connor hellebuyck

Day 1 of the 2013 NCAA Men’s Ice Hockey Tournament did not disappoint on Friday, as we witnessed one bracket-busting shocker and a couple of very impressive goaltending performances. Below are some of my thoughts and notes on three of the first four games of opening-round action.

Saturday’s action is underway, and another bracket-buster is complete. St. Cloud State defeated Notre Dame 5-1 to advance to the second round, so they’ll play the winner of Miami (Ohio) and Minnesota State.

YALE 3, MINNESOTA 2 (OT)

Yale’s thrilling 3-2 OT victory over Minnesota was a gut-spilling end to Adam Wilcox’s impressive rookie season. He had no chance on the game-winner by Jesse Root, which stemmed from a great forecheck by Kenny Agostino, who forced a turnover behind the net. Wilcox tried to push off his left post and throw his right arm and stick out, but failed to deflect a puck that beat him over the shoulder just nine seconds into overtime.

Wilcox showed some visible nerves in the game’s opening minutes, but despite some shaky footwork and dangerous passing plays, he stood tall with 11 saves in a scoreless first period. Jeff Malcolm was a bit more comfortable and poised in the first period, but he was well-insulated, only having to make seven saves.

Wilcox’s game smoothed out during the second period, even when he was sniped over the right shoulder by Agostino at the 7:08 mark. Adam was able to square up to the shot on the developing 4-on-2 play, but Agostino had plenty of time and space to find the sweet spot just over the blocker. Wilcox stayed up on his feet and didn’t drop early, but he simply couldn’t get a piece of the well-placed wrist shot, which was fired from just above the hash marks.

Gus Young extended Yale’s lead with a power play goal eight minutes later, a shot that once again beat Wilcox on the blocker side. On this goal, Adam appeared to be distracted by a strong net-front presence from Yale’s 6-foot-4 forward Antoine Laganiere.

Laganiere’s big body was stationed right on top of the crease after the initial 3-on-2 rush turned into a broken play due to a blocked shot. Wilcox instinctively dropped on that blocked shot, then had to slide to his left to square up to the loose puck, which was whiffed on by another Yale forward. That forced Adam to drop again, then shift his body to his right while recovering back to his skates for a second time. Laganiere was taking away Wilcox’s eyes and space throughout the entire recovery sequence, so when Young’s seeing-eye wrist shot was finally released, Wilcox, who was back up on his skates, couldn’t get a piece of it through traffic.

Knowing Wilcox had no chance on the game-winner, this was a game where I felt like he deserved a better fate. He finished with 23 saves on 26 shots.

Overall, I thought Wilcox was tense early, but became more relaxed and comfortable as the game went along. He was his usual adventurous self when he was moving and playing the puck, but he’s so good at reading plays and then retreating back to his net behind his strong skating skills.

Despite the rough loss, it was a treat to watch Wilcox this season. A few areas of his game can be cleaned up a bit this summer, but ultimately, I’m still wildly impressed with his skill-set.

One point I’ll make as a way of encapsulating everything I’ve learned about him this season:

He’s really good at gauging the different speeds of the game, whether it’s the speed of a forechecker applying pressure when he’s moving the puck, the speed of a wrist shot, or the speed at which  shot speed, speed of odd-man rushes, etc. Combine that with his athleticism and raw instincts, even if he doesn’t have the same statistical success as a sophomore, his pro upside will continue to improve as he gains more experience.

Take nothing away from some of the timely saves made by Malcolm, but I did not see much pro upside in his game. He did seal the ice well and make some good paddle-down saves, but his skating needs to improve, as does his overall mobility. His footwork is not very polished, and while he competes hard to seal holes and cover loose pucks, he’s not the type of NCAA goalie I consider to be a “technically sound” prospect.

Nevertheless, as I mentioned in my preview piece, sometimes the underdogs or “unknown” goalies are the ones that come up with the biggest wins. Experience plays a huge role in the NCAA tournament, and if there’s one area where Malcolm was strong, it was his composure and even-keeled presence in the crease.

He finished with 26 saves on 28 shots and is currently facing North Dakota on Saturday night.

UMASS-LOWELL 6, WISCONSIN 1

This game was not on ESPNU live, so I caught most of the replay later at night. This game was seemingly dominated by the RiverHawks for the entire 60 minutes, and the unquestionable defensive star was Winnipeg Jets prospect Connor Hellebuyck.

I’ve all but erased the term “blocking goalie” from my scouting vernacular, but only because today’s goaltending styles are not static. All NCAA-level goalies know that styles are predicated on situations, and that means the blocking save is a save selection, not a style. It’s more about decision-making and knowing when to use the blocking save, and in what kind of situations.

But the more I watched Hellebuyck against Wisconsin, the more I came to realize that he really is a “blocking-style” goalie. In so many instances, he was dropping, making himself big, letting pucks hit him, and then relying on his defense to clear loose pucks or tie up opponents so he could recover and square up again.

There was very little excess movement in his game, but I felt that a big part of this was due to the fact he’s not the strongest skater. Because of this, I think he’s forced to simplify his game by playing inside the blue paint and utilizing his big frame as much as possible.

What makes Connor such an interesting prospect is the fact that he has a “steely resolve” in the crease. He looks completely unfazed by anything happening around him, which is pretty remarkable for a freshman coming straight out of the NAHL. He has a quiet look about him, and it was really noticeable when he was being interviewed by ESPNU during a TV timeout.

