The Winnipeg Jets goalie also had a secret strength in his breakout year: Extraordinary confidence.
And the source of that confidence is a deeply rooted personal decision and commitment he made when he became serious about hockey at the age of 18, right before he started playing junior for Odessa (Texas) of the North American Hockey League in 2011-12.
It was then that he saw “The Secret,” a 2006 self-help, life-coaching and spiritual film by Australian Rhonda Byrne, who authored the book by the same name later that year, at the suggestion of his parents.
“It’s about believing in something to the point where you just naturally do everything toward that goal,” said Hellebuyck, 25. “So if I wanted to be in the NHL, then you truly believe you’ll be in the NHL. Everything you do naturally moves around getting you to the NHL.
“I have that same thought system that I’m going to be top level and everything naturally falls into that. That’s the best way I can describe it to you.”
Hellebuyck’s belief system has become a complete mindset that guides everything he does every waking minute.
For instance, “The Secret” prompted him to stop thinking about anything in life as a problem, be it messed-up dinner plans or a shot that beat him five-hole.
“I just see learning curves now,” he said. “Mistakes are not problems, they are something you can learn from.”
He also started addressing issues immediately.
“I worked hard at identifying something, then trying to instantly fix it,” he said. “You work on something so the mistake doesn’t happen again.”
When Hellebuyck played for Odessa, he and Joe Clark, his goalie coach and general manager, used to go over his play after every game, sorting out “the good, the bad and the ugly.
“I wanted to get it off my brain so that I didn’t waste brainpower or stress on it again,” he said.
He also said he adopted a changed view of goaltending.
“When I was in high school, I used to think it was about getting to a spot, into perfect position, then the puck will hit you,” he said. “Now I realize there’s a lot of hands that come into it and that position gives you the best chance for your hands.”
And big-picture thoughts changed, too.
“I told myself in high school I’d do whatever it took to make it,” Hellebuyck said. “And when I got to college and late in juniors, I changed my mindset, not just to make it but to be the best and to prove why I’m the best. You’re never just the best, you have to continually prove it and improve it.”
Hellebuyck’s progress in many of these areas was dramatic last season, when he finished second to Pekka Rinne of the Nashville Predators in the Vezina voting as the top goalie in the NHL. Hellebuyck (6-foot-4, 207 pounds), was 44-11-9 with a 2.36 goals-against average and .924 save percentage in 64 starts, tying Andrei Vasilevskiy of the Tampa Bay Lightning for most wins while setting an NHL single-season record for wins by a United States-born goalie.
He helped the Jets finish with 114 points and reach the Western Conference Final, where they were defeated in five games by the Vegas Golden Knights.
Now he has a clear picture of the next step, that his own details, process and confidence will be keys to a better outcome than last season.
“I would not be happy with myself if I didn’t achieve the same outcome, or at least give myself a chance to,” said Hellebuyck, who is 2-1-0 with a 2.33 GAA and .926 save percentage this season. “This team is going to be good for a while, I truly believe that. We have great character in the room, great leadership. The playoff run was so awesome (for) the city and so awesome in the locker room. I can’t see myself enjoying anything less than that.”
Selected by the Jets in the fifth round (No. 130) of the 2012 NHL Draft, Hellebuyck will be doing that with high expectations in Winnipeg and a six-year, $37 million contract (average annual value $6.16 million) he agreed to July 12.
“I’m absolutely ready,” he said. “I have spent a little time thinking about (expectations) and then I realize it’s a drain on me. I just want to forget about those things and go out and play the best I possibly can.”
The Jets (2-1-0) play the Nashville Predators at Bridgestone Arena on Thursday (8 p.m. ET; FS-TN, TSN3, NHL.TV) and say they have noticed how Hellebuyck’s confidence is a factor in his growth.
“Goalies are a little quirky,” center Adam Lowry said. “It’s a tough job. When you’re playing well, you’re kind of on top of the world and when you’re struggling, the world’s ending and it’s all your fault. It’s important you have that belief in yourself. We’re very fortunate to have a guy like him.”
Jets forward Andrew Copp first saw Hellebuyck in college. Copp was playing for the University of Michigan and Hellebuyck made 38 saves to help the University of Massachusetts-Lowell to a 2-1 victory Oct. 26, 2013.
“He stood on his head and we still talk about that game … but he’s always been good,” Copp said. “Goalie is such a unique position, where it’s like a pitcher in baseball that you have to have that arrogance walking out to the mound. His first year in the NHL he didn’t have as good a year as he wanted and we kind of hung him out to dry at times. But there was no chance his arrogance, belief and confidence was just going to go away.”
Hellebuyck’s first two NHL seasons included a variety of successes and struggles on an inconsistent Jets team that missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs in those seasons (2015-16 and 2016-17).
None of that deterred him.
“I would say and did say I expect myself to be elite and even when things weren’t going well, I felt like things were getting better, so I know I was building to get better,” he said. “So in my head, I was doing the right things and sooner or later it would show up.”