Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The mid-winter blues

Seven questions for Jets fans amid the gloom of a brutal January slide

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It wasn't that long ago -- December, to be exact -- when a visit to the Winnipeg Jets' dressing room post game provided a glimpse at the euphoria that accompanies a winning hockey team in a hockey-crazed town.

And now... well, not so much.

To alter a phrase that head coach Claude Noel likes to use when the good times are rolling and it's high fives all around, right now there is "No joy in Joyland."

The Jets, so dominant in December, are 2-6 in January and after Tuesday night's 5-1 loss to the New Jersey Devils -- this after arguably their best road effort 24 hours earlier -- there were a lot of sour faces and cranky responses from Noel & Co.

And so, as the team closed quarters Wednesday while returning from Jersey it's given everyone who studies the Jets a chance to analyze and over-analyze where this squad is after 46 games and where it is headed with 36 contests remaining.

Some questions to discuss among yourselves as the Jets ready to face the Buffalo Sabres at the MTS Centre tonight:

THE INJURY QUESTION

Will the Jets ever be able to ice what most would consider their full lineup?

A completely healthy roster is not a luxury many teams are able to enjoy, but given that the Jets are a lunch pail and hard hat outfit to begin with, they certainly cannot succeed while missing key components for long stretches.

According to information provided by the Jets, the team has lost 170 man games due to injury: Derek Meech (37), Randy Jones (24), Ron Hainsey (24), Tobias Enstrom (20), Eric Fehr (19), Dustin Byfuglien (11), Nik Antropov (8), Bryan Little (8), Ben Maxwell (6), Zach Bogosian (4), Jim Slater (3), Blake Wheeler (2), Alex Burmistrov (2), Mark Stuart (2).

Worth noting here as an update: Bogosian, Byfuglien and Wheeler have all resumed skating and may soon return to the lineup; Wheeler perhaps as early as tonight's game against the Sabres.

WHEELING, DEALING

With the NHL trade deadline fast approaching -- Feb. 27, 2 p.m. -- will the Jets move some pieces to augment their roster? Further to that, what is their most glaring need -- a top six forward would be atop our list -- and who is their most movable asset?

FYI, the Jets have nine players who become unrestricted free agents at season's end: Jim Slater ($1 million), Tanner Glass ($750,000), Kyle Wellwood ($700,000), Tim Stapleton ($525,000), Johnny Oduya ($3.5 million), Randy Jones ($1.15 million), Derek Meech ($700,000), Mark Flood ($525,000) and Chris Mason ($1.85 million).

AWFUL IN SEQUELS

What would you do?

We're not the head coach but will be open to setting up a suggestion box outside his office. When your team is 0-7 in the second of games played on back-to-back nights, no idea is too obtuse or ridiculous. And knowing the Jets have six more back-to-back scenarios this season, including next Monday-Tuesday in Carolina and against the Rangers, this is a huge concern.

THE SCHEDULE PICTURE

Can the Jets stay in the fight until mid-February?

Winnipeg is home to Buffalo and Florida Thursday and Saturday but then plays six straight and eight of nine on the road. It's well-documented how iffy the Jets have been away from home -- 7-12-4 this year -- but if they can at least stay in the playoff conversation until the middle of next month, specifically through a visit to Minnesota on Feb. 16, then the post-season becomes more of a possibility.

After the date in St. Paul against the Wild, the Jets play eight in a row at home into early March and 14 of their final 23 at MTS Centre.

THE MENTAL TOUGHNESS EQUATION

Do the Jets have enough emotional jam to not only look adversity in the face, but then bop it in the lips?

Goaltender Chris Mason brought it up after the Jersey game -- being mentally tougher, that is -- when asked about the back-to-back problems and how poorly the Jets respond when giving up the first goal. On the scoring issue: Winnipeg is 15-7-2 when it find the net first, but 6-12-3 when the opponent does. Just by comparison, the Stanley Cup champion Bruins are is 12-10-1 when the other guys score first.

Another issue to consider: the third-period blues. The Jets are 0-14-2 when trailing after 40 minutes and has been out-scored 51-28 in third periods this season. Those numbers, quite obviously, must change.

MORE OFFENSIVE PUNCH

Can the Jets find more firepower from within?

Winnipeg's offensive ineptitude of late -- the team has just four goals in its last four games and has been held to a goal or less 16 times this year -- has dropped them into 23rd overall in offence at 2.5 goals per game.

Somebody, anybody, needs to step here. Evander Kane is goal-less in nine games; Alex Burmistrov hasn't scored since Dec. 23; it's 14 games and counting for Kyle Wellwood eight for Bryan Little, 11 for Tanner Glass, 14 for Antti Miettinen and 13 for Nik Antropov. That's a whole bunch of guys squeezing the stick right now.

THE BIG PICTURE

And, finally, Jet fans could ask themselves this question: given the team's relocation from Atlanta this summer, the scars left by the bite of the injury bug, the fact they are a team north of the 49th parallel playing in the Southeast Division and knowing this franchise has missed the post-season in four straight years and made it just once in 11, should three points out of playoff spot with 36 games remaining really be considered a disappointment?

ed.tait@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @WFPEdTait

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 19, 2012 0

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