After racking up the roaming charges and criss-crossing the continent, the Winnipeg Jets are finally home.
By my count, they’ve spent all or part of 26 of the past 38 days on the road, including two long trips through California and another extended one through Florida, Nashville and Dallas. That’s a lot of air miles, and I’m not sure anyone with the club will be sending Christmas cards to the NHL schedule-makers.
I’ve been living out of a suitcase as well for much of that stretch — 27 out of 39, in fact — covering the Heritage Classic in Regina, games in Anaheim, San Jose and Las Vegas, the Bombers Western Conference Final in Regina, the Bombers Grey Cup victory in Calgary, and three more Jets games in San Jose, Anaheim and Los Angeles.
It’s been quite an adventure. With an extremely hectic stretch now in the rear-view mirror, here’s my latest installment of notes, quotes and anecdotes.
Given the busy calender, perhaps the Jets were due for a dud. That came on Saturday night in the form of a 2-1 loss to the lowly Los Angeles Kings. An ugly first period in which they were outshot 19-6 and outscored 2-0 proved to be the kiss of death, and a valiant effort to rally fell just short, with Mark Scheifele’s glorious scoring chance in the final second of play being turned aside by goalie Jack Campbell.
Still, there’s been plenty to like about Winnipeg’s recent play. They went 10-3-1 in November and have jumped into a top three spot in the Central Division.
"Our game’s definitely night and day to where it was in October. We’ve put ourselves in a good position here. And looking towards the next month, just keep growing our game, keep getting better," captain Blake Wheeler said when I asked what he’ll take away from the month.
Winnipeg will play eight of 13 December games at home, with a much-friendlier road schedule consisting of three one-game trips (Dallas, Detroit and Minnesota) and a two-game trek (St. Louis and Colorado). Six of those games are against teams currently not in a playoff spot, although as Los Angeles proved, Winnipeg can’t afford to take anyone for granted.
"We’re going to be in a battle like (Saturday night) for every single game for the rest of the year. We’re not getting to a comfort place. It’s just going to be scratch and claw and our goaltending’s going to have to be good," said coach Paul Maurice.
Going straight from the Grey Cup to California had a built-in perk — a rare day off on the road to put away the laptop and act as a tourist. And I channelled my former "Mikeoncrime" persona last Tuesday to take the 90-minute Caltrain ride from San Jose to San Francisco, then boarded the ferry to take me to Alcatraz.
What an experience. I can’t recommend it enough. The audio tour was fantastic, as former guards and inmates lead you on a personal trek through the notorious federal prison, with all kinds of incredible story and history. And going in the late afternoon added an extra sense of eerie, especially with howling winds and rain pounding the exterior as darkness set in.
Put me in the "Keep Wheeler at centre" club. Regardless of when Bryan Little returns from injury, I believe the Jets are stronger with the veteran captain playing up the middle.
And, perhaps most importantly, Wheeler seems re-invigorated playing with speedy, skilled wingers Jack Roslovic and Nikolaj Ehlers.
Winnipeg is 8-3-0 in 11 games with Wheeler at centre, and he’s put up 10 points in that span. The Jets went 11-2-3 during the 2017-18 season when Wheeler moved off the wing to take the place of an injured Mark Scheifele, and he had 16 points in those 16 games.
A 19-5-3 record and 26 points in 27 games suggests this shouldn’t just be a short-term solution, but perhaps a permanent development. Scheifele, Wheeler, Little and Adam Lowry as your top four centres would give the Jets a pretty impressive group to play with their talented wingers.
It begs the question why Maurice didn’t try Wheeler up the middle last year, when the wheels were starting to come off and general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff went and acquired Kevin Hayes at the trade deadline. Perhaps the solution was staring everyone in the face the whole time.
Actual exchange with a restaurant server last Thursday in Anaheim:
Server: "Are you enjoying your Thanksgiving?"
Me: "I love being here for it, but I’m actually from Canada. Our Thanksgiving is in early October."
Server: "Oh. When do you folks celebrate your Christmas?"
Patrik Laine may not be scoring at the clip we’re used to seeing, with just seven goals in 27 games. But he does lead the Jets in points, thanks to 18 assists already. I see a more complete, well-rounded player on many nights, and that has carried over to other aspects as well.
Take Saturday at Staples Center, for example. With nearly all of his teammates deciding to take the option and skip the morning skate after playing the previous day in Anaheim, Laine geared up and hit the ice with Michael Spacek (the Moose call-up who has been a healthy scratch) and fellow Finn Joona Luoto, the fourth-liner who typically plays very low minutes.
To see Laine out there, when he didn’t need to be, tells me he’s fully bought in to what he needs to do to take the next step in his development.
While Laine was taking his twirl, most of his teammates were gathered around a television set tuning in to the Ohio State vs Michigan college football game. Roslovic, a Columbus native, got the last laugh over Michigan products Kyle Connor and Andrew Copp as his No. 2 ranked Buckeyes whipped the No. 10 ranked Wolverines 56-27. As you can imagine, there was a fair amount of taunting and boasting going on.
Speaking of Staples Center, it’s incredible how busy that venue is. The Lakers played Friday night. The Kings hosted the Jets Saturday night. The Lakers were home again on Sunday afternoon. And the Clippers took the court on Sunday evening.
Three pro teams and four home games in the span of 48 hours. Pretty much a typical weekend at the self-proclaimed "Sport and Entertainment Center of the World."
Maurice said the other day his team will likely never be an "analytics darling" this season, and I can see why. Some of the underlying numbers are not very kind to the Jets, despite an impressive overall record of 16-10-1.
No, they don’t ask how, they just ask how many, but there’s at least enough reason to be concerned that the Jets are over-achieving right now and bound to regress to the norm at some point if they don’t pick up certain parts of their game.
It also speaks to the power of goaltending, which can mask a lot of flaws. Connor Hellebuyck has certainly been doing that, and his strong play in the crease keeps allowing the Jets to stay in the proverbial fight.
Should be a fun scene on Tuesday night at Bell MTS Place, with the Jets back on home ice and the Grey Cup in the house. Andrew Harris, Nic Demski and coach Mike O’Shea are among those expected to be honoured in a pre-game ceremony.
In other news, it appears Chris Streveler has finally put on a shirt and headed home, to the dismay of many local Bombers fans who were enjoying living vicariously through him over the past week.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time to re-introduce myself to my family — and do a few loads of laundry.
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 Monday, December 2, 2019 at 12:49 PM CST: Full column added.