Winnipeg Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff opted to make only minor tweaks, rather than significant changes, when it came to his much-maligned blue-line this past off-season.
A risky strategy, for sure. And one that is already open for additional scrutiny after Monday night's ugly display in Toronto, where his suddenly shorthanded squad was out-classed by a faster, deeper Maple Leafs team that completely tilted the ice in their favour for long stretches of play.
The end result was a well-deserved 3-1 loss at Scotiabank Arena — a final score that flattered the visitors and would have been much worse if not for the heroics of reigning Vezina Trophy winner Connor Hellebuyck, who made 35 saves in a losing effort.
Toronto improves to 3-1-0, while Winnipeg drops to 1-1-0 following the first of 10 meetings between the clubs this season.
With top six defensive staples Dylan DeMelo (back in Winnipeg following the birth of his child) and Tucker Poolman (COVID-19 protocol) out of the lineup, and the erratic Sami Niku and a debuting Logan Stanley in their place, the Jets were a tire fire at times in their own end, especially during a nightmarish second period.
How bad was it? When John Tavares opened the scoring at 5:28 of the frame, with Niku in the penalty box for a lazy holding penalty, the shots at that point were 12-0 for Toronto (and 22-10 overall in the game). Just past the midway mark, they were an incredible 19-1 for the Maple Leafs (31-11 overall).
It was men against boys at that point, and shades of far too many nights last season where only the play of Hellebuyck kept the Jets in the game. High-danger chances were 12-0 in the second period for Toronto, and finished 15-3 in the game. Overall scoring chances were a whopping 41-20.
"If you get slow against anybody in this league, you’re going to have a problem," said Jets coach Paul Maurice.
They sure did. The speedy Mitch Marner made it 2-0 at 18:39, poking home a loose puck that was sitting in the crease. That proved to be the game-winner when Jets forward Kyle Connor, taking a perfect tape-to-tape pass from Derek Forbort, wired a shot past Frederik Andersen with 47 seconds left in the period to cut the deficit in half despite the completely lopsided play at that point.
Winnipeg wouldn't get any closer, not that they deserved to. Marner sealed the victory with an empty-net goal in the final minute of play.
On a night they desperately could have used a spark, Winnipeg's power play went 0-for-4. The absence of Patrik Laine was clearly felt. The 22-year-old Finnish sniper, who had two goals and an assist in Winnipeg's season-opening 4-3 overtime victory over Calgary last week, was unable to play with an upper-body injury.
Meanwhile, the Jets couldn't kill off the only minor they took.
With Laine, DeMelo and Poolman all out — the latter two being big parts of the penalty kill — the Jets left themselves little room for error. Throw in the fact offensive-minded winger Jack Roslovic remains back home in Columbus without a contract, and the lineup suddenly looks a lot shakier than it did on paper at the start of training camp.
This is all happening at a terrible time, too. Monday was the start of a brutal stretch of hockey in which the Jets will play five times in seven nights, and six in the next nine. That's a significant chunk of the 56-game schedule. One prolonged losing streak could ultimately mean the difference between a playoff spot or a lottery draft pick.
DeMelo and Poolman are expected to miss the next two games in Ottawa, while Laine's status is unclear. And who knows what the plan is with Roslovic, who has asked for a trade and would need to sign a new contract and then quarantine for a week in Winnipeg before he could even rejoin the Jets.
Add it all up and the Jets can't rely on any outside help riding to the rescue anytime soon. Internal options would be young winger Kristian Vesalainen, or young defencemen Ville Heinola and Dylan Samberg.
Or, of course, Cheveldayoff could make some additional moves. But that's typically not his style, and he opted to mostly stand pat this off-season, only adding Forbort, along with fourth-line forwards Nate Thompson and Trevor Lewis, in free agency.
He also re-acquired Paul Stastny in a trade, but the 35-year-old hasn't shown much through two games. He's not alone, as Jets captain Blake Wheeler, 34, had another spotty outing on Monday, as did 33-year-old Mathieu Perreault. Those three veteran forwards are making nearly $19 million between them and will need to step up their games if the Jets are to go places, especially with who's currently out of the lineup.
Maurice tried to get everyone going by breaking out the line blender halfway through Monday's game. Nikolaj Ehlers was taken off the trio with Wheeler and Mark Scheifele, replaced by Andrew Copp. Ehlers dropped down to replace Perreault and play with Stastny and Connor. Perreault went straight to the fourth-line with Thompson and Lewis, while Harkins was bumped up to the third line with Adam Lowry and Mason Appleton.
The result was a slightly improved third period, albeit one that didn't produce any tangible results. Andersen, with 27 saves, is now 10-0-2 in his career against Winnipeg.
"I think all night we were kind of looking for it. It’s a good thing about the NHL, we’ve got a game back-to-back, so we’ll kinda forget about that one," said Connor.
A short memory can be a good thing, and the Jets will quickly have a chance to get back to the solid style of play they showed last week against Calgary. Up next are the Ottawa Senators Tuesday night at Canadian Tire Centre, the first of three straight meetings against a club most pundits predict to finish in last place.
Regardless of the opponent, the thinned-out Jets aren't in a position to take anyone for granted. And a much better effort than the one against the Maple Leafs will be required.
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.