SAN JOSE — One loss does not a season make. And a disappointing start to the new NHL campaign is no reason for the Winnipeg Jets or their fans to be reaching for the panic button.
Snap judgments and knee-jerk reactions be damned, this is still a deep and talented team, one that should win a lot more than it loses over the course of 82 games. Nothing changed on that front despite Wednesday’s 4-1 setback to Anaheim, however frustrating the end result may be.
There’s no reason to worry about Connor Hellebuyck, who had a tough first night at the office and was outplayed by his crease competitor. He’ll bounce back, as usual, and remains among the best in the world at his position. Nor do I expect what should be the Jets power play to be held at bay, the way it was despite five chances against the Ducks at Honda Center. There’s too much firepower, and they would have had a goal or two if not for John Gibson’s near-perfect performance.
So onwards and upwards, nothing to see here, simply put it all in the rear-view mirror and look forward to a Saturday night swim in the Shark Tank here in San Jose, right? Not so fast.
To me, there were two big questions surrounding the Jets coming into this season. One involved the state of the backup goaltender position, with the salary-cap strapped club handing the keys to unproven Eric Comrie and his league-minimum contract. That remains a concern, one that won’t begin to be alleviated — or exacerbated — until we see Comrie get a few starts under his belt.
The other involved the state of the penalty kill. And that should be the biggest red flag from the Game 1 loss. The Jets, in a word, were putrid. And they made an Anaheim power play that shouldn’t exactly have opponents shaking in their skates look potent.
Midway through the opener, the Jets were in perfectly fine shape. Sure, they trailed 2-1, but had largely carried the play, had finally solved Gibson thanks to a Kyle Connor rocket, and seemed poised to take over. The cream was ready to rise to the top.
But then Blake Wheeler took a hooking penalty, the Jets couldn’t clear their zone on the ensuing kill — this would be a common theme — and the Ducks restored the two-goal lead. Wheeler was sent to the sin bin a second time early in the third period, with a near-identical result, and now it was 4-1 and a winnable game was suddenly put to bed and out of reach.
Following the game, I asked Jets coach Paul Maurice if the quality of his team’s penalty killing was reflected in the results. Or, were they just victims of some bad puck luck? He pulled no punches and didn’t try to sugar-coat it, saying "it got what it deserved."
Yes, it did. And if the Jets are going to make the kind of noise they are certainly capable of this year, this must become priority No. 1 to fix. And fast. Problem is, even the bench boss seems to be at a bit of a loss. Maurice has been talking about an ongoing audition for roles on the PK since the start of training camp, with a rotating cast of characters being used. So far, the results have been middling at best.
In the final two pre-season games last week against Calgary, in which Winnipeg dressed a near-full lineup, the Flames torched them for three goals on six chances. And that has now bled over to the start of the regular-season. I suspect it will be the primary focus when the Jets hit the ice today at SAP Center for practice, ahead of tomorrow night’s meeting with the Sharks.
Winnipeg’s PK was an Achilles heel at times last year despite finishing near the middle of the NHL pack. The loss of fourth-line checkers Nate Thompson and Trevor Lewis in free agency and Mason Appleton in the Seattle expansion draft this summer has only added more uncertainty. All three of those were key players on the kill.
Riley Nash was signed to help fill that role, and he was on the second unit Wednesday. Beside him was veteran Paul Stastny, who hasn’t done very much of that in recent years but appears to be part of the casting call going on. Same goes for Wheeler and Kyle Connor. Adam Lowry and Andrew Copp, the two returning staples on the top forward pair, were ultimately on the ice when both power play goals got scored.
The Jets do have a potential option in Dominic Toninato, who is currently with the Manitoba Moose after clearing waivers earlier this week. His demotion was cap-related, not performance-based, and I fully expected he’d be recalled in time for the opener. In exchange, I assumed rookie Cole Perfetti would be heading to the farm, but Maurice opted to give the kid his big-league debut largely, I suspect, because the Jets were missing their top offensive player in Mark Scheifele to suspension.
Maurice likes his bottom-six forwards to be able to play special teams, but the four wingers used on the third and fourth lines Wednesday — Perfetti, Jansen Harkins, Kristian Vesalainen and Evgeny Svechnikov — don’t exactly fit that mode at this stage of their NHL careers.
With Scheifele now ready to go for game two, the trickle-down effect means someone is coming out. I'd also expect Toninato to be here sooner than later, If for no other reason than to try to help the kill. His presence would bump another young winger to the press box.
With NHL officials calling anything and everything in these early days — cross-checking is the flavour du jour in terms of a league crackdown — there should be plenty of five-on-four play. And the Jets can’t afford to have that battle be as one-sided as it was on opening night.
If it continues to be a problem, the panic button will indeed need to be pushed.
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.