Ray Petkau put together a special goaltending clinic in Kelowna, titled NET360. (Dubnyk is not a Petkau client. Hellebuyck, Lack and Reimer are.) Hellebuyck usually stays in Michigan during the summer, but will spend time in Western Canada, including attendance at that clinic.
Nothing ground-breaking in that aside from the fact that Hellebuyck would be attending the NET360 clinic. For those that might be asking what the clinic would focus on, Friedman answered that as well.
Francilia is proud of his work with Grosenick, who went from dangerously close to being out of San Jose to the AHL’s top goaltender in 2016-17. He sees some similarity between the two. What will he work on? Among other things, core training specific to goalies.

"Posture and setup. There are postural considerations for a goalie, such as counter-rotating away from saves. Let me give you an example. With Devan Dubnyk, when he was leaning on the right post and needed to make a right-to-left push, his lanky, long body was working against him. He was unable to understand how to use his core. You go to push left, but half your body is going the wrong way."

It sounds confusing, but do this: Put your right side up against a wall in your house. Then push off. How many of you are leaning into the wall before doing it? That slows your move left.

"Goaltending is an unnatural position," Francilia continued. "We are not created to be goaltenders, which is why so many have hip issues. We have to completely re-program their brains not to counter-rotate. Teach the brain to think differently, teach (Hellebuyck) to recruit his left oblique muscle to stabilize and offset the counter-rotation. That helps his upper body stay with the puck. That split-second difference is everything."
Honestly, whatever Francilia did with Hellebuyck this summer, it's paying off in huge rewards. Not only does Hellebuyck look fundamentally sound and calm in the net, his position and angles on shots are incredibly better than what was seen last year. As a result, the analytics crowd are still waiting for the walls to cave in on Hellebuyck's LDsv% number, otherwise known as "bad goals", which sparkles at 1.000. In other words, he has yet to give up a bad goal on the season!

Where the shine really sparkles is when you take into account the team playing in front of him. Hellebuyck's 8-0-2 record comes as a bit of a surprise when you see the Jets rank dead-last in shots-per-game. If Corsi is a predictor of trends, the prevailing thought is that more shots will net you more goals. The problem is that the Jets are winning while being outshot on a nightly bases, so there's really only one reason they're in games or, in this case, winning them: goaltending.

Hellybuyck is currently fourth in goals-against average (2.12), third in save percentage (.936), tied for second in wins (8), and has yet to post a shutout to really push his numbers higher. In other words, he's playing better than he ever has. What's his secret?

"A complete 180 [degree turnaround] from what I was doing before," Hellebuyck told Kevin Woodley of "I was lifting a bunch of weights but now I actually feel in control of my body and I have a base for it because he preaches core and everything out from there. So, now, I truly feel like my core is stabilizing the rest of my game."

As Woodley writes, "[h]e flails his arms less, and there are fewer sequences that end with him on his stomach or butt. His movements are more balanced, compact and controlled, helping him arrive set and square in each new save location earlier, rather than getting his feet to that new spot and having to wait for the rest of his body to catch up." Hellebuyck is replicating how controlled Carey Price played a few years ago when he was considered the top goalie on the planet, and that's directly led to improved numbers and improved netminding this season. Pucks hit him and fall straight down instead of landing three feet away from him as they did last season. Rebounds are smothered, and his pads stay parallel to the ice to prevent pucks from sliding under him. Hellebuyck has, for all intents and purposes, become a different goaltender.

With the changes made over the summer, even head coach Paul Maurice, known for not coaching goalies, noted how different Hellebuyck looked in the net. "He looked stronger in the net," Maurice said about Hellebuyck. "[He was] able to hold his body position quite a bit longer; not nearly as much movement in his game."

With the advanced stats not favoring the Jets on most nights, the one player who is rising above those trends is Connor Hellebuyck. The coaching that he received over the summer with Adam Francilia has transformed a goaltender who was blamed for losses last season into a world-beater in five short months. If Connor Hellebuyck can provide the Jets with above-average goaltending every night, the mantra of "playoffs or bust" won't even need to be repeated. The Jets WILL make the playoffs if Hellebuyck can continue to play as he has in his first ten games. Seemingly, the only two things that could derail his season right now are injury or fatigue.

So far, a confident goaltender is the key behind Helly and the Jets.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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