Hellebuyck makes easy adjustment to NCAA hockey

By Richard Murray

Connor Hellebuyck - University of Massachusetts Lowell

Photo: UMass Lowell freshman goaltender and Winnipeg Jets prospect Connor Hellebuyck has been impressive in his first season of Division 1 hockey (courtesy of UMass Lowell Athletics)

Not many goalies have a lot of success during their freshman season in Hockey East, but UMass Lowell’s Connor Hellebuyck has dominated college hockey so far this season.

The Commerce, MI native has only played 12 games so far for the Riverhawks as Hellebuyck has split time with junior Doug Carr, but his play has been quite impressive during that 12-game span. Hellebuyck is 11-1-0 with a 1.57 goals against average, .940 save percentage, and has three shutouts.

“We have given him an opportunity to get some playing time,” UMass Lowell coach Norm Bazin said. “I haven’t given Connor anything though because he has earned every single minute he has played. He will continue to earn more playing time if he continues to progress the way he has this season.”

The rest of Hockey East is already recognizing his success as Hellebuyck took home the Defensive Player of the Month award for December. In December, he had two shutouts, blanking both Northeastern and No. 20 Harvard.

“I actually didn’t even know that I had won it, but it was obviously nice to see my play recognized,” Hellebuyck said. “One of the media guys asked me about it after a game, and I had no idea what he was talking about.”

Hellebuyck has stolen some playing time away from Doug Carr, but Carr, a junior, has served as an important role model this season to the freshman netminder.

“I think Doug has made Connor a better goalie, but I also think Connor is making Doug a better goalie,” Bazin said.

“The competition between the two is very healthy because they push each other. Doug is a very good teammate. He’s calm, he’s poised, and when you have someone like that around you it is reassuring, especially for a young goaltender like Connor. They have been good for each other.”

Hellebuyck, a Winnipeg Jets draft selection, stands 6'4”, so he has tried to model his game around another tall goaltender, Olaf Kolzig.

“He is big and tall like me, so I have tried to take some of his qualities and put them into my game,” Hellebuyck said. “I like to get in front of the puck and just get big. I get up, get square, and let the puck hit me.”

Hellebuyck’s size is something that every coach would like to have in a goalie. The coaching staff at UMass Lowell has already recognized how well he uses his size to his own advantage.

“When you are as big as he is you take up a lot of the net,” Bazin said. “He hasn’t filled out all the way yet, but he has that natural physical trait that you would love to have in every goalie.”

In addition to his size, Hellebuyck brings a very high compete level to the table in Lowell night in and out. His hard work and effort is a direct reflection to the success that he is having this season.

“His competitiveness is one of his best assets because it gives him a chance to be successful both here and down the road,” Bazin said. “If you aren’t competitive you don’t get better from one game to the next, and that is an aspect of his strong suit.”

Before UMass Lowell, Hellebuyck played his junior hockey in the NAHL for the Odessa Jackalopes. In 53 games, Hellebuyck was 26-21-5 with 2.49 goals against average and a .930 save percentage. This came right after every team in the NAHL draft passed on the Riverhawks goalie, so at that time Hellebuyck was starting to have some doubts about his hockey career. With an invite to the Jackalopes camp, though, that all changed.

“I got a call the day before the NAHL draft from the Odessa Jackalopes, so I was hoping I was going to be drafted,” Hellebuyck said.

“On draft day my name was not called, so I was really disappointed. I didn’t think I had a future in hockey, but they invited me to camp. I made the team. Not being drafted motivated me though, and it has really helped my play since.”

Playing in the NAHL over prep school also allowed Hellebuyck time to just concentrate on playing hockey without having to worry about anything else. He was able to play in over 50 games in junior hockey, which is something a player doesn’t experience at the prep school level.

“It was a great experience because it gave me a real chance to improve most of the aspects of my game that I needed before I came to the college level,” Hellebuyck said. “The more games you play, the more experience you are going to get. Being able to focus on just hockey also really helped.”

As Hellebuyck continues to develop in Hockey East, he might make a name for himself in college hockey before all is said and done.

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