On thin ice
Jets enter second half of slippery season trying to gain traction
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 08/01/2016 (2460 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Traction, not progress and certainly not contending, has been the main issue for the Winnipeg Jets in the NHL season’s first half.
Arriving at the midway point of the schedule at .500, 19-19-3, is not the unmitigated disaster some believe it to be, because the Jets are still part of the playoff conversation.
When so much was expected after the team’s first playoff qualification in the new era, the opening 41 games saw a good start followed by a November driven mostly on a bald set of tires.
Most problematic was the first half saw not a single winning streak (that’s at least three games, by accepted definition, for those who throw the phrase around too liberally) and that’s no way to get traction, especially in the uber-competitive Central Division. A continuation of this theme into the second half surely leads to a dead end.
Drilling deeper into the first half, here are the factors that have brought us this far, much of it sounding eerily like the team’s first three seasons in Winnipeg, when “Almost but not quite” seemed to rule the day.
1. CONTRACTS? CRICKETS
The urgent matter of the team’s future, namely getting some key players locked up on contract extensions has produced only silence so far.
Defenceman Dustin Byfuglien and captain Andrew Ladd are in the final year of their contracts and could be UFA’s July 1.
Jacob Trouba, Mark Scheifele and Adam Lowry are in the final year of their entry-level deals and would be RFA’s this summer.
Trade options for Byfuglien and Ladd will be on the table if new deals can’t be arranged before the Feb. 29 deadline, since it makes no sense to even consider letting either walk away like Michael Frolik did last year.
The clock continues to tick towards a decision or decisions and frankly, the team, at times, has played like it’s waiting for some action and leadership on this front.
2. STRAIGHT OUTTA THE CENTRAL
Welcome to the NHL’s Central Division, the toughest neighbourhood in hockey. We’ve been hammering on this drum for months, heck, even longer. The Central doesn’t just feature the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks — who have won three titles in the last six years — it’s worth noting in the last two seasons every one of the seven clubs has qualified for at least one post-season, a boast no other division can make.
It’s murderers’ row and the Group of Death put together.
The Jets just emerged from a road trip that saw them pick up three of a possible four points against their Central rivals with a win in Nashville and a shootout loss in Dallas, but the grind has been taxing. Overall, they are just 4-10-1 against their own division — light years away from the 16-8-5 mark they posted last year that was critical in them qualifying for the Stanley Cup derby.
3. A LITTLE IS A LOT
On the numbers only, the Jets have slid by 14 goals against over 41 games. Doesn’t seem like much, but there’s a hefty difference between the team’s top-10 standing in overall defence last season and this season’s bottom-six ranking.
A year ago at the half, the Jets were buoyed by their stingy defence — the combination of goaltending, defence and supportive forwards — which cruised along for a good while in the NHL’s top four.
Maybe it was too much success too soon for a franchise that had never been higher than the bottom 10 in this department.
Maybe this season is just a reverting to form.
Or maybe the lesson on how difficult defence actually is has been driven home and this season’s Jets, not that far out of the picture, can return to what they learned so well in 2014-15.
4. REASONS, EXCUSES, YOU PICK
It’s unknown why the NHL gave the Jets a 2015-16 schedule whose first half included nine back-to-backs and the highest, by far, discrepancy of road versus home games.
The Jets have played 24 away from home and just 17 at the MTS Centre, the most road games in the league so far and also the largest difference.
So in this context, the team’s sketchy record, while disappointing, is less surprising.
You can’t change the past, though, so it’s what’s ahead that’s important.
And that’s something a little more palatable. There are two stretches of extended home play, one coming right up, with nine of the next 10 at the MTS Centre.
And another in March, when the Jets have 11 homes games and only five on the road.
The only apparent pothole ahead comes in February. Just when the team gets back to balance in home versus road, it will have a string of eight out of 10 on the road in February, again temporarily restoring the discrepancy.
It’s important to note that just a few weeks ago, with this schedule in mind, Jets coach Paul Maurice wasn’t promising the moon, just a wish his team could “survive” and be within striking distance until the schedule was more friendly.
5. ON THE ROAD, AGAIN
Life has been hard for the Jets away from Manitoba this season, bopping all over the NHL map. A year ago the Jets found their mojo on the road — in fact, it was where they locked up their playoff spot with a solid run through the Central last April. Their 20-13-8 record away from home was the 13th-best road point total in the NHL.
This year they are just 8-14-2 on the road and still feeling the effects of a four-game wreck through the Central in November in which they dropped games in Minnesota, Dallas, Nashville and St. Louis. That was part of a stretch from Nov. 10-Dec. 11 that saw them go 1-7 on the road versus their own division. It’s one thing to get beaten on the road, it’s another to play the speed bag against your Central rivals.
The Jets have 14 Central games left, but only four of those away from home.
6. MERE TEAMS, NOT SPECIAL
There’s no other term to describe what the Jets have pieced together with their special teams through the first 41 games but “awful.” A team can be big and physical and get away with taking a ton of penalties — and, boy, do the Jets hit on all those areas — providing it has a solid penalty kill.
