The Winnipeg Jets began the season with great expectations, bolstering the ranks for what the organization hoped would be a run at the Stanley Cup.
Now? The roster is basically being held together by a wing and a prayer, with the main focus squarely on whether they can find enough healthy players to skate in their next scheduled game.
Welcome to an NHL campaign like no other, where COVID-19 and the highly-contagious Omicron strain has become the most stubborn and feared opponent of all.
"You come in in the morning and you find out who is available. Then you try and put together a plan, you try and put together a roster," interim head coach Dave Lowry said Tuesday of the current mindset. "We’re not the only team that has dealt with this. You talk with your peers. All you have to do is put together a lineup with the players that are available. That’s all you can control, that’s all you can worry about."
The Jets are suddenly being hit hard by the pandemic, with four more players entering league protocols on Tuesday in forward Kristian Reichel and defencemen Logan Stanley, Nathan Beaulieu and Ville Heinola. They join forwards Nikolaj Ehlers, who tested positive on Monday, and forward Jansen Harkins, defenceman Dylan DeMelo, goaltender Arvid Holm and video coach Matt Prefontaine who all flunked their tests last Thursday in Denver and were left behind to quarantine in the Mile High City for a minimum of five days.
Throw in a minor injury to forward Kristian Vesalainen, and Tuesday’s skate at Canada Life Centre looked like a sparsely attended optional practice. In fact, the 10 forwards, five defencemen and two goaltenders on the ice are literally all the Jets have right now, both with the main roster and the taxi squad.
"It was inevitable that it was going to happen," said veteran Jets forward Paul Stastny. "Less and less players at practice, but we’ll make due. Every team has been going through it and you almost hope that everyone gets it out of the way now instead of having it linger throughout the year. As soon as the guys that get it come back, they’re playing stress free for a while (they don’t have to be tested for 90 days). I guess we kind of wait throughout the day and see if we get an update at four or five o’clock, to see if more guys have it and kind of just go from there."
Indeed, the hope is the numbers don’t continue to swell, which would likely force a postponement of Thursday’s game in Detroit. The best-case scenario is Vesalainen will recover and be available, and Harkins was able to emerge from isolation on Tuesday since has no symptoms. He was slated to fly to Michigan to meet the club there. If both are ready, that would give the Jets the required 12 skaters against the Red Wings.
Samberg excited to make NHL debut against Red WingsClick to Expand
Posted: 4:25 PM Jan. 11, 2022
You’ll forgive Dylan Samberg if he’s holding his breath right now, hoping a dream is about to become a reality.
The last time the 22-year-old defenceman was getting ready to play his first NHL game, he went down in a heap during a training camp battle drill and suffered a high-ankle sprain. That was going to be a pre-season contest, the first of what would have been a busy September slate as the Winnipeg Jets wanted to get an up-close look at the 43rd-overall pick in the 2017 draft.
DeMelo has yet to be given the green light, which would indicate he still has symptoms. If it doesn’t happen in time, the Jets would either be forced to play with just five blue-liners — which will include Dylan Samberg making his NHL debut — or call another player up from the Manitoba Moose. Holm also cleared Tuesday and has been re-assigned to the farm team, which is currently in Milwaukee.
"We knew the situation, that at some point in time, we were going to be affected by it. We’re fortunate that it’s taken this long to get into our locker room. What we do now is we prepare with the guys that we have to put together a roster," said Lowry.
The Jets have only played three games since their last home date on Dec. 19, which was a 4-2 victory over St. Louis. They beat Vegas 5-4 in overtime on Jan. 2, downed Arizona 3-1 on Jan. 4, and then got snowed in by Colorado 7-1 on Jan. 6. A total of nine games — six home, three away — have been postponed due to a variety of pandemic-related reasons and will have to be re-scheduled in February.
"You can only do so much in practice. Practice is one thing, but you just want to compete against other players. That’s a whole different thing. Especially when the games mean so much," said Stastny.
"I think all the guys are excited to get going. Whether it’s one game and then we have to take a couple days off, we know we’re going to have a lot of games coming up on the back end of the schedule. We’ll do everything to get ready for those games, stay prepared, keep the mind fresh and the body ready, because it’s going to be a grind."
As Stastny noted Tuesday, the Jets still have a whopping 49 regular-season games left, which gives them plenty of runway to ultimately take flight. At 16-12-5, they are only three points out of a Western Conference playoff spot, and they have as many as five games in hand right now on teams ahead of them.
"I still have the same expectations for this team. Yeah, there have been some bumps in the road, but everyone goes through that," said Stastny.
"It feels like we’re more than halfway through the season, just because of where we are in the calendar year. But with the season starting a little later, with the extended break and realizing you’ve only played 33 games, now is the dog days of the games a little bit. But you realize every game’s so important, especially in this Central Division we’re in, the Western Conference. And that makes it more fun. In the past I’ve been part of playoff races where halfway through the year you kind of knew who was going to get in and who wasn’t. This year, besides one or two teams, maybe, in the Western Conference, everyone’s still alive, and it just makes that game that much more important and that competitive."
One silver lining to all this is the fact captain Blake Wheeler, who suffered a serious knee injury back on Dec. 10 in Vancouver, is getting closer to a return. Assuming Thursday’s game proceeds, that will be the seventh straight he misses. But that number would have swelled to 16 had the schedule proceeded as planned.
Those nine delayed games that will have to be made-up next month could now include Wheeler, who has resumed skating on his own and is slated to join the Jets on the road next week when they travel to Washington, Nashville, Boston and Pittsburgh. Although not expected to be ready to play by then, he could participate in practices and morning skates as he ramps up his recovery.
At this point, the depleted Jets will take all the help they can get.
"We went a stretch where we didn’t play for 14 days. And teams that you’re competing with in the standings for positioning, they’re playing games, they’re moving up, the gap looks big. What we have to focus in on is we have to focus in on our games. Where we’re at. And that’s the only thing that we can control," said Lowry.
"We know that we’re going to get stacked up with a bunch of games. We talked to the players at length today: Prepare, use this time wisely, because we know that we are going to play a bunch of games here and our practice time then will be limited."
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.