Hello darkness, my old friend.
The Winnipeg Jets are suddenly facing a very dangerous and familiar foe, one that has run wild on them for the past couple seasons. And it’s not the Edmonton Oilers, who pummeled them 6-1 on Monday night, although that wouldn’t be far off considering Connor McDavid and company, a likely first round playoff opponent, have now won five straight games against them.
No, I’m talking about adversity, which Paul Maurice’s club is suddenly drowning in. And if the team’s latest effort is any indication, the worst may still be yet to come.
What went down at Bell MTS Place should be setting off alarm bells around these parts. First and foremost are the myriad of breakdowns and brain cramps which quickly turned this one into a laugher. It’s easily the most embarrassing loss of the season, and one of the ugliest in recent history.
Then there’s the matter of their brutal body language, which only got worse as the score got more lopsided. I won’t go so far as to suggest they quit, but they sure started to look like a group that didn’t really give a damn. Go watch Kyle Connor’s half-hearted attempt at a back-check following an egregious second-period giveaway that handed McDavid a breakaway and his third goal, and fourth point, of the night.
All of the above would be concerning enough if it was happening in a vacuum. But it’s not. Not even close. Consider the following events, all in the past week:
- Vezina Trophy winner Connor Hellebuyck was lit up for three goals on six shots in 11:59 of action against Toronto and given the early hook. The following day, he came out spitting fire, suggesting Maurice was wrong to pull him. It’s an extremely rare public rebuke of the veteran bench boss.
- For what it’s worth, Hