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Hellebuyck a rising star in Winnipeg Jets playoff race

With Laine recovering from a concussion, it’s the steady improvement and confidence of this other young Jet that has many believing a playoff push is possible.

Winnipeg Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck (37) blocks a shot by Florida Panthers left wing Jussi Jokinen (36) during the second period of an NHL hockey game, Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2017, in Sunrise, Fla.

AP Photo/Alan Diaz

Winnipeg Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck (37) blocks a shot by Florida Panthers left wing Jussi Jokinen (36) during the second period of an NHL hockey game, Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2017, in Sunrise, Fla.

Not surprisingly, most of the Winnipeg Jets' headlines this year have focused on rookie phenom Patrik Laine. Laine has 21 goals in his first half of the NHL season and was named to the NHL All-Star game this week, making him the youngest European NHL player ever named to the mid-season showcase of hockey’s biggest stars.

Now with Laine currently on the shelf recovering from a concussion suffered last weekend in Buffalo, it’s the steady improvement and confidence of another young Jet that has many believing that a playoff push is in the cards for 2017.

Connor Hellebuyck started the season opener in net for the Jets with a mere 26 games of NHL experience after the club sent veteran starter Ondrej Pavelec to the Manitoba Moose. This unexpected move left Hellebuyck and Michael Hutchinson as the team’s last line of defence for this season. And while both goalies have struggled at times, Hellebuyck is showing promising signs that he can't only be the goalie of the future in Winnipeg, but a workhorse right now for the Jets.

Paul Maurice may have said a few times this year that he doesn’t have a number one goaltender but his actions tell a different story. With his start Wednesday against Montreal, Hellebuyck has been given the crease by his coach in six consecutive games and is looking more and more like an established NHL starter as the season progresses.

The increased workload is a result of his improved play of late, but also the resiliency the young goalie has shown in bouncing back from less-than-stellar performances. Maurice knows that Hellebuyck gives his team the best chance to win and is showing confidence in him by continuing to roll him out night after night as the team tries to claw themselves into a playoff spot in the west.

Hellebuyck is easily the most entertaining interview in the Jets locker room. He's nothing if not honest, sometimes sounding like a kid. He will describe strong games as “fun” and enthusiastically praises his teammates’ performances in post-game interviews the way you might hear fans talking leaving the rink after a win. Hellebuyck also has occasionally shut down questions about prior losses with lines like “I don’t want to talk about that” – rare but frank answers that you don’t get very often in pro sports.

More than any other Jets player, we can hear the growth of Hellebuyck through his words. He has been straightforward about needing to improve his consistency and rebound control, and it seems to be working as his confidence grows as an NHL starter.

Goaltending is far and away the most important position in the NHL and has been an Achilles heel for the Jets in the past. It’s a rarity that a 23-year-old would be given the responsibility of an everyday NHL starter job without the safety net of a proven veteran NHL backup, but that's the situation in Winnipeg.

The Jets are in a position to still make a run and challenge for the playoffs. As Connor Hellebuyck’s confidence and play continues to improve, so do the Jets' chances in the race.

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