At the beginning of the season, most people picked the Winnipeg Jets to miss the playoffs. I was not one of them. When I looked at their projected roster, there were many reasons to be excited about their potential. Mark Scheifele ended the previous season as the hottest player in the NHL. Nikolai Ehlers was very impressive with his speed and goal scoring prowess. To the surprise of many, Dustin Byfuglien had also signed an extension with the team without evening testing the UFA market. Add to that the fact they would have the 2nd overall pick Patrik Laine and US college standout Kyle Connor in the lineup, I liked the DNA of the team, considering where the NHL game is headed. Youth and speed.
So far this season has been up and down, with the team continually floating around the .500 mark. Just when you think they are about to take off, they come crashing back down. Not yet being able to produce a winning streak of 3 games or more, this season. The frustrating part about this is how they are able to totally dominate in one game, against the top teams in the NHL, and in the very next game appear to not even show up. And this has not happened just once. It has occurred several times during the season.
The most recent example of this was the game against the Montreal Canadiens. The Habs got off to an early lead, scoring two quick goals in the 1st, with the Jets responding not long after. However, the Habs struck for two more, during which goalie Connor Hellebuyck was chased from the crease. The see-saw battle continued until early in the 2nd, when Habs forward Phillip Danault scored on a highlight-reel, end-to-end rush. The goal itself resembled one you would see in a Sunday pick-up game at a local community club, played with little equipment and no contact. Danault dodged four Jets skaters before quickly ripping a wrist shot past goalie Michael Hutchinson. As a result of the goal, and after calling a timeout, coach Paul Maurice lit into his team, which ended up being the most talked about hockey story of the night. The tirade unleashed by their coach was a long time coming.
After looking at the replay a few times it got me thinking how the goal itself represents the Jets current situation. First, as Danault wound his way around the net he was being chased by Ehlers. Ehlers was not quick enough to catch up to him, and before you knew it, he was gone. Ehlers, is part of the youth movement of the Jets and up until Laine got hurt, they, along with Scheifele, were part of the most exciting and top producing lines in hockey. The Jets have one of the most promising pool of young players in the league, which includes the likes of Jacob Trouba, Josh Morrissey, Nic Petan, Jack Roslovic, Joel Armia, Brendan Lemieux, Eric Comrie, and Kyle Connor. As much as we’d like to see them immediately dominate and lead the team to a playoff spot, this doesn’t happen overnight. It does take time. Just as Ehlers wasn’t quite able to get to Danault on that play, the youth of this team may not quite be ready to lift this team into a playoff spot.
The next player Danault whiffed by was forward Drew Stafford. Stafford seemed to have the edge on Danault, but with a couple of quick strides combined with a light-hearted checking effort, he was gone. Stafford is an upcoming UFA and is part of the only big trade made by GM Kevin Cheveldayoff in the past 6 seasons. The trade sent Evander Kane, Zach Bogosian, and goalie prospect Jason Kasdorf to the Buffalo Sabres for Stafford, Tyler Myers, Lemieux, Armia, and a 1st round pick, which ended up being Roslovic. It was a great haul for Chevy, landing two roster players and three top prospects. However, in the final year of his contract, it’s more likely than not that Stafford ends up being traded at the trade deadline, regardless of whether the Jets are in a playoff hunt or not. The other player, Tyler Myers, appeared to be a shoe-in to be protected in the upcoming expansion draft, with Jets needing to decide whether to protect 8 skaters or 7 forwards, 3 defensemen, and a goalie. However, with back-to-back injury filled seasons and the emergence of Trouba, Myers may no longer be a lock to be protected. If he were to get chosen by the Vegas expansion team, the Jets would have lost two key components of this trade. This leaves the question: Has Chevy done enough on the trade front to improve this team immediately and make them a contender? Or it is too early to do this, based on their draft and develop model?
The third and fourth players who fell victim on the play, were Bryan Little and Dustin Byfuglien. Little was in the same position as Stafford, except on the opposite side, and ended with the same result. Then, when Danault crossed the blue line, instead of blocking his lane, Byfuglien attempted to step into him, which the Habs forward easily dodged, on his way unimpeded to the Jets net. Little and Buff represent the core of this team. The core that came from Atlanta when the Thrashers moved to Winnipeg. Slowly, some of these pieces have been moved, with the biggest and most recent being captain Andrew Ladd last season.
Coming into this season the biggest question was, who would take over as the captain of this team? Some were calling for their first 1st rd pick, Scheifele, to be named captain. Others saw Blake Wheeler being the natural successor in the role left by his close friend, Ladd. The trend in the league has been to give big contracts to young stars, with the bridge deals becoming less and less common. But is giving the captain’s role to an up-and-coming star asking too much? It was a decision both Maurice and Chevy needed to make wisely. One question being, is the core still the current focal part of this team? The biggest question going into last season is what would become of Ladd and Buff? Both players were set to become UFAs. Could the Jets afford to re-sign both, with the number of young players needing to be paid down the road? Should they move on from the core and allow the young players to step in and take over right away? In the end, they did both by trading Ladd, while keeping Buff. Keeping Buff appeared to be the smart move. A unique and dynamic player in a position that is so sought after and so tough to fill. However, thus far Buff has not had as strong season as last, which sometimes can be expected after a contract year. With that, coupled with the team’s recent struggles, the core question has again resurfaced. Two of these players, Little and Toby Enstrom, are signed until next season. Captain Wheeler has two more years, and Buff has four years left. It’s a question that may need to be addressed if this team fails to either improve or make the playoffs.
Finally, the last line of defense that Danault had to cross was the player standing in front of the net. Yes, the goaltender. No Jets position has been more closely scrutinized over the years than in goal. This play, Hutchinson did not have much of chance, with Danault pretty much having a clear cut breakaway as he put the wrist shot short side, past him. This hasn’t always been the case though. In the first five seasons, Ondrej Pavelec was given the opportunity to be the #1 goalie. With him in net, the Jets have made the postseason once over the previous five seasons only to be swept in four games by the Ducks. This season, the team decided to move on from Pavelec and give Connor Hellebuyck the opportunity to grow into the position, to see if he can take over as the team’s best goalie. Just like the rest of the team, Helle has had his ups and downs. One game, he shuts out the Blackhawks, and then he gets pulled in back-to-back games against the Habs and Arizona Coyotes. The success, or lack thereof, and the focal point has always seemed to revolve around save percentage. It’s not good enough. Not high enough. It’s below average. It seems to all come back to the chicken or the egg question. Is it the goaltending that is the problem? Or is it the team defense that needs improving? Or both for that matter?
The team knew going into this season that they were taking a risk going with two inexperienced goalies. They have also been handcuffed by the Hutch situation, in not wanting to send him down and expose him to waivers, due the upcoming expansion draft. Despite having to still pay Pavs, should Chevy had gone out and signed or traded for a veteran backup, in case Hellebuyck faltered? As they say, hindsight is 20/20, but outside the entry draft, this is the only position that Chevy has not made a significant move via free agency or trade. Yet it is a position that, right or wrong, continues to be the most magnified. While they have tried to move Pavelec, they have thus far found no takers due to his contract. This may change as it gets closer to the deadline. However, this may be preventing them from bringing in another goalie, such as Jaroslav Halak, who you can argue has had more success than Pavs.
One end-to-end play which mirrors and exposes the issues, decisions, and questions, which, depending on how the season goes, the Jets may need to address sooner than later.
Editor’s Note: Pavelec was re-called to the Jets as of the date of this article (January 17th, 2017).