ST. PAUL — Let’s take a quick trip back to the fall of 2017, the beginning of what would be the most successful campaign to date for the Winnipeg Jets.
You likely remember how that one ended — finishing second-overall in the NHL regular-season standings, winning the first playoff game victory in franchise history, winning the first playoff series in franchise history over Minnesota, winning the second playoff series in franchise history over Presidents Trophy-winning Nashville, then ultimately having their Stanley Cup dreams snuffed out by Vegas in the Western Conference Final. Special stuff, right?
What you may not remember, however, is how that one began. A 7-2 stinker against Toronto on home ice was followed by an ugly 6-2 butt-kicking in Calgary. Two games, two lopsided losses, and no shortage of hand-wringing and angst among the locals.
I bring you this little history lesson today because, for the first time since that magical season, the Jets have come stumbling out of the gate with an identical 0-2-0 record. A 4-1 defeat in Anaheim was followed by a 4-3 setback in San Jose.
"It’s going to be a long and disappointing season if this continues much longer," one frustrated gentleman wrote me early Sunday morning as I boarded my flight to St. Paul. "At one point does the front office realize (Paul) Maurice is the problem?" another wondered, echoing plenty of similar messages I received. "New year, new players, same problems," bemoaned a third. I also had a few poop emojis sent my way on Twitter by folks summing up what they thought of the team’s performance to date.
Yes, it’s safe to say the pitchforks are already out and the you-know-what is hitting the fan, not even a week into the 2021-22 season. My advice: Put them down, at least for the time being.
There’s plenty to be concerned about, sure. Connor Hellebuyck hasn’t looked like himself yet, stopping just 45 of 53 shots so far resulting in an ugly 4.10 goals-against-average and .849 save-percentage. Woof. Hellebuyck revealed in training camp he’d been diagnosed with COVID-19 in August and that it had hit him hard. Although he insists he’s 100 per cent, his game certainly isn’t in good shape so far.
Special teams are anything but. The power play has gone 0-for-8, and given up a costly shorthanded goal to boot which completely changed the momentum on Saturday night in the Shark Tank. And the only thing they’re killing when they take a penalty is their chances of winning, having surrendered four power play goals on 10 chances so far. Double woof.
And Maurice absolutely deserves scrutiny. Some of his player usage has been puzzling, especially as it pertains to his 35-year-old captain. Blake Wheeler leads all Jets forwards in ice time with an average of 20:36, trailing only top-pairing defencemen Josh Morrissey and Nate Schmidt in that category. Only 20 forwards in the entire NHL are averaging more time, and they are basically a who’s who of All-Stars and future Hall-of-Famers. The only one with more mileage on the odometer than Wheeler happens to be the best generational goal scorer of our era, Alex Ovechkin.
Less should be more with Wheeler at this stage of his career, but Maurice has now added to the workload by utilizing him on the penalty kill, in addition to top-line minutes and top power-play unit minutes. That pace can’t continue for long. Especially when the major talking point following the latest loss is how slow the Jets looked, with Maurice and forwards Andrew Copp and Pierre-Luc Dubois all bemoaning the lack of quickness they believe has proved costly so far. Winnipeg’s fastest skater, by a country mile, is Nikolaj Ehlers. His 18:41 of ice time per game is fifth among forwards, and eighth among all players.
Like all the above, we’re talking about an extremely small sample size, which is why it’s still too early to draw any conclusions about what we’ve seen. Just as it was four years ago when it looked like the sky was falling following an even more dreadful first week, only to have plenty of sunshine and rainbows on the horizon.
Which brings us to a very important early-season test for Winnipeg, which arrived here in the Twin Cities Sunday afternoon and will hit the practice ice on Monday ahead of Tuesday’s meeting with Minnesota. The Wild just did what the Jets couldn’t and won a pair of road games in California. (2-1 over Anaheim Friday, 3-2 over Los Angeles Saturday) to get off to a perfect start ahead of their home-opener at Xcel Energy Center.
The only other time in Jets 2.0 history they began with three straight losses was in their inaugural year of 2011-12 after moving from Atlanta. It’s safe to say expectations for that team, which ultimately finished 37-35-10 and out of the playoffs, were much lower than this year’s edition. In fact, the current crop has drawn plenty of comparisons to the 2017-18 squad, due mainly to a beefed-up blue-line to go with an high-end forward core and one of the world’s best goaltenders. These Jets are a much more experienced group, having weathered plenty of storms between then and now. And there appears to be one already brewing.
As we saw four years ago, it’s more about how you finish than how you start. Good teams, even great teams, are going to lose two games in a row at some point. Multiple times in a season, in fact. The Tampa Bay Lightning, who have won back-to-back championships, have 12 losing streaks of at least two games over the past two seasons. (And neither of those, thanks to the pandemic, were the full 82-games). The key is to stop the bleeding before a minor flesh wound turns into something far more serious. The Jets did that in 2017-18, winning the next three contests after the 0-2-0 start and never really looking back.
Game 3 is far too early to declare a "must-win." But, given the lofty expectations they carried into this season, Tuesday’s tilt here in Minnesota might just be the earliest "big test" this organization has ever faced.
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.