The St. John’s IceCaps – AHL affiliate of the Winnipeg Jets – underwent some significant changes over the summer following a run to the Calder Cup Finals last spring. With three of their top four leading scorers in the regular season and their starting goaltender from last year’s team moving on in free agency, several players have had to step into larger roles.
Two of those filling bigger shoes on the roster are rookie goaltender Connor Hellebuyck and second-year defenseman Brenden Kichton.
Hellebuyck and the IceCaps have had an up-and-down 26 games this season, as the team started the season 4-8-3-1 before improving in their last 10 games (6-3-1-0) to get back into the playoff picture after the first two months of the season.
The 21-year-old rookie out of the University of Massachusetts-Lowell had anything but a stellar beginning to his pro career as he went 3-4-1 in his first eight starts (3.58 GAA, .897 SV%, 0 SO). Since then, Hellebuyck has been one of the most solid goaltenders in the AHL, going 7-2-1 in his last 10 starts (1.38 GAA, .959 SV%, 2 SO) including AHL Player of the Week honors for the week ending November 23rd.
“It’s a big mental change,” Hellebuyck noted as one of his biggest adjustments he’s needed to make at the pro-level. “It’s a little tougher in the mental game because there are so many games, and things don’t always go your way and you have to be ready to go the next night.”
Hellebuyck’s strengths are his ability to use his size (6’4”, 200 pounds) to his advantage, his competitive nature, and the focus to stay with plays for second and third attempts. It might have taken some time for the rookie to become comfortable in net, but if his last 10 starts are any indication of where he is heading in terms of his game and level of play, then Hellebuyck has a bright future ahead of him in the NHL.
“There’s always something you can work on,” Hellebuyck humbly said of his game. “I just want to improve my game in general. Just giving it my all. I think the team in front of me is playing well and from me, hopefully you’ll see the same things.”
Kichton has really had to earn his place in professional hockey, now entering his second full season in the AHL. Originally drafted by the New York Islanders in 2011, Kichton was never signed and thrown back into the NHL Draft before being selected by the Winnipeg Jets in the seventh round in 2013.
As a 21-year-old rookie in the AHL last season, Kichton led all IceCaps defensemen as well as all first-year defenders in scoring in 2013-14 with 48 points (10 goals, 38 assists) in 76 regular season games. He also appeared in 21 AHL playoff games last spring, gaining valuable pro experience.
“Almost 100 games of pro hockey,” Kichton recalled of his first pro season. “We were a good hockey team.”
Kichton was quick to point out that playing in so many games has helped shorten the learning curve, but he also noted that the coaching staff having faith in him and playing a lot of minutes was a big part of him being able to contribute to the team right away.
“You want your coach to have faith in you that he can put you out there whenever,” Kichton said, “even against the [other] team’s first line. That’s what I am trying to do. Be reliable but a contributing defenseman.”
Plenty of first-year players point out the speed of the game and the skill and knowledge of the opponents as major differences that require the biggest adjustment. For Kichton, it was something that is dealt with off the ice.
“Probably just seeing how pros act and how they treat their body,” Kichton said of his biggest adjustment to the pro-style game. “Going from junior to pro is a big step and it’s a big learning process, too. Learning how to take care of your body and there’s always more to learn. There have been good veterans to help me along the way.”
As for areas Kichton is looking to improve upon in his second full year of pro hockey, it’s no secret what the offensively-minded defenseman wants to work on.
“Being able to jump on pucks and play solid defense and not get scored on. That’s a huge thing about being an offensive defensemen.,” Kitchton said, adding, “Progress. Getting better each game. Developing good work habits that exceed the other guys and being able to perform every night on a consistent basis.”
The IceCaps have slowly turned things around as a team this season, and with defensemen Ben Chiarot and Julien Brouillette currently recalled to Winnipeg because of injuries, Kichton will certainly be relied upon to eat up top minutes with the IceCaps as the season progresses. Hellebuyck has already started taking starts from the team’s starter to begin the season – veteran Peter Budaj – and as long as he continues to shine and gets solid defense in front of him, the IceCaps will be a challenge for any opponent they face.
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