Limping Jets will shuffle centres

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Paul Maurice is switching up his premier middle men in a move to spark some offence for the struggling Winnipeg Jets.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 18/01/2020 (1043 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Paul Maurice is switching up his premier middle men in a move to spark some offence for the struggling Winnipeg Jets.

He’s modified his top defensive pairings as well.

The Jets bench boss has swapped out centre Mark Scheifele on the top forward trio for Blake Wheeler, who will skate between Kyle Connor and Patrik Laine against the Blackhawks tonight in Chicago.

Blake Wheeler is switching spots with Mark Scheifele on Sunday. (Andy Clayton-King / The Associated Press files)

Scheifele will work with wingers Nikolaj Ehlers and Andrew Copp.

On the back end, Sami Niku moves up to play with Josh Morrissey, while Dmitry Kulikov will partner with Neal Pionk.   

The Jets and Blackhawks collide at 6 p.m. at United Center.

Winnipeg (25-19-4) has posted just four victories in its last 12 games and is coming off an ugly 7-1 blowout at the hands of the visiting Tampa Bay Lightning on Friday night. Five days earlier, the Nashville Predators shut out the Jets 1-0 at Bell MTS Place.

Sandwiched in between was a sound 4-0 win over the Vancouver Canucks on Tuesday; however, Maurice said he’s been frustrated with the club’s inability to generate enough scoring chances. 

“We’re going to flip (Wheeler and Scheifele) around. We got shut out the other night. I don’t think we’ve love our offensive game for a little bit and our defensive game, clearly,” he said, following practice Saturday at the Iceplex

“I don’t want to leave it too long. Sometimes, it’s just a change will spark us, get some guys going.”

Laine hasn’t scored in seven games and has just one in his last 11. He was barely recognizable in the defeat to the high-flying Lightning, generating just one shot and finishing a minus-three.

Some tinkering with personnel is definitely warranted for a team now below the playoff line, he said. 

“It was last year or the year before we played together, when (Scheifele) was hurt. It’s going to be a little bit different but I think it will be a good change for the whole team,” said Laine.

Wheeler’s been a key set-up man for Laine on the power play since the right-winger joined the Jets in 2016, so there’s some built-in chemistry.

“Blake has an awesome skill set on him. He can really dish the puck and he can finish, and I think it’s the same for all three of us. We can all finish and all find each other. Just try to play hard and try to look for open spots, and I think we can get a couple,” said Laine, who equals Wheeler with 15 goals. Connor, playing the left side, leads the club with 24 goals. 

The trio of Adam Lowry, Mathieu Perreault and Jack Roslovic remains unaltered, while some combination of Nick Shore, Mason Appleton, Gabriel Bourque and Jansen Harkins comprises the fourth line.

Morrissey, the Jets’ top-minute blue-liner at even strength (averaging 19:57 per game), said he’s excited to play with Niku.

“It’s all about communication and playing to his strengths. He’s a great puck mover and a great skater, and as a pairing those are both strengths of ours, so we can try to make some things happen that way,” he said.

Patrik Laine has been set up often over the years by Blake Wheeler. (Dilip Vishwanat / The Associated Press files)

Niku is 23 and has just 37 NHL games under his belt, his defensive reads and one-on-one battles remain a major work in progress, but with injuries to Nathan Beaulieu (lower body), Tucker Poolman (lower body) and Carl Dahlstrom (broken hand), he’s required to take on added responsibility.

It’s trial by fire, in a nutshell, for the former American Hockey League defenceman of the year. 

Maurice hinted the Morrissey-Niku combination isn’t carved in stone for the test in Chicago, the third of five meetings between the teams this season.

“It’s really going to be fluid. We’re going to move guys around. We’ll see how healthy we are (today),” he said. “You’re going to put guys into the top four, it’s bigger minutes. You want to make sure they can get through the game on those minutes,” he said.

“Sami can move the puck pretty effectively. I don’t know if it’s a permanent fit. For what Josh’s job is — he has to shut down the other teams’ best — that’s something young puck-moving defenceman take years (to) grown into getting that assignment. They usually get hidden in the lineup. They make some good offensive play and then you’ve got to try to hide what they do defensively. We’re not in that situation right now.” 

Blue-liner Luca Sbisa was stung by a hard shot to the leg Friday and then took a puck to the chin but should play alongside Anthony Bitetto against the Central Division-rival Blackhawks, who were just four points back of Winnipeg prior to their meeting in Toronto with the Maple Leafs on Saturday night.

Winnipeg called up blue-liner Nelson Nogier from the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League to provide some insurance for the three-game road trip, which includes matchups with the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday and the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday. 

The Jets earned a 3-2 overtime win Oct. 12 in Chicago but dropped a 4-1 decision to the visiting Blackhawks on Dec. 19.

The group is highly motivated to make amends for the humbling defeat to the Lightning, Morrissey said.

“We weren’t happy with they way we played. It’s embarrassing losing like that on home ice, but you wake up the next day and it’s two points we lost. And it doesn’t matter how you lose them. We could have lost 4-3 or 2-1. So, as much as it stings and it’s embarrassing, you have to move on and try to get those two points back next game and have a good start on a big road trip,” he said.

jason.bell@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @WFPJasonBell

Jason Bell

Jason Bell
Sports editor

Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).

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Updated on Saturday, January 18, 2020 11:03 PM CST: Edited

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