Where do the Winnipeg Jets go from here?
If we’re talking literally, the answer is all over the map. Players have scattered for warmer pastures, taking full advantage of an eight-day break in the schedule I suspect is needed just as much for the mind right now as the body.
If we’re talking figuratively, the answer is less clear. And pressure — both external and internal — is mounting on the team’s brain trust to chart their next course in an attempt to save a season threatening to swirl down the drain.
Just listen to the somewhat ominous message sent from PO’d captain Blake Wheeler following Winnipeg’s fourth-consecutive defeat and 13th in their past 18 outings Wednesday night in Columbus, which caused the team to fall to 25-22-4, tied for ninth in the jam-packed Western Conference and three points out of a wild-card spot with 31 regular-season games remaining.
"I think it’s time to figure things out. We’ve got eight days to decide what type of push we want to make and what type of team we want to have going forward," said Wheeler.
Translation: throw us a frickin’ bone here.
Does general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff attempt to stop the bleeding by swinging a big trade or two? He should. He owes it to the core players on this club such as Wheeler, not to mention a loyal but increasingly frustrated fan base that is right to wonder just what the heck is going on here.
The Jets are supposed to be in "win-now" mode, not simply content with two playoff appearances followed by a return to mediocrity, but the immediate future doesn’t look very bright, considering how poor their overall play has been.
A November to remember, fuelled by lights-out goaltending and a softer schedule was, essentially, a mirage and masked all kinds of flaws with this roster, tricking many of us into thinking this team was a contender.
In fact, they are mere pretenders, albeit pretenders who work their tails off most nights, which is why, from where I sit, this is on the GM more than anyone. No, Cheveldayoff couldn’t have anticipated the Dustin Byfuglien mess adding to an already depleted blue line, but he can’t allow that to become an excuse for a lost season.
And yet, here we are.
"I think this group has given everything. I don’t know if before the season I anticipated the type of fight that this team has showed. To be as competitive as we’ve been, I’m pretty proud of that," Wheeler said Wednesday night.
Translation: SOS... our best effort still isn’t nearly good enough.
To date, roster additions have consisted of a few waiver-wire pickups in Nick Shore, Luca Sbisa and Carl Dahlstrom, and a handful of callups from the Manitoba Moose, such as Logan Shaw and Jansen Harkins. Although it may be worth exploring further changes to the mix — hello Seth Griffith, Andrei Chibisov and JC Lipon — I'm not sure any of those additions would move the needle. And even if they were to come up, it's hard to believe they'd be given much of a shot.
After all, what to make of the decision this week to bring up Kristian Vesalainen, only to park the young Finn in the press box on consecutive nights? That, despite the fact coach Paul Maurice flat-out said he would play one of the two games. The Jets were completely overmatched in Carolina, then rolled out the exact same lineup 24 hours later in Columbus.
Why? Doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result is, it has been, the definition of insanity.
Speaking of Maurice, would Cheveldayoff actually consider axing his coach, just as seven other clubs (including a handful ahead of the Jets in the overall standings) have done this season? He shouldn’t. Not yet, anyway.
While Maurice may have his faults, and while calls for such a move may be growing in volume, there is no evidence this tight-knit group has quit on him or tuned him out. In fact, as someone who is around the team and in the room on a daily basis, I’d suggest the opposite is true.
That's not to say Maurice is absolved of blame. It's clear this group is struggling to play the style of game he wants with the skills they have. It's on him to adjust on the fly, to find a better way to exploit the talents of the existing roster and hide the flaws.
Maurice appears to be as frustrated as his captain, and he's been sending out not-so-subtle signals lately, with plenty of references to doing their best despite repeatedly coming up short.
"You want to walk off the bench, you’re pissed that you lost the game but you want to have a little bit of a pride in the way your hockey team played. I thought the last two games, yeah we made mistakes, we got outmanned in a couple areas, but they played their asses off the last two nights, they really did," Maurice said following the 4-3 loss to the Blue Jackets.
Translation: I’m getting pretty much everything I can out of this overwhelmed group. Where’s the freakin’ help?
Would a new bench boss make a difference? I’m not convinced. This isn’t about the "try" level, but rather a roster full of holes that’s now getting regularly exposed. The formula is quite simple, the line between success and failure quite thin.
If their five main offensive players — Wheeler, Mark Scheifele, Kyle Connor, Patrik Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers — are kept in check, they have almost no hope of winning.
If Connor Hellebuyck doesn’t stand on his head, they have almost no hope of winning.
And if they continue to lose the special-teams battle — an inconsistent power play and a porous penalty kill are a dangerous combination — they have almost no hope of winning.
To put it another way, there is simply not enough depth right now, made worse by a rash of injuries — Bryan Little, Adam Lowry, Tucker Poolman and Nathan Beaulieu, among others.
I’m not sure an eight-day hockey hiatus can fix what ails this squad.
"We’ll send an email out to them every day to make sure they have no fun on their break," Maurice joked when asked how this freefall is going to impact everyone over the next week.
"No, I need them to rest, and then come back and we’ve got Boston, St. Louis, Nashville, St. Louis, so you probably need to get some rest."
Translation: things may actually get worse before they get better around here.
The good news, for folks out there who feel I’m kicking the Jets when they’re down, I’m taking a short breather, too. When we all reconvene a week from now at Bell MTS Place, it's going to be fascinating to see which direction this club takes.
One thing is becoming increasingly clear: the status quo simply won't do. Something's gotta give.
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.