The Winnipeg Jets have been in survival mode for a while now — and will remain there until some injured parties get back in the lineup.
Valued members of that cavalry are returning — defenceman Toby Enstrom played Thursday night against the New Jersey Devils — and others are close; it can’t be soon enough. Of course, the seriousness of No. 1 centre Mark Scheifele’s upper-body troubles will factor here, but the team needs to make some improvements if its going to make a decent run in the playoffs.
The club you’ve been watching lately just might win an opening-round playoff series if goaltender Connor Hellebuyck stands on his head. But the Jets wouldn’t last long against the Nashville Predators in the next series, despite being right with them in a 6-5 loss last week. One-off games are not like a playoff battle.
The three-game winning streak heading into the Devils game — against teams that would need miraculous finishes to make the playoffs — has seen them work hard, but struggle with parts of their game.
If they can’t consistently break the puck out of their own zone more effectively, they’re not going to get the best from a highly skilled, powerful forward group.
There are too many flipped pucks in the air to get out of trouble, instead of making plays that let them create with speed through the neutral zone.
A big part of this is having both Enstrom and Jacob Trouba hurt, forcing Tyler Myers and Dmitry Kulikov into playing more and tougher minutes.
Kulikov was embraced as a solid third-pairing defenceman when he was signed, and that part has held up.
He’s had some OK moments when he’s been moved up the lineup, but his overall play understandably drops.
The same can be said for Myers, but more is expected of him by some people because he also plays on the power play and penalty-killing units.
I don’t hold those expectations.
Having seen him play a lot over the years, I think some people expect too much. I enjoyed his Buffalo Sabres rookie season, where he was good offensively (48 points and NHL rookie of the year), but struggled with baffling decisions in the defensive zone.
Back then, I wrote off his defensive-zone troubles as just being young. However, though the years, and as we sit today, not much has changed.
He’s on pace for about 40 points, and I still see those problem areas.
While his overall underlying numbers back up what I’ve seen, at the same time he’s had a nice rebound season after everything he went through last year, both on and off the ice.
He and Kulikov are simply much better when they play fewer minutes and are support players for the top four, not part of it.
Ben Chiarot and Joe Morrow come down from the press box and while Chiarot shows you flashes of good work at times, he’s a seventh defenceman for a reason, so cherish whatever goodness you get from him. Morrow is No. 8.
There have been times this year when the Jets were consistently dominant in all areas, including possession stats, while also having success breaking out and gaining speed through the neutral zone with the puck.
Trouba and Enstrom are big players in this, as they move the puck quickly to the right spots against top competition, allowing more options coming up the ice. They also defend well with their gap control, allowing puck retrievals that lead to good puck movement.
These two are critical for Jets’ playoff success. To have neither in the lineup helps explain why we’ve been watching a team that’s depending on it’s extreme talent to win games (lately, see Patrick Laine), and not the explosive "team" from earlier this season.
While that’s all about grabbing and moving the puck up the ice, I’m not forgetting Adam Lowry’s importance, who I’ve mentioned often during his absence.
The big, nasty centre not only brings a great look from the eye-test, his advanced stats define him as a superior defender who spends a lot of time in the offensive zone.
Lowry’s addition will change the top 12 forward group dramatically, and not just on the so-called fourth line. There will be better and more options for head coach Paul Maurice to toy with, including possible changes to the current top nine.
While I’m proposing a healthy lineup here, after the way the season has gone, I have no expectations that it will happen. I just hope the damage is minimal.
This team might be able to lose one integral player, but not three if it’s going to make a serious run, which I’ve been suggesting is very possible.
A reasonably healthy group really needs to get a good run of games in together before the playoffs. This is a necessary boost for chemistry and cohesion, as teams look to get into their best playoff habits during the stretch drive.
When the Jets face a playoff opponent every second night, it’ll become harder to hide their warts. Game plans get much more defined, and they’ll likely be facing a team with more playoff experience.
Until I see the Jets get some more help from the injured list, I’m keeping my expectations low, as to the style of play we’ll see.
While I fully expect they’ll continue to battle, be resilient and get their share of wins, we can’t expect players to magically transform into something they aren’t.
I keep reminding myself of that as the clock ticks down on the regular season.
Chosen ninth overall by the NHL’s St. Louis Blues and first overall by the WHA’s Houston Aeros in 1977, Scott Campbell has now been drafted by the Winnipeg Free Press to play a new style of game.
Scott was a member of Winnipeg Jets 1.0 for a couple of seasons and also played for the WHA Jets team that won the last Avco Cup in 1978-79.
Updated on Thursday, March 8, 2018 at 11:11 PM CST: Final edit
March 9, 2018 at 6:50 AM: Edited