Jets have battle scars to prove their mettle
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The Winnipeg Jets have clearly adapted to playing hockey the “Rick Bowness way,” which is the primary reason they hit the Christmas break with a stellar 21-12-1 record and were solidly in a playoff position.
Attention to defensive detail. Getting in shooting lanes. Clearing the front of the net. Finishing checks. Going to the so-called dirty areas. Bringing plenty of speed and pace. None of this fancy schmancy east-west perimeter stuff that might look pretty but ultimately accomplishes very little.
It’s much more north-south, with an emphasis on substance over style.
It’s exactly what their new head coach started preaching during training camp in September, and it’s been on display more nights than not, so far. Unfortunately, we’re also discovering that this nose-to-the-grindstone approach can also carry a steep price for players. And the Jets are certainly paying more than their fare share this season.
When we last saw the club late last week, they were quite literally limping into the holidays, with an alarming seven regulars on the injured list. Forward Cole Perfetti, among the NHL rookie scoring leaders, was the latest to be sidelined after taking a heavy hit from Boston’s Jake DeBrusk on Thursday night that left him wincing. It was a shoulder-to-shoulder blow as Perfetti tried to crash the crease on the hunt for offence.
It’s exactly the kind of play Perfetti’s boss loves to see. It’s also one that comes with high risk but the potential for high reward.
We’ll get an update on Perfetti’s status Tuesday when the Jets reconvene at Canada Life Centre for another physical, feisty meeting with the Minnesota Wild (7 p.m. puck drop). But it certainly didn’t look good, especially for a player who was saddled with shoulder and back injuries last year.
He’s got plenty of company in the infirmary. Former captain Blake Wheeler suffered a groin injury earlier this month, one that required surgery, after he got hit with a puck while parking himself in front of Nashville’s net. Incredibly, he returned later that night to finish the game, and even sacrificed his body once again with a courageous shot block later in the night.
That’s “Winnipeg Jets hockey,” Bowness would later declare.
Defenceman Nate Schmidt suffered an upper-body injury after getting crushed by Predators forward Tanner Jeannot in the same game. Blue-liner Logan Stanley broke his foot on a shot block early in the season, eventually returned, then suffered what appeared to be a knee injury during a collision.
Forwards Mason Appleton and Morgan Barron have both suffered broken bones in their wrists. Barron has since returned, while Appleton remains out. Winger Saku Maenalanen seemed to hurt his shoulder after a heavy hit against St. Louis.
Last, but certainly not least, the dynamic Nikolaj Ehlers suffered a sports hernia after playing just two games and is slowly working his way back into game shape.
Add it all up and Winnipeg has already lost north of 100 man-games to injury, which has them in the upper half of the league. The seven injured players also represent more than $25 million of salary cap space and have combined for 23 goals and 45 assists in 139 total games this year.
It’s not just quantity, but quality. For example, Ehlers, Wheeler and Appleton represent the top three right-wingers on the team. Schmidt is an offensive driver and power-play staple. All four of those men are also on- and off-ice leaders. Perfetti is a rising star. Maenanalen and Stanley are valuable depth players who bring the qualities Bowness loves.
Winnipeg has also had a non-COVID virus run through the locker room over the past few weeks, which had several players gutting it out despite being nowhere near 100 per cent. A few were receiving IV treatments after games. Pierre-Luc Dubois, couldn’t do media interviews for nearly a week because he lost his voice almost entirely.
It’s likely not just a coincidence Winnipeg’s crowded MASH unit is starting to take a toll on the on-ice performance. For all the great things they’ve accomplished so far, the Jets are on a two-game losing skid, having dropped three out of their last four and five of their last eight.
This isn’t really surprising when you look at the roster they’re rolling out right now, one that is severely testing organizational depth. Consider this: Five of the 12 forwards who skated in Friday’s 4-1 loss in Washington on Friday night were available on waivers at some point already this year. Two of them (Axel Jonsson-Fjallby and Karson Kuhlman) were scooped up by Winnipeg to try and fill holes on the fly. The other three (Michael Eyssimont, Jansen Harkins and Kevin Stenlund) had cleared during training camp when the Jets sent them to the Manitoba Moose.
Kyle Capobianco, who began the season as the club’s eighth defenceman, and Ville Heinola, who was essentially No. 9 and sent to the AHL for further seasoning, were also both in the lineup against the Capitals.
It also doesn’t help that those eight games were played over a stretch of just 13 days, including an absurd five-in-seven just prior to this well-deserved and much-needed three-day break. That final week included back-to-back games on the West Coast, a one-game “homestand” and back-to-back games on the East Coast. A 2-3-0 record actually isn’t that bad, all things considered.
The Jets weren’t playing hockey as much as they were trying to survive it.
The team that hits the ice on Tuesday against the Wild will at least be a more rested group. And, aside from Perfetti’s unknown status (he was to get further evaluated over the last few days), we know the other six injured players are anywhere from two to five weeks away from returning to action.
It should also help the Jets’ schedule finally starts to lighten up, with just three back-to-backs in January and February combined after already playing six of those this season. The hope is that will ultimately keep some of the bumps and bruises at bay and allow players to properly heal.
General manager Kevin Cheveldayoff could also help the cause by swinging a deal or two, although the cushion his club has built with such a hot start and the hope that plenty of internal help will soon be on the way alleviates some of that pressure.
One thing I don’t expect to change is the way Bowness and company approach each game. They now have a template for success, even if it’s black and blue at times.
No pain, no gain? The Jets are clearly hoping that will be the case.
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.