ST. LOUIS — If the Winnipeg Jets are going to make the playoffs — and those odds are seemingly growing longer with each passing game — then it’s time for the big guns to break out.
I’m looking at you Mark Scheifele, Patrik Laine, Kyle Connor, Blake Wheeler and Nikolaj Ehlers.
Combined, the "Fab Five" are pulling in just over US$34 million in salary this season, which is actually more than half the US$62.8-million cap hit of the current 22-man roster. You can debate whether or not it's fair to single them out over others, but the fact is they're paid handsomely to produce.
And the organization hasn’t exactly been getting a solid return on its lofty investment lately.
Ehlers hasn’t scored in 10 games. Scheifele has lit the lamp once in his past nine. Wheeler and Connor each have one in their last seven. Only Laine, with four snipes in the last six (which came after a seven-game drought), is even close to what you’d expect.
It’s no surprise the Jets are just 1-5-1 in their last seven, with just 14 goals scored in that span. And two of them were into an empty net in their lone victory. Going back even further, they’re just 2-7-1 in their past 10, with a sputtering offence more to blame than a deficient defence.
That’s not even remotely good enough to cut it in the Western Conference, where the Jets wake up today on the outside looking in, three points behind Calgary for the final wild-card spot. With just 28 regular-season games left on the schedule, including a meeting with the Stanley Cup champs Thursday night here in St. Louis, time is running out.
Connor Hellebuyck has done his part, keeping the Jets in nearly every game he plays. But the No. 1 netminder, legitimate Vezina Trophy candidate and undisputed team MVP could sure use a little help.
The fact is, the Jets as currently constructed simply don’t have the depth to survive a collective power outage from their five highest-paid skaters. That’s especially true with injuries to forwards Bryan Little, Adam Lowry and Mathieu Perreault thinning the herd even more. And, with a patchwork blue line that is short on talent but long on compete, scoring a goal or two each game is just not going to cut it.
There’s no question the effort has been there most nights, but the execution certainly has not been. And winnable games are slipping through their fingers as a result.
Tuesday night at Bell MTS Place was the latest example. The Jets fell 2-1 to Nashville in overtime with Scheifele and Wheeler and top defenceman Josh Morrissey caught for an extended shift that ended with a ghastly giveaway on a Morrissey to Scheifele pass attempt, and a too little, too late back-check from a gassed Wheeler to cover a fresh-off-the bench Mikael Granlund, who fired the winner.
And all of this came on a night the power play was once again firing blanks, going 0-for-3 in a game where a goal or two could have made all the difference.
The same could be said of last Friday’s 2-1 regulation defeat to Boston, where the Jets had six man-advantage chances, including nearly two minutes of five-on-three time, but couldn’t buy a goal.
Overall, Winnipeg has just two power play goals on 29 chances over the last nine games. They’ve tumbled from 11th in the NHL to 22nd in that category, keeping close company with sad-sack clubs like Los Angeles, New Jersey, San Jose, Ottawa and Detroit.
Coach Paul Maurice keeps leaning on the same top unit of Wheeler, Scheifele, Laine, Connor and Neal Pionk, but they haven’t exactly rewarded the bench boss for his stubborn loyalty.
On Tuesday night, for example, the Jets had 5:33 of total power play time. Connor was on the ice for every second. Pionk played 5:22. Scheifele 5:21. Laine 5:10. And Wheeler 5:02. The second unit barely got a sniff, with Ehlers clocking in a grand total of 31 seconds, Morrissey just 11 seconds.
It has become stale. It has become predictable. And it has become far too easy to defend. Wheeler’s seam passes to Laine aren’t working. Pionk is either moving the puck too slowly or taking rather harmless shots from the point. Scheifele is smothered with a blanket in the slot. And Connor is essentially a decoy.
What’s the definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over and over again with the same result.
Maurice defended the heavy minutes for his top unit Wednesday, saying they’re getting extended zone time and puck control. But in a results-oriented business, that’s cold comfort right now.
It’s time to find a fix. And fast.
I suppose the first step to is admitting you may have a problem, something Maurice did following practice.
"The concern is the direction of it right now, from an analytic point of view and then from just watching it," he said. Maurice added creating chances are "fine," but you ultimately need some finish. And he said the worry is you "crater and just start ripping everything at the net."
I’d suggest that actually might not be a bad strategy at this point. The cute, finesse plays are simply not there.
As for his brightest offensive stars not exactly shining right now, Maurice said there’s always a concern it begins to impact them in other ways — specifically when it’s comes to defending, something the Jets have done a much better job of lately after an extended rough patch.
"Those are five very offensive players that want to score, are used to scoring and have the pressure to score, and do you see that bleed into the five-on-five game?" said Maurice. "I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m watching for it."
There’s no question frustration has set in, as evident by Wheeler’s bristling post-game interview Tuesday in which the captain used a grand total of 42 words — yes, I counted — to answer four different questions about his team’s offensive woes.
Highlights, and I use that term loosely, included "We were alright," and "I don't know, it’s a mystery."
Truly compelling, insightful stuff right there. But here’s the thing. If Wheeler and the other members of the Fab Five can't do any better than "alright" they’re going to have a long off-season to spend searching for answers.
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.
Updated on Wednesday, February 5, 2020 at 9:52 PM CST: Fixes typo
February 6, 2020 at 9:16 AM: Fixes typo