Impressive wins, disappointing losses. Same old Jets?
Read this article for free:
Already have an account? Log in here »
To continue reading, please subscribe:
Monthly Digital Subscription
$4.75 per week*
- Enjoy unlimited reading on winnipegfreepress.com
- Read the E-Edition, our digital replica newspaper
- Access News Break, our award-winning app
- Play interactive puzzles
*Billed as $19.00 plus GST every four weeks. Cancel anytime.
ROME wasn’t built in a day. And we aren’t going to get an exact read on the 2022-23 version of the Winnipeg Jets after just four NHL games.
Their record, so far, suggests this is a ho-hum medicore hockey team. Nothing more, nothing less.
Two impressive victories over the New York Rangers and Colorado Avalanche, the teams I picked in the preseason to meet in the Stanley Cup final next spring.
Two disappointing losses to the Dallas Stars and Vegas Golden Knights, where some old bad habits reared their ugly heads.
With the first road trip of the year now in the rear-view mirror and a two-game homestand on deck beginning Saturday night with a visit from the (3-2-0) Toronto Maple Leafs let’s review what we’ve learned, what we’ve liked, and what’s been lacking so far.
NHL games are, at minimum, 60 minutes. But the Jets clearly haven’t gotten the memo.
If it’s not laying eggs in the second period — see games one, two and three — it’s stumbling right out of the gate as they did in their fourth outing.
How much longer must we wait to see a complete effort from start to finish?
Growing pains were expected with an entirely new coaching staff bringing in new systems. And it’s even harder to get an early read considering bench boss Rick Bowness has yet to officially take the helm, missing the first four games owing to a bout with COVID-19.
Still, only showing up for two-thirds of a game is a recipe for disaster, regardless of who’s calling the shots or where you are on the learning curve.
Yes, the other team gets paid, too — that was one of former coach Paul Maurice’s favourite sayings — so some pushback is expected within the ebbs and flows of a game. But Winnipeg needs to do a better job of bringing consistency to the rink.
The decision to not give goaltender Eric Comrie an extra 90 minutes of action down the stretch last season, allowing his contract status to slide from a restricted free agent to an unrestricted one, was one of general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff’s most puzzling displays of asset management. Or, more accurately, mismanagement.
Winnipeg could have retained its backup — a guy beloved by teammates who was coming off a career year and wanted to be here — for at least one more season. Sure, he likely would have rejected his qualifying offer that would have come in under US$1 million. But a deal would have gotten done one way or another — even if arbitration was required — for something in the neighbourhood of the US$1.8 million he ultimately signed for with the Buffalo Sabres.
Instead, the Jets had to go shopping for a new job-share partner for Connor Hellebuyck.
And the early returns are a big ‘Yikes’.’
David Rittich was beaten four times on the first dozen shots he faced Thursday, including one where he served up a puck to Jack Eichel on a platter.
It didn’t help that while “Big Save Dave” was getting shelled, Comrie was finishing off an impressive sweep of Alberta, stopping 86 of 91 shots he faced in consecutive wins over the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames.
Combined with losing defenceman Jonathan Kovacevic on waivers to the Montreal Canadiens earlier this month — just so they could keep journeyman Kyle Capobianco parked in the press box as a perpetual healthy scratch — it’s been a confusing bit of business lately by this draft-and-develop team.
I’m not ready to write Rittich off after one shaky start, but there’s significant pressure on him to bounce back in his next assignment, which should come against the Coyotes in Arizona this Friday, the second half of yet another back-to-back.
A repeat performance and we might have an even bigger ‘Yikes’ on our hands around here.
Speaking of the waiver wire, I’ve liked what I’ve seen so far in two games from Axel Jonsson-Fjallby. He’s giving me Brandon Tanev vibes, which is very much a compliment.
The Swede is an energizer bunny on skates, with a motor that doesn’t stop running.
In fact, I think the bottom-six has a nice mix right now, with big Morgan Barron showing bursts of speed and skill, savvy veteran Sam Gagner always seeming to be in the right place, Saku Maenalalen using his size and being strong on the forecheck, and Adam Lowry and David Gustafsson playing responsible hockey in the middle on the third and fourth lines, respectively, while also contributing on the penalty kill.
Problem is, there just isn’t much finish there, at least so far. And I’m not sure, quite frankly, we can expect a whole lot of offence from that group.
Which brings me to my next point of concern…
Depth scoring was a question mark coming into the campaign. And it is likely going to remain a storyline around this squad for the foreseeable future.
In their two losses, the Jets scored a grand total of three goals. That’s not good enough.
It becomes an even bigger issue if you’re not getting enough from your brightest stars. Kyle Connor is off to a very quiet start, with only a dozen shots and just one goal (into an empty net) through four games. With Nikolaj Ehlers shelved the last two contests and out at least two more — he was put on injured reserve Friday and can’t be activated until next Tuesday at the earliest — Connor has been without a key set-up man. And that’s a problem for last year’s 47-goal man, who many had pencilled in for at least 50 this season.
Mason Appleton has done a nice job filling in on that line with Connor and Mark Scheifele, but I’m not sure that’s a long-term fix.
If Ehlers is going to be out for an extended period, perhaps a Connor reunion with Pierre-Luc Dubois might be in the cards. The pair had career years last season, largely playing together.
Dubois scored his first goal in Vegas and looks to be heating up after battling a bit of an injury. Current linemates Cole Perfetti (one goal) and Blake Wheeler (no goals) haven’t lit it up yet, either.
It’s probably not ideal when defenceman Neal Pionk is tied for your team lead in scoring (three goals, same as Scheifele).
The loss of the dynamic Ehlers, who had three assists in his first two games, certainly leaves a hole.
I had wondered if the Jets might be willing to think outside the box a little bit and bring up a player who could, at least based on his skillset, step right into a top six role.
I’m talking about a pair of recent first-rounders in Brad Lambert (2022) and Chaz Lucius (2021), who are currently with the Manitoba Moose and both scored goals in their AHL debuts last weekend.
The answer, for now anyway, is no. Dominic Toninato got the promotion on Friday, giving Winnipeg a contingent of 13 healthy forwards.
But if the kids can keep it up on the farm, they are just a phone call away.
Finally, let’s talk about the reverse retro, the NHL’s latest cash grab that has all 32 teams unveiling new throwback jerseys.
I’ll say this about Winnipeg’s new threads: They look sharp but could probably use a splash of red.
Of course, the real focus should remain on how the Jets look in terms of their actual play. There have been stretches where it’s been really sharp. And others so ugly you want to divert your eyes.
A work in progress, and likely to remain that way for some time.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.