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Connor Hellebuyck trade destinations: 7 teams that could (and should) be interested

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Elite goalies don’t grow on trees. Just look around the league today, there are only so many franchise goaltenders. Connor Hellebuyck is one of them, so why would the Jets want to trade him with that in mind?

Winnipeg probably doesn’t want to. But the direction of this team moving forward may decide how they need to proceed with their No. 1 goaltender. If the Jets are thinking about a rebuild or even a retool, then trading Hellebuyck is a legitimate conversation to have. If the player holds firm that he doesn’t want to be a part of that process like he did after the Jets’ season ended, it’s in management’s best interest to move him ahead of his contract expiring next summer to maximize the return. That return could really push the process forward if teams are willing to splurge, too.

So teams should start kicking the tires to see if there’s a chance the Jets could move Hellebuyck.

The wild card is the cost, because there’s no clear framework set by recent trades. Franchise forwards and defenders have been moved in the last few years, but the same isn’t true for goalies.

But before digging into what acquiring Hellebuyck might cost, besides the cap space of his next contract, there are two big questions to answer: Why should teams want the goalie? And who should be interested?

What Hellebuyck brings to a lineup, and why teams should be interested

Hellebuyck is a Vezina-caliber No. 1 goalie. Few teams can say they have that. Those that do, including the PredatorsLightningRangers and Islanders, had to draft and develop their own to reach that level.

While high-end goalies can move teams — take Linus UllmarkDarcy Kuemper and Jacob Markstrom, for example — goaltenders of Hellebuyck’s caliber usually don’t.

Hellebuyck’s consistently been among the top goalies in the league at year’s end. He’s coming off a season where he earned a .920 save percentage. When accounting for the quality of shots he faced, the Jets’ No. 1 netminder saved a career-high 33.6 goals above expected. Relative to his workload, he’s been above average in six out of eight seasons; he’s been particularly strong over the last four years. This is a goaltender who can mask the defensive weaknesses in front of him, manage a busy workload in terms of shot and scoring chance volume and playing time, and can outright steal games. So he can fit on a lot of teams. Hellebuyck isn’t a goalie who needs to be sheltered at this point in his career or needs a structured team who won’t allow much back. The Jets have tested him, and he’s responded almost every year with an excellent performance.

That’s why teams should be interested in Hellebuyck if he becomes available.

The risk is that goaltending is such a volatile position we all — including NHL teams — could learn a lot about still. That can scare off teams from signing a player long term, especially a goalie who will be 31 years old when that contract starts. Someone of Hellebuyck’s caliber is rightfully going to command a lot on that next deal — more than his current $6.2 million cap hit, and very likely more than his actual salary for next year of $7.5 million. But can teams truly bet on his high level continuing through the life of his next, probably very expensive contract?

That’s going to be a key question facing any interested team, considering how some other big 30-plus signings have gone in net.

Who should be interested?

Buffalo Sabres

Stability in net would go a long way for the up-and-coming Sabres. Four goalies rotated this season. Eric Comrie and Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen had less than stellar results, allowing a combined 19.3 goals above expected in their minutes. Craig Anderson had been solid in 26 games, but the 42-year-old hung up his skates after this season.

Then there’s Devon Levi, who appears to be the future of this team. The 21-year-old joined at the end of the year, after his season with Northeastern University ended, and impressed through seven games. But there’s a question of readiness with the young goalie — is he up to the task of playing consistently at the NHL level? And can he manage that workload behind a team that tends to give up a lot of shots and chances against?

Seven NHL games is a lot different than playing 40-plus, and that’s something the Sabres likely want as they try to push back into the playoff picture.

That’s why, as Michael Russo and Eric Duhatschek reported in the latest NHL Trade Board, the Sabres could take a swing at the goaltender, bringing in a No. 1 goalie to be their backbone and letting Levi develop at his own pace.

Hellebuyck would add more certainty, but any long-term deal could block Levi’s path, so there are cons to this idea too. It all depends on how aggressive the Sabres want to be; they have the assets and the cap space to shake things up.

New Jersey Devils

The other team linked to Hellebuyck on the trade board is New Jersey.

After an abysmal year in 2021-22 in net, New Jersey found a bit more consistency with Vitek Vanecek. The Devils didn’t make their goalie face a ton of shots, but he responded well to his workload until some late regular-season struggles that may have been attributed to him adjusting to an expanded workload.

The playoffs are when their goaltending issues really became costly. For the second straight year, Vanecek lost his starting net early in the playoffs. And he was below average in three of four appearances against Carolina, too. While Akira Schmid stood tall against the Rangers, he stumbled against the Hurricanes and only earned one quality start.

With New Jersey’s window opening this year, management has to capitalize on it. That’s why there may be more emphasis on the goaltending position, despite some of the highs of this past regular season.

Hellebuyck is as ‘right now’ of an option as it gets, and the free-agent market isn’t exactly inspiring between the likes of Jonathan QuickSemyon VarlamovTristan JarryFrederik Andersen and Antti Raanta. The most attractive options likely include Joonas Korpisalo and Adin Hill, but they may be spoken for if they stick around with their current teams. So management may have to look for a goalie via trade if they aren’t comfortable and confident in what they have. But acquiring Hellebuyck would create a roadblock for Schmid, especially if he looks for a deal that’s more than three or four years.