What really resonated in my mind was a statement he made on ESPNU when he described his style. He called it “big and boring” and that really revealed to me a lot of what I’ve explained above — he does nothing fancy or flashy, he simply makes the first save and gets his body behind pucks in whatever manner necessary.

It’s not pretty, but it’s effective.

I was also interested to hear the broadcasters on ESPNU comment on how he had been working with former UML goaltender Dwayne Roloson. That opened the door for some more insights into his style, as Roloson was one of the true “old school” goalies that thrived by competing hard and reading plays extremely well.

Even though it wasn’t always pretty, there was no denying that Hellebuyck was making big saves throughout the game. The only shot that beat him came on a Wisconsin power play in the third period, and hit deflected off two bodies, so it wasn’t a result of a bad read or a mental lapse. He even stopped a penalty shot by Wisconsin’s Jeff Dahl late in the first period when the score was 1-0 UML.

Wisconsin may have been dominated in this game, but they out-shot the RiverHawks 11-4 in the first 20 minutes. Even when Wisconsin scored to pull within 3-1 in the third period, Hellebuyck’s steadying presence during the ensuing few minutes squashed whatever momentum Wisconsin had.

Hellebuyck finished with 31 saves and a chance to make the Frozen Four with a win over UNH on Saturday night.

To be honest, this guy fascinates me because I have so many questions about his style, and how it affects his long-term upside. Can he really thrive at the higher levels playing this way? Does the “drop-and-block” mentality allow him to develop the athleticism he’ll need at the next level? Can he improve to the point where he’s a solid pro-level goalie?

Regardless of these questions, and regardless of how much of his success stems from the team in front of him, the saves he made against Wisconsin were pretty impressive.

No, the footwork wasn’t polished, and no, he’s not the quickest goalie out there, but he was clearly the difference-maker, and at the end of the day, that’s all any head coach cares about.

NORTH DAKOTA 2, NIAGARA 1

Maybe the most impressive performance I watched on Friday night came from Hobey Baker finalist Carsen Chubak.

Super-athletic and with a propensity for the flashy, acrobatic save, Chubak is a high-energy goalie with an extremely high level of compete in the crease. His movements are explosive, he’s very aggressive with his angles and positioning, and he’s never out of a play.

Because of his gifted mobility and footwork, he really excelled at covering loose pucks in the crease. He pounced on them with visible speed, and due to his small frame and condensed stance, he sealed the ice extremely well. Even when North Dakota tried to snipe him under the bar, Chubak fended off shots with his shoulder, arms, and gloves.

Chubak single-handedly put Niagara in place for the upset. Time and time again, no matter who had the scoring chance for North Dakota, Carsen had an answer. Technically sound on initial shots, when he did give up a rebound, his mobility gave him the edge needed to get pieces of second chances. Whether he had to dive on his side or lunge out to take away time and space from an elevated shot, he simply found a way to make the save.

“When we first started to work with Chubs he worried we would take away his athleticism, instead we worked together to use it,” Mind The Net goalie coach Travis Harrington said to me on Twitter. “Chubak’s game management is incredible. He reads and understands the game well. Always asking questions.”

Chubak’s story for Niagara began with an injury-riddled past. He had reconstructive knee surgery during his freshman year, and then had hip surgery before his sophomore year.

His perseverance over the past three years not only led him to a remarkable run this season, but it helped him out-perform the entire North Dakota team for all but 57 seconds in the 2-1 loss. That’s all it took for UND to take the lead in the third period and seal the deal, which killed any chance of a fairy-tale finish for the Purple Eagles.

Despite the loss, Chubak finished with 41 saves, many of which were of the acrobatic and aggressive variety, and he was one of the game’s biggest stars.

Zane Gothberg flew under the radar in this game due to Chubak’s inspiring performance, but he was very solid in his own right. Similar to what I saw in Wilcox, the freshman was visibly shaky early, but settled into a good rhythm by the second period.

Niagara’s lone goal may be considered of the “weak” variety by many analysts, but it was a tricky read. Jason Beattie’s wrist shot barely snuck under a sliding block from a defenseman, which coincidentally took away Zane’s ability to track the release. It slipped under both players and gave Niagara the 1-0 lead at the 6:27 mark of the second period.

Gothberg stopped 15-of-16 shots in the middle frame, and many of their chances were high-quality. One of his biggest saves came on a partial breakaway by Niagara’s Ryan Murphy with five minutes left in the second. That save gave him a visible boost of confidence, and despite the added pressure of a come-from-behind 2-1 lead, he was technically sound in the third period and stopped all seven shots he faced.

But what impressed me the most was Gothberg’s overall net coverage. In tight or through traffic, he was able to make some dynamic saves, and even in one instance, dropping his stick and covering a loose puck with his blocker hand. He has good structure to his technical game for a freshman, and his big upper body takes away some of the space in the top corners.

Enjoy the games on Saturday and be sure to check back tomorrow for another blog post on the goalies!

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One Response to NCAA: Hellebuyck, Chubak Impress on Opening Day

  1. [...] His college coach Dave Burkholder had this to say about him: He is so athletic that he’ll come up with that [Dominik] Hasek-like save where everyone in the building is in shock. Because he’s not blessed with that 6-2, 6-3 frame, he’s at the top of the crease and uses athleticism and quickness, and his rebound control is phenomenal. I’m amazed in practice at how good this kid is. Listed at just 5’11″, 170 lbs., he certainly lacks ideal size at his position. However, Justin Goldman, director of goalie scouting for McKeen’s Hockey had nothing but positive things to say about him in a recap of a matchup vs. University of North Dakota in late March: [...]

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