FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Life on the bubble is interesting, to say the least. For the Winnipeg Jets and their fans, every game feels like a playoff contest right now.
Wins can send spirits soaring and losses feel like a kick from an angry boot.
The reality, however, is this will continue for the forseeable future -- until the Jets distance themselves from the playoff border or fall entirely out of the race.
So, this is your lot in life as a Jets fans these days. Gutting it out with your team on a nightly basis. Every save magnified, every lead to be clung to and every comeback prayed for.
It's agonizing, but hypertension beats the numbed trance of fans with a team not in the race. Or, as Winnipeggers can surely remember, not having a team at all.
Here are some observations from the press box as the Jets hit the road for, get used to this phrase, an all-important road trip.
MISSING Toby -- The Jets lost blue-liner Toby Enstrom with just over one minute expired in a Feb. 15 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Including that loss to the Penguins, the Jets have gone 5-4 without Enstrom in the lineup. The power play, however, has slid off the face of the Earth, going 1-for-24 -- a 4.2 per cent clip -- dipping to a league ranking of 23rd. Prior to Enstrom's injury the Jets held a record of 5-6-1. The power play was much more productive, scoring nine times on 46 tries for 19.6 per cent, 12th in the league.
TO sign or not to sign: Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff will have to make decisions on seven unrestricted free agents at season's end. Up front, Nik Antropov, Kyle Wellwood and Antti Miettinen are all at the end of their deals. On the blue-line, Ron Hainsey, Grant Clitsome and Derek Meech as well as goalie Al Montoya will be free.
It's hard to imagine Antropov and Wellwood returning and Miettinen hasn't been healthy long enough to really get a read on. Clitsome and Meech are depth players and if the price is right they provide value. Montoya has appeared in four games and been solid when called upon. Same deal with him -- if the money is right he could be back.
The real debate right now among fans and pundits is over Ron Hainsey. The veteran is averaging around 23 minutes per game, has eight hits, 58 blocked shots, no goals and seven assists after 21 games. Hainsey is a plus-two on the season and has stepped in for Zach Bogosian, Dustin Byfuglien and Enstrom when they've been hurt. Hainsey is making $3 million this season, not out of whack for his contribution.
For me, the bottom line on Hainsey is he can skate and move the puck. His big flaws are his lack of compete and the absence of a physical element to his game. He's not a top-4 D-man on a playoff team. It's not inconceivable the Jets re-sign him but it will have to be in a more limited role if they're going to make a step forward as an organization. It will be interesting to see how Cheveldayoff handles any interest surrounding Hainsey at the trade deadline.
QUICK hits: Ondrej Pavelec has found his game and the Jets have moved back into the playoff race. Pavelec has kept his team in games with timely saves and excellent positional play. Credit goalie coach Wade Flaherty for some of this, as he and Pavelec have been spending a lot of time working together of late...Head coach Claude Noel and assistant Charlie Huddy have convinced Dustin Byfuglien to pick his spots a little better and it makes the player far more effective. When Byfuglien limits his rushes he's better in his own zone and not gassed every time he embarks on a trip up ice... James Wright has been a nice waiver-wire pickup. He sees the game well and can move. He can fill a third-line role in this league for a long time. If he had a little bite or some offensive punch he could become a very valuable player... The Jets will have eight restricted free agents after this season, key among them forwards Blake Wheeler, Bryan Little, Alex Burmistrov and defenceman Zach Bogosian. Cheveldayoff will want all these players back, but Bogosian is the centrepiece. If the Jets can get him on a long-term deal and prospect Jacob Trouba pans out, the blue-line will have a core of Byfuglien, Enstrom, Bogosian and Trouba. A mixture of skill and physical presence. Not bad... With winger Anthony Peluso (hand) out of the lineup expect Miettinen to go in and play with fellow Finn Olli Jokinen. Miettinen had some solid years on Mikko Koivu's wing in Minnesota. Maybe Miettinen and Jokinen are the tonic for one another.
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