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Soar or nosedive in second half?

Must be the former if Jets are to have chance at playoffs

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Jets goalie Ondrej Pavelec and D-man Zach Bogosian hustle to reach the general vicinity of the net too late in Edmonton on Monday.

JASON FRANSON /THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES Enlarge Image

Jets goalie Ondrej Pavelec and D-man Zach Bogosian hustle to reach the general vicinity of the net too late in Edmonton on Monday.

Shake off the lingering after-effects of holiday indulgence -- the turkey and trimmings, the eggnog, the frankincense and myrrh -- and gather around the newspaper, Winnipeg Jets fans.

Yes, as much as the first chunk of the season has served up more disappointment than glory, there remains plenty of time -- what with 52.4 per cent of their National Hockey League season left -- for this confounding squad to get back into the playoff conversation...

... Or nosedive and be deep-sixed before the Olympic break in early February.

With the Jets back on the ice today and playing host to the Minnesota Wild, it might be a perfect chance to take a peek back at what's in the rear-view mirror and what lies ahead.

Please read carefully, there may be a test...

 

THE BASICS

Record: 16-18-5, 37 pts.

Standing: 6th in the Central Division; 11th in Western Conference; 20th overall

 

THE SCHEDULE

Games remaining: 43

vs. Central Division: 12 (Colorado - 3; Dallas, Nashville, St. Louis - 2; Minnesota, Chicago - 1).

vs. Western Conference: 14

vs. Eastern Conference: 17

At home: 21

on the road: 22

Worth nothing: The Jets have four remaining back-to-back series. To date they have a record of 2-3 in the first half, but are winless in the second at 0-4-1.

 

TRENDING UP

Hardly a whisper now from all those who thought Mark Scheifele needed to be in the AHL, rather than with the big club, earlier this season. In fact, the decision to keep Scheifele in the NHL might be the wisest move management has made this year. In just under half a campaign his game has matured immensely. He's a reliable defensive player and is now flashing the offensive skills that made him a first-round draft pick. He has six points (3G 3A) in his last four games and has appeared on the scoresheet in 11 of his last 15 (5G 8A).

Does he need to get stronger on his skates and mature physically? Absolutely. But his growth through half a year has been substantial.

 TRENDING DOWN

Dustin Byfuglien was a difference maker for all the wrong reasons in the most recent loss to Edmonton and in the last 17 games has been a plus player for the Jets just three times. He's tied for second on the team in scoring with 27 points (6G 21A) in 39 games -- third among NHL defencemen -- but is also a team-worst minus-15. He seems to be most effective when working with Toby Enstrom, but recently has been paired with Adam Pardy.

FIVE BIGGEST QUESTIONS/CONCERNS

1. Do the Jets have the components to make a real sprint to the playoffs?

To close the gap between themselves and the teams at the playoff line such as Minnesota and Phoenix, Winnipeg will have to bang out some 7-3, 8-2 runs over 10-game stretches. But the Jets haven't won consecutive games since knocking off New Jersey and the Islanders -- on the road -- Nov. 25-27. The last time the Jets went on a juicy run was last Feb. 24-March 16 when they were 8-2-1 over an 11-game stretch. Since, the club is 25-28-6 overall.

Sportsclubstats.com, which has the Jets' playoff chances at a measly 0.7 per cent, predicts for them to have just a 52.3 per cent chance of qualifying for the post-season, they'll have to go 27-10-6 in the final 43 games. Hello.

2. It's the goal of any team in hockey, basketball or football: Be dominant at home and at least .500 on the road. The Jets' 8-8-4 record at MTS Centre is only 19th best in the NHL. Another number to munch on: In Year 1 of their rebirth the Jets were 10 games over .500 at home. But over the last season and a half they are 21-18-5. That's hardly dominant.

3. The Jets' record against their Central Division rivals: 3-11-3. No further explanation necessary.

4. Nothing gets teeth grinding more than an ineffective power play. But there was a stretch this season where describing the Jets work with the man advantage as "ineffective" would have been considered a compliment. Winnipeg has already surrendered five short-handed goals (only Edmonton, with eight, has more) but as of late the work on the PP has been solid. The Jets have gone 9-for-28 (32.1 per cent) with the man advantage in their last game games and, in the process, have moved from dead last in the NHL to 23rd. Question is, can the Jets move into the top half of the NHL? If they can, this team should start positively addressing our fifth concern...

5. The Jets have played 39 games this season, 22 of which have been one-goal games. Only Calgary, with 25, has played more contests decided by a goal. A more potent power play could be the difference between a dash to the post-season and meekly fading away.

UNDER THE MICROSCOPE

GM Kevin Cheveldayoff

Not a day goes by when at least one of the hockey reporters at this paper don't receive e-hate-mails or tweets that begin with something like, "Dear Moron... can't you see this team needs a new coach..."

Look, no one escapes blame when a team is two games under .500 and has lost to NHL bottom-feeders like Buffalo, Florida, Calgary and Edmonton, least of all coach Claude Noel. It is baffling, both to the diehards and undoubtedly to the coaching/management staff, how a club can show so much attention to detail defensively in a 2-1 loss to Vancouver last Sunday and then look completely lost in their own zone less than 24 hours later, getting pounded 6-2 by the Oilers on Dec. 23. That, in many ways, is the perfect way to describe this hockey team.

But it's ultimately Cheveldayoff who must make a decision on the most basic dilemma all GMs face with a struggling team: Does the squad need to get its players to play better, or does it need to get better players?

In the Jets' case, it's clearly both.

Chevy's Jets are hardly a deep team. In fact, the fourth line is almost an afterthought in terms of ice time and any kind of offensive production or defined role -- Anthony Peluso, James Wright, Eric Tangradi, Eric O'Dell and, occasionally, Chris Thorburn/Matt Halischuk, have combined for five goals and 13 assists in the first 39 games. Wright does contribute effectively on the penalty-kill and Thorburn is getting work on the third line with Olli Jokinen and Devin Setoguchi. But, while Jokinen-Setoguchi-Thorburn had some initial success as a trio -- teaming for four goals and eight points in their first two games together -- they have just one goal and eight assists in nine games since.

That leaves the GM with some decisions to mull over:

Option A: If he still has faith in Noel and his current collection, he'll upgrade the roster with a significant trade, not a swap for draft picks or a waiver-wire pickup that has a Band-Aid feel to it. The draft-and-develop blueprint doesn't have to be exclusively that.

Option B: If he doesn't have faith in his coach, he can relieve him now and see if a new voice can push this team closer to the playoff line.

Option C: Let this thing play out by not making a trade made under duress and make a decision on the coach after the season when the crop of possible candidates would be beefier.

Based on Cheveldayoff's track record, we'd guess it's Option C. But the frustration level with this crew was obvious in Edmonton after the loss. And a couple days around the Christmas tree doesn't make any of that go away.

ed.tait@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @WFPEdTait

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 27, 2013 C3

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