The UMass Lowell River Hawks suffered a few losses this offseason, but none were bigger than the loss of standout goaltender Connor Hellebuyck. The Commerce, Mich. native opted to sign a three-year, two-way entry level contract with the Winnipeg Jets and start his professional career next season. Hellebuyck was the Jets’ fifth round selection (104th overall) in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft.
This news came as a shock to some and a forgone conclusion to others, as the River Hawks also lost underclassmen Scott Wilson to the Pittsburgh Penguins and Christian Folin to the Minnesota Wild not days before. Additionally, Hellebuyck’s fellow net-minder Doug Carr graduated and signed an amateur try-out contract with the Abbotsford Heat. Carr is set to make his American Hockey League debut this coming weekend.
The loss of two of the top goaltenders in the country is a tough thing for a team to overcome to the following season. However, the River Hawks may have found the answer with a top-ranked incoming freshmen goaltender from the British Columbia Hockey League.
Jeff Smith committed to the UMass Lowell River Hawks in December 2013 and was expected to return to the Powell River Kings for the 2014-15 season, but his arrival on the UMass Lowell campus has been accelerated and Smith with be in a River Hawk jersey for the 2014-15 Hockey East season.
Smith may be the next UMass Lowell player to be drafted by an National Hockey League team in this June’s NHL Entry Draft. The Maple Ridge, BC native was selected as the 19th ranked North American goaltender in the NHL Central Scouting 2014 North American goaltender final ranks on Tuesday.
As a rookie, Smith posted a 20-10-1 record with a league leading 2.25 goals-against average and a .923 save percentage in 34 games this season for the Kings in 2013-14. The 6-foot-1, 205-pound goaltender had a less than stellar playoff run with the Kings, having posted a 4-4 record with a 2.98 GAA and .900 save percentage. The Kings were knocked out of the playoffs in the second round by the Victoria Grizzlies.
Hellebuyck’s shoes are big enough to fill just based on his size (6-foot-3 and 201 pounds), but also in his ability to play between the pipes. Is Smith the direct replacement for Hellebuyck? Of course not, Hellebuyck was the best goaltender to ever put the UMass Lowell jersey on and will surely be miss. However, Smith should do just fine under the tutelage of two-time Hockey East Coach of the Year Norm Bazin. Additionally, Smith will have the help of Massachusetts transfer Kevin Boyle and current backup goaltender Brian Robbins.
Only time will tell if UMass Lowell can recover from the loss of Hellebuyck, but don’t sleep on Jeff Smith in 2014-15.
Be sure to tune into the 2014 NHL Entry Draft on June 27 and 28 at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Penn. and follow our coverage of any River Hawks who might get drafted.
Take a look at the other North American goaltenders ranked in the NHL CSS 2014 North American goaltender final ranks top-30.