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EDMONTON — Who, exactly, are the Winnipeg Jets?
It’s a question worth asking as they look to retool following an all-too-early exit from playoff action this summer.
General manager Kevin Cheveldayoff and head coach Paul Maurice have their work cut out trying to get the Jets back into the realm of heavyweights after falling far short of their goal the past two seasons.
They’re no longer a big, physical club. They’re relatively young, sure, but not inexperienced. They’re not an offensive juggernaut that can simply outscore their problems most nights. Nor will they be confused for defensive specialists. Special teams are spotty. And while the try level is almost always there, the results are not.
Add it up and you get a team that is, not surprisingly, on the outside looking in as the most important games of the season are going down.
As they gear up for what should be an eventful few weeks, with both the NHL draft and free agency on deck, Winnipeg’s brain trust would be wise to look at what’s going on here in the hub for both inspiration and ideas when it comes to the identity crisis they appear to be suffering from.
Specifically, what are the Dallas Stars, Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Islanders all doing that they aren’t?
With that in mind, here’s a half-dozen things teams such as the Jets can glean from the trio of teams still playing bubble hockey as the leaves start to turn.
1) Stars need to shine: Sure, it would be terrific to have a Nikita Kucherov or a Brayden Point, a Mathew Barzal and Brock Nelson or a Miro Heiskanen and Tyler Seguin in the lineup, but none of them are being shipped to River City. That alone is hardly the problem.
The Jets already have plenty of talented players, including a Vezina Trophy finalist in Connor Hellebuyck, an elite centre in Mark Scheifele, skilled scoring wingers in Patrik Laine, Kyle Connor, Blake Wheeler and Nikolaj Ehlers, and a legitimate top-pairing defenceman in Josh Morrissey.
Laine and Scheifele were injured in the first game of the qualifying-round series against the Calgary Flames, and the Jets simply didn’t get what they needed from the others, save for Ehlers. Which brings us to...
2) Go deep: Tampa, New York and Dallas can all roll three, and at times four, lines that can put the puck in the net, helping to pick up the slack if one or two players get injured or go cold. Players such as Denis Gurianov, Joel Kiviranta, Josh Bailey, Anthony Beauvillier, Blake Coleman and Yanni Gourde have all stepped up for their respective teams in big ways.
The Jets need to surround their core with the these type of difference-makers, especially when the stakes are highest. Fringe NHLers such as Nick Shore, Logan Shaw and Gabriel Bourque simply won’t cut it.
3) Size matters: Just look at the way Winnipeg got bullied by Calgary in that series. The Jets lost tons of beef on the blue-line last off-season, and getting some back is essential.
The remaining Cup contenders have an impressive mix of strength and skill that makes them a lot harder to play against, especially in the playoffs.
The Lightning acquired Barclay Goodrow and Patrick Maroon to make life more miserable for opponents, while the Stars did the same by bringing in Corey Perry. Other than Adam Lowry and Nathan Beaulieu, the Jets were often the 98-pound weaklings without the likes of big defencemen Dustin Byfuglien, Jacob Trouba, Ben Chiarot and the towering Tyler Myers.
Travis Hamonic, believed to be on Winnipeg’s UFA radar, would be one such target. Dylan Samberg, who will come to camp as a promising rookie prospect, could also help in that regard.
4) Coaching matters: We’re getting a reminder of how what happens behind the bench can really make a difference, especially when it comes to making adjustments for the group you have and finding a way to get them to peak at the right time.
Just look at what Barry Trotz has done with an Islanders team many left for dead after star centre John Tavares bolted in free agency for Toronto. Or the work Jon Cooper has done in getting a Lightning team back on track after winning the Presidents’ Trophy last season, only to crash and burn in the playoffs. Or genuine good guy Rick Bowness, who took over for exiled coach Jim Montgomery mid-season and has the Stars back to the big dance for the first time in two decades.
I believe Maurice did a fine job this season, but just like his players he needs to find a way to raise his game to another level.
5) Build up the middle: Seguin and Joe Pavelski form a terrific one-two punch at centre for the Stars. Tampa and New York go even deeper, with Point, the injured Steven Stamkos, Anthony Cirelli and Tyler Johnson all available for top-line roles with the Lightning, and Barzal, Nelson and Jean-Gabriel Pageau doing the same for the Islanders.
Not to keep beating this drum, but the Jets do not. After Scheifele, there are plenty of question marks for the second-line role, with a rotating cast of internal (Wheeler, Andrew Copp, the injured Bryan Little and Jack Roslovic) and external (stopgap trade-deadline additions in Paul Stastny, Kevin Hayes and Cody Eakin) temporary fixes.
This is a problem that needs to finally be addressed in a big way, whether via trade or free agency.
6) Timely scoring is key: The Colorado Avalanche and the Vegas Golden Knights could score in spades, but both teams have been bounced from the Edmonton bubble. Same with the Toronto Maple Leafs and Washington Capitals in the East.
As the Stars have proven with an astonishing negative goal differential, it’s not always about how many times you light the lamp but when you do it. Ditto for the Islanders, who practise a defence-first mentality under Trotz but can fill the net when needed.
Both clubs have proven that taking care of your own end doesn’t mean sacrificing offence in the other, a lesson the Jets would be wise to heed given the tire fire they often were in front of Hellebuyck this season.
The sooner Winnipeg can take a page from teams still playing hockey and address the above issues, the sooner they’ll be on their way to reinventing themselves and carving out an identity as a Stanley Cup contender.
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.
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