The Devils, like the Sabres, can spend to acquire a high-end goalie. The cap situation may take a bit more balancing, though, because there are two key forward contracts, among a few other pending free agents, to manage first.

Pittsburgh Penguins

The clock is ticking in Pittsburgh. Their core is aging and Sidney Crosby only has two more years on his contract. Missing the playoffs was a total failure for the Penguins, and now ownership is building a new management team to lead this group forward.

High on the docket will be figuring out the goaltending situation for the next general manager. Tristan Jarry is a pending unrestricted free agent, and the Penguins have reason to walk. While he’s put up solid regular seasons, he hasn’t performed as well in the playoffs, and there are some injury concerns. Casey DeSmith has one year left, and the 31-year-old really isn’t the starter of a true contender that has a ton riding on these next two years.

So it would be in the Penguins’ best interest to look outside of their current options and find someone who can help push this team forward. That’s where a trade with the Jets could come in.

The problem is asset management. A contender really doesn’t need to be super concerned with future assets if moves can help them accomplish their goals right now. The Penguins have to figure out how much they want to win now, and how much they need to balance that with the long run. Acquiring Hellebuyck will deplete future assets, without question. Even if management can find a way to balance the goalie’s next contract with Jake Guentzel’s financially, they have to decide how many picks and prospects they’d be willing to part with.

Ottawa Senators

The Senators put in the work over the last year to become a more disruptive force in the East. Ottawa added Alex DeBrincatClaude Giroux and Jakob Chychrun to strengthen their forward group and blue line. With a healthy Josh Norris back in the fold next year, a full year of Chychrun, and more progression from the likes of Tim StützleJake Sanderson and Shane Pinto, the potential grows.

But there’s still work to be done this summer. There’s room for tweaks up front and on the back end, but goaltending is what will generate the most attention. Cam Talbot’s contract is up, while Anton Forsberg has another year left. Then there are four younger options, who all played a couple of games at the NHL level this past season.

The Senators could easily move forward with one of their more inexperienced goalies, rotate them with Forsberg, and keep progressing forward. Or, Ottawa could look to make a splash back in net after shaking things up at forward and defense with big moves.

Ottawa’s draft stock may be low this year, but they have picks in 2024 and 2025 that could be traded, along with prospects, for a true No. 1 goalie. That could take the Pesky Sens from disruptor status to playoff team very quickly to try and maximize the prime years of some of their core skaters.

Vegas Golden Knights

The Golden Knights have two goalies signed for the next two years in Logan Thompson and Robin Lehner, whose status is a question mark. They could extend Laurent Brossoit or Adin Hill after solid performances from both in the regular season and playoffs to have a more cost-effective crease.

But if Vegas is tempted to go for a little more security in net, finding a way to add Hellebuyck would be in their wheelhouse. Somehow, the Golden Knights always make their way into the conversation around high-profile player additions. So if Hellebuyck officially comes available, will it be surprising to see Vegas check in? Every team without a true No. 1 should do that, at minimum.

The logistics are where Vegas will have a problem, because they have little cap space to work with and have spent so many future assets through the years. Management would have to decide what they could part with not just via trade, but likely with another cap dump.

Toronto Maple Leafs

Like Vegas, the big question for Toronto will be ‘how in the world can they afford this?’ The Maple Leafs don’t have a ton of picks in the first few rounds over the next three years after busy deadlines. Then there’s the cap issue, pressured by impending raises to the likes of Auston Matthews and William Nylander in 2024 and then Mitch Marner in 2025.

But considering the pressure on this team, under new management that’s to be decided, to maximize these next couple of years before those costs rise (or players depart), there may be a desire to have more security in net.

Ilya Samsonov, who is a restricted free agent this summer, was better than expected in Toronto this year. But he doesn’t have a huge history to fall back on. Matt Murray, who has another year on his deal, was sidelined with injury a few times, and disappointing when healthy.

Maybe new management will want to bring change to the blue paint, and Hellebuyck obviously is the best option around. It’s just not very plausible without moving a big piece out to clear cap and bring back assets. But that doesn’t seem to be off the table just yet.

Los Angeles Kings

The Kings’ goalie situation probably wasn’t what management expected when the 2022-23 season started. Cal Petersen failed to reach expectations in the first year of his $15 million extension. Franchise goalie Jonathan Quick was moved at the deadline. Pheonix Copley became a key part of the crease, and Joonas Korpisalo was their big deadline add.

Goaltending isn’t what ended the Kings’ season, but it wasn’t perfect in the postseason, either. And there’s no clarity on what next year’s crease will look like just yet — a combination of Copley and Petersen, the two signed for next year, isn’t the most encouraging. If Korpisalo, a pending unrestricted free agent, doesn’t return, management may have to look elsewhere for some help.

Without any true stars on the free-agent market, maybe management spots a low-key add to increase their depth. But if they want a true No. 1 and difference-maker, after some of the chaos in goal this past regular season, Hellebuyck brings intrigue. Cap space will open up when Anze Kopitar’s $10 million cap hit expires after next season, among other lesser contracts. That could line up with an extension for the goalie. This team has assets to move via trade after rebuilding their prospect pool through the years, and has been willing to move them for impactful right-now pieces.

“There he goes. One of God's own prototypes.

A high-powered mutant of some kind, never even considered for mass production.

Too weird to live, and too rare to die.”

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