The Jets don’t, owning just the 26th-best penalty-kill unit in the NHL.
But if the PK is iffy, a team can counter with a dangerous power play, which can be a difference maker on any given night.
The Jets don’t, owning the 29th-best power-play unit in the NHL.
Further to that, consider this: there were just six games in the first half of the season in which the Jets won the special-teams battle. By that, we mean scoring more on the power play than they surrendered. Granted, in close to half the games — 18 — the Jets broke even, but that leaves 17 games in which their special teams were potentially a difference maker for all the wrong reasons. More math: in only eight games through the first half of the season did the Jets have more power-play opportunities than their opponent (start your conspiracy theories, people).
Ask around the Jets dressing room and this is Issue No. 1 to be fixed.
7. INFRACTION SYNDROME
If the Jets were some kind of reincarnation of the Broad Street Bullies or the Big Bad Bruins or even the Charlestown Chiefs, we’d get why they take so many penalties.
While they have aimed to be difficult to play against, their penchant for all fouls has led them to be the NHL’s most short-handed team again this season, both by instances (154) and by time (253-plus minutes).
Factor in this season’s lousy penalty killing (26th) and “bad” might be the right word.
Winnipeg led the NHL in times short-handed last season, 308, but became the first team in three seasons to lead this category and still make the playoffs.
That was largely because the Jets cleaned up their act in the late going. Over the final quarter last season, the Jets were the NHL’s third-best penalty-killers and were actually eighth-best in being short-handed, proving that reforming their ways is possible.
Recently, and after more than a stubborn year of defending the troubling behaviour, Maurice was left with little choice than to admit the team had a problem. It could be a key step on the road to recovery.
8. THE PUCK STOPS HERE… SOMETIMES
The storyline: young goaltender posts spectacular numbers to open his Jets career, fuelling goaltender controversy. It’s the story of… Michael Hutchinson, one year ago.
Just like this season, the Jets hit the midway point last season with a young netminder pushing for more work. Hutchinson was 10-4-2 with a 1.88 goals-against average and .936 save percentage this time last season, prompting many to declare it was time to punt Ondrej Pavelec. And yet, it was the veteran Czech who backstopped the Jets to a playoff berth by playing out of his skull down the stretch.
Fast forward to the present and the numbers for Connor Hellebuyck — 9-4-1, 1.85, .937 — are eerily similar to Hutchinson’s 12 months ago. Hellebuyck, a 22-year-old rookie, has been simply sensational since his promotion from the Manitoba Moose on Nov. 22 and especially since being pulled in a start in Edmonton just before Christmas. Get this: since then, he is 4-1-1 with a GAA of 0.66 and a save percentage of .961.
Hutchinson and Pavelec, who has begun skating after suffering an injury in November, are a combined 10-15-2 with a GAA north of 2.80 and a save percentage of .905.
But here’s where things get interesting for the Jets. As much as every save fuels the “Hellebuyck or bust” rallying cry, he’s not going to start every game in the second half. That should leave room for Pavelec, who was so instrumental in last year’s run, to also stake a claim for the crease.
9. BOYS TO MEN
The passion of Jets Nation is real. The expectations are understandable, especially given last season.
But is the cart a little ahead of the horse?
Conveniently forgotten by some, we feel obliged to point out, is the Jets as they are currently constructed are, by the NHL’s count, the fourth-youngest team in the league at an average of 26.6 years (factoring out Grant Clitsome, who is technically still part of the roster).
On the team are four rookies.
What are the expectations on the three teams that are fractionally younger, Edmonton (26.4), Carolina (26.5) and Buffalo (26.5)? How about close to zero?
So why, then, are they so night-and-day with the next team in line here, one that has not yet accomplished very much?
If there isn’t much traction in the season’s second half, you can expect to hear this frequently from the Jets’ camp.
And if there is traction, it’s not any less true.
10. THERE’S PROGRESS HERE
Despite their struggles, the Jets aren’t without some good news.
Some worthy candidates:
Tait: No question it’s been Hellebuyck of late, but the player who has been the team’s most consistent from the opening faceoff in Boston to Thursday in Dallas has been Blake Wheeler, who has 40 points (10G, 30A) in 41 games.
Campbell: Blake Wheeler, hands down. The only other candidate is likely Bryan Little. Wheeler is a point-a-game player and clearly one who leads this team in many ways.
Tait: The bar was set high for Jacob Trouba from the first moment he pulled on a Jets jersey. But his start to this year was iffy. Since he’s been paired with Dustin Byfuglien his game has spiked dramatically upward.
Campbell: Toss-up for me between Mark Scheifele and Alex Burmistrov. They are different players, both have come a long way in a short amount of time.
Most likely to soar
Tait: Hellebuyck. He’s already rocketed to the stratosphere.
Campbell: Scheifele. A year from now, you’ll be even more impressed.