Jets need roster fix for playoff push
Team's recent lacklustre play indicates more depth required
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 29/01/2019 (1292 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
A dud in Dallas. A flop in Philly. And a surprising bounce-back in Boston.
What was looking like a third straight sub-par effort by the Winnipeg Jets was salvaged Tuesday night by the brilliant goaltending of Connor Hellebuyck and the third-period scoring heroics of Kyle Connor, allowing the Jets to avoid their first three-game losing streak since the 2016-17 season.
But despite a 4-3 shootout victory, it’s still worth noting the Jets have looked awfully ordinary of late, including for long stretches of the game against the Bruins.
And if it wasn’t already clear, it should be now: Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff needs to pull the trigger on a trade or two in the coming weeks.
One of the youngest lineups in the NHL is starting to act its age, show its inexperience and crack under pressure as the games tighten up and opponents ramp up their intensity and battle level, which the Jets haven’t been able to match on a consistent basis.
Just look at how they were outclassed Tuesday in the opening period against Boston. Hellebuyck certainly showed up, but he was fighting an uphill, one-man battle as his team was under siege and, once again, fell behind early.
Injuries to defenceman Dustin Byfuglien and forward Nikolaj Ehlers have only exacerbated some of the pre-existing issues — including a lack of five-on-five offence, secondary scoring beyond the top line and defensive depth — which had been somewhat masked by their impressive overall record.
The power play that carried them to much success has gone quieter in recent weeks — Byfuglien’s absence is a major factor, no doubt — and that hasn’t left a lot of room for error in recent games. And there have been a lot of errors.
While Byfuglien and Ehlers are expected back soon, injuries are a part of the game and you can expect additional hurts to happen along the way.
Now, I’m not here to say the sky is falling or there’s reason for panic among the loyal fan base. The Jets are still loaded with talent and in a good spot on top of the Central Division, even if their recent play doesn’t inspire a whole lot of confidence.
As Tuesday showed, they are skilled enough that even on nights when the effort and execution appear lacklustre, they can still get the desired result.
Since heading into the Christmas break on an 11-2-0 run, the Jets are a mediocre 8-6-0 since. That might be acceptable for a team simply trying to squeak into the playoffs. But the Jets are supposed to be an NHL heavyweight, with perhaps the biggest opportunity for winning a Stanley Cup staring them in the face this spring.
It’s time they began flexing their muscles again. And not the kind we saw Tuesday after they fell behind to the Bruins and then came out swinging, literally, as Adam Lowry and Brandon Tanev dropped the gloves in the middle frame.
The Feb. 26 trade deadline is still weeks away. But the sooner Cheveldayoff addresses the needs of this team, the better.
Just look at what the Toronto Maple Leafs did Monday night, as the Jets were getting sand kicked in their faces by the lightweight Flyers. Toronto GM Kyle Dubas swung for the fences and hit what appears to be a towering home run in bringing top-pairing defenceman Jake Muzzin to town from the Los Angeles Kings.
The price was high, naturally, in a first-round draft pick and two prospects. But like the Jets, the Leafs are built to win now. You get a chance to win, you go for it.
The move should be seen by all other contending teams, including Winnipeg, as a shot across the bow.
It should be noted Muzzin was a player the Jets were believed to have substantial interest in. Los Angeles had three scouts at Bell MTS Place for a game earlier this month, which is highly unusual. The veteran blue-liner with a Stanley Cup ring would have been a tremendous partner for Byfuglien on a second pairing. But Toronto beat Winnipeg to the punch. No doubt that left a bit of a mark.
In the Western Conference, you can expect Nashville, Calgary, San Jose and Vegas to all be looking to beef up over the next month. They may even be going toe-to-toe on some of the same targets as Winnipeg.
Cheveldayoff proved this past season he can get the job done when he landed Paul Stastny at the trade deadline. Now the pressure is mounting for a repeat knockout performance.
I’m told Cheveldayoff has been working the phones in recent days, with an immediate eye to bringing in a more experienced depth forward that would give head coach Paul Maurice more options in his bottom six.
One of the big issues with the Jets this season is how little the fourth line plays. On too many nights, the Jets quickly become a three-line team, and the heavy workload is clearly having an effect up and down the lineup.
Even stars such as Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele haven’t looked quite the same lately.
“(Cheveldayoff) feels Paul hasn’t been giving the fourth line traditional minutes, because he hasn’t built the team with a traditional fourth-line group. Also, too much youth makes Paul nervous,” an NHL source told me Tuesday.
Right now, the fourth line involves Andrew Copp (who’s been moved off the highly effective TLC line with Adam Lowry and Brandon Tanev) between Mason Appleton and Brendan Lemieux. Jack Roslovic had been a fixture on that line earlier in the year, but he’s now up on the second line with Bryan Little and Patrik Laine following the injury to Ehlers.
Veteran depth would be welcome, of course. But hopefully, Cheveldayoff has something bigger in mind than just a bottom-six forward. Finding a top centre who can hopefully help get the notoriously streaky Laine going — while pushing Little down the lineup — should be a top priority.
You remember Laine? One of the most feared goal scorers in the league has been an afterthought lately, stuck in a terrible slump and stapled to the bench for a good chunk of the second period Tuesday in Maurice’s latest attempt to get through to him. He didn’t have a single shot attempt on the night.
Something needs to change. Ottawa’s Matt Duchene would be a good place to start.
Same with adding to the defensive depth, which has been stretched thin with both Byfuglien and Ben Chiarot — who returned to action Tuesday — out of the lineup. With Muzzin now out of the picture, Cheveldayoff must find another strong fit for his blue line.
The Jets would be ill-advised to think the team as constructed right now is good enough to get the job done. Because it’s not. Cracks that are starting to be exposed will look even bigger once the playoffs begin in April, when there’s no place to hide.
As the NHL arms race begins to heat up, the Jets must ensure they’re not frozen out.
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.
Updated on Tuesday, January 29, 2019 10:55 PM CST: Adds photos