Connor Hellebuyck is cashing in after a breakout season that saw him emerge as one of the top goaltenders in the NHL. The Jets have signed Hellebuyck to a six-year, $37-million contract with an average annual value of $6.167 million. The 25-year-old from Commerce, Mich., was a finalist for the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goalie last season after appearing in a career-high 67 games, setting single-season franchise records for wins (44), shutouts (six), and save percentage (.924). Jets GM Tim Cheveldayoff said: “Helly has always been projected in our mind as a No.1 goaltender and the goaltender of the future for us. We’re very very excited we were able to come to a long-term agreement for now and for the future. Obviously the training and maturity that was in his game from the years prior to now is about becoming a pro.” Hellebuyck signed a one-year, $2.25-million deal with Winnipeg prior to last season. He posted a 9-8 record in this year’s playoffs with two shutouts, 2.36 goals-against average and .922 save percentage as the jets reached the Western Conference final. Hellebuyck said: “This is exciting for many reasons. But mainly because I love it here and I want to be part of this team. I really believe this team has what it takes.” In 149 career NHL regular-season games, Hellebuyck has an 83-41-14 record with 12 shutouts, a 2.55 GAA, and .917 save percentage. His 70 wins over the last two seasons are eighth most in the NHL. Hellebuyck was a restricted free agent and had filed for salary arbitration before signing his deal. He said his goal now is to prove he’s not a one-season wonder. “I’ve always believed in myself and I have the right people around me,” he said. “Any time something falters we know exactly what to fall back on. “I expect the most out of myself and I want everyone to expect the most out of me because I want to bring my A-plus game every single night. If it’s not A-plus, it’s good enough to win and that’s key for this team, everyone wanting to do more.” Hellebuyck’s contract matches his jersey number but he said there was no special significance surrounding the worth of the contract.
Marian Hossa’s contract is no longer on the Blackhawks’ books. Oh, there’s no doubt that Vinnie Hinostroza — the sweetener that convinced the Arizona Coyotes to take on Hossa’s three years of dead money — will be missed. He gave the plodding Hawks some much-needed speed, and proved last season that he was a viable middle-six winger and not the AHL/NHL tweener he had previously been made out to be. And yes, Marcus Kruger’s return to Chicago is intriguing, despite the mixed (at best) results the Hawks have gotten from bringing back former Stanley Cup champions over the years. Kruger ended last season with the Carolina Hurricanes’ AHL team, a shell of his former lockdown self, but it turned out he was playing through a sports hernia injury that he had surgically repaired in April. He’s still only 28, and has just one year left on his contract, so there’s little risk in putting him in his familiar fourth-line role ahead of, say, David Kampf or Dominik Kahun. Kruger said: “Ready to go and just really excited to be back. I can’t think of a better place than here to come back and show that I can play and be a good player.” But what’s important here is the cap space — and the cap flexibility — opened up by unloading Hossa’s $5.25-million cap hit on the Coyotes, who have made similar dead-money deals for the contracts of Dave Bolland, Pavel Datsyuk and Chris Pronger in the past. The Hawks now have about $8.5 million in cap space with three or four roster spots left to fill. And if Kruger’s return makes Artem Anisimov that much more expendable, that number could increase by another $4.55 million. Enough to swing a deal for Carolina’s Justin Faulk, who would look great on the top pairing and the top power play. Maybe even enough to acquire both Faulk and Jeff Skinner, a 26-year-old three-time 30-goal scorer whom Hawks general manager Stan Bowman has long had his eye on. Or maybe enough to land Montreal forward Max Pacioretty a four-time 30-goal scorer who could fill the void on the left wing of Nick Schmaltz and Patrick Kane. Or, heck, why not go for broke and say it’s enough to bring in Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson, the best defenseman in the world, who happens to be on the market and entering the final year of his contract. There’s no telling what the Hawks will do next. But it had better be something. They simply can’t enter training camp with the current roster. Not if they expect to return to the playoffs and to Stanley Cup contention after a miserable last-place season. Not in a Central Division that’s only getting better, with the Blues and Avalanche loading up via free agency and trades. As for Thursday’s trade, the full details are as follows: Hossa, Hinostroza, defenseman Jordan Oesterle and a third-round pick in the 2019 draft for Kruger, 18-year-old prospect MacKenzie Entwistle, minor-league center Jordan Maletta, minor-league defenseman Andrew Campbell and a fifth-rounder next year. Maletta and Campbell are basically spare parts, bound for Rockford. The return is underwhelming, but most importantly, the Hawks get significant cap flexibility. Hossa, who will never play again because of a skin disorder, was on long-term injured reserve last season, but dumping the contract on Arizona makes it much easier to actually use that cap space. The Hawks released a statement thanking Hossa for his memorable eight seasons with the Hawks (186 goals and 229 assists) and for waiving his no-movement clause to facilitate the trade. Hossa’s brilliant career ended abruptly last spring when doctors told him the side effects from the medications he took to combat the skin condition were too severe. Hossa will go down as the greatest free-agent signing in Chicago sports history, the last piece of the puzzle for the first of three Stanley Cup seasons. After reaching the Stanley Cup Final in consecutive years with the Penguins and Red Wings, he signed with the Hawks before the 2009-10 season. Over his 18-year career, the three-time 40-goal scorer reinvented himself as one of the game’s great defensive forwards. He finished his Hall of Fame career with 525 goals and 609 assists in 1,309 career games with the Senators, Thrashers, Penguins, Red Wings and Hawks.