Wing and a prayer: Hard-working Jets hanging tough
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It was a whirlwind weekend, which included a bumpy flight into Vancouver on Friday evening (thanks, mountain turbulence), a white-knuckle drive to Seattle through a snowstorm on Sunday morning (thanks, Mother Nature), a much calmer highway return to Vancouver on Monday afternoon and a crowded flight home late Monday night.
Jammed in were two hockey games, of course, which the Winnipeg Jets managed to split in the form of a 5-1 victory on Saturday night over the Canucks, and a 3-2 loss on Sunday evening to the Kraken.
There are plenty of thoughts swirling through the cerebral cortex about the current state of the local NHL club (20-10-1), among other things, so let’s empty out the brain — and the notebook:
• When the Jets season began, I dare say the majority of fans wouldn’t have been able to pick Karson Kuhlman, Kevin Stenlund and Axel Jonsson-Fjallby out of a police lineup.
On Sunday in Seattle, that trio of “household names known only in their own household” had the distinction of skating on Winnipeg’s top two lines.
A neat story, for sure, but also a problem.
No offence to any of those players but they are not top-six NHL forwards. And yet, that’s exactly how coach Rick Bowness utilized them, skating alongside Mark Scheifele, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Kyle Connor and Cole Perfetti at various times in the game.
You can also throw Sam Gagner (who took some shifts up there as well against the Kraken) and Michael Eyssimont (who had been in that role until getting healthy scratched the last two games) into that category as well.
To be fair, there aren’t a lot of options right now. Bowness likes his current third line of Adam Lowry, Morgan Barron and Jansen Harkins and is loathe to split it up.
With Nikolaj Ehlers, Blake Wheeler, Mason Appleton and Saku Maenalanen all sidelined with lengthy injuries, expect this ongoing right-wing rotation/audition to continue for the foreseeable future.
I don’t get the sense general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff is reaching for the panic button and looking to make a big move. He’s naturally thrilled with how his depleted group has played so far and how it’s built a comfortable playoff buffer with such a sizzling start.
He’s dipped into the waiver wire twice to grab Kuhlman and Jonsson-Fjallby, and gone to the farm to bring up Stenlund and Eyssimont. Don’t hold your breath waiting for a blockbuster trade. If the Jets can keep treading water for the next few weeks, a ton of internal help will be on the way when the crowded infirmary starts to clear out.
• This is definitely not the most talented Jets team I’ve covered over the years. Not even close, really. It wasn’t when the season began, and it definitely isn’t now with a thinned-out lineup. But it might just be the hardest-working and most-structured bunch of them all.
Credit goes to Bowness for leading the way, but also to the players for buying what the veteran bench boss is selling. Don’t just take my word for it. Here’s what Brendan Batchelor, the play-by-play voice of the Canucks, had to say about the Jets on Twitter Saturday.
“Incredibly impressed with how relentless the Jets have been tonight. The Canucks have no time on the puck anywhere on the ice. They don’t quit.”
On Sunday, prior to puck drop in Seattle, I asked associate coach Scott Arniel about those comments, suggesting they’d bring a smile to the face.
“That’s what we’ve been preaching right from training camp — taking away time and space and using our skating ability. This is a good skating hockey team,” Arniel said. “Not that we’re listening to anybody else, but for us as a staff, all the different new bodies that went in (Saturday) night, the different line combinations we threw out there, some new defencemen going in, it was a great team effort. Like Rick (Bowness) talks about, all four lines looked the same. We didn’t give Vancouvera — a good skating team — a lot of ice to work with.”
• Regarding Ville Heinola and the narrative in some quarters that the Jets are “ruining” him. The latest evidence comes with his call-up from the Manitoba Moose of the AHL last week, after Nate Schmidt joined Logan Stanley on the injured list, but watching both contests from the press box past weekend. Instead, journeyman Kyle Capobianco, a healthy scratch for 26 of the first 29 games, got the call.
A few things you should know. I suspect Heinola won’t be complaining about the bump in pay from his promotion (some extra cash around Christmas never hurts). As well, there’s value in practising with the big club, even if a guy doesn’t immediately get into the lineup. And that’s especially true for Heinola, who had missed four consecutive Moose games spanning nearly two weeks because of illness.
Going to Capobianco, the good soldier who had patiently been waiting his turn, over the kid recovering from a prolonged sickness makes all sorts of sense. I suspect the initial plan might have been to get Heinola in Sunday, but then Capobianco went and scored in Saturday’s impressive victory. I asked Bowness about it following Sunday’s game, and he said exactly what I expected: Nobody deserved to come out after the win, so nobody did.
That’s not a slight against Heinola. He will get his chance, possibly as early as Tuesday, with Schmidt sidelined for the next 4-6 weeks and the Jets now coming off a loss. He’s still only 21. The organization still thinks highly of their first-round pick from 2019. He career isn’t being ruined. Take a deep breath, folks.
It never fails to amaze me that despite winning two-thirds of its games this year, so much debate seems to be centred around whether the team is dressing the right sixth defenceman or not. I swear the Jets could win the Stanley Cup and some “fans” would debate whether they dressed the right lineup.
It proves a theory I’ve had about society in general: Some people are only happy when they’re unhappy.
• Speaking of Twitter comments, former NHLer Marc Methot set social media ablaze Monday morning when he declared The Fairmont in Winnipeg the “worst (hotel) in the NHL. Paper thing walls, very loud doors, bedsheets that zap you upon entry, s—t weather, almost no nearby restaurants, tough scene. Call me a prima-donna, I don’t care.”
He then doubled down on the post, adding this: “I’d like to take the time to apologize for forgetting to mention another thing. 99.9 per cent of players have Winnipeg on their no-trade lists. Have a great day!”
Shots fired! (For the record, he deleted both Tweets a few hours later).
A few thoughts. Firstly, this ought to put a little extra spice in Tuesday’s visit from the Senators. Methot spent five of his 13-year NHL career in the nation’s capital, and now works as a TSN analyst out of Ottawa. Secondly, a lot of teams are actually now staying at the Delta, not the Fairmont. And the ultimate plan is to have visiting clubs stay at the five-star Sutton Place Hotel at True North Square, which was supposed to be ready by this year but has now been pushed back until early 2026. Thirdly, Methot is wrong about the restaurants. There are plenty of quality nearby selections, as multiple Twitter followers pointed out. And finally, does he really think a hotel can control both the weather and static electricity?
Out-of-towners crapping on our city is nothing new. Who can forget the San Jose Sharks’ infamous “do they even have Wi-Fi?” video from 2018 that kicked a hornet’s nest around here. Just like the cold winter weather, I suggest we wear it as a badge of honour.
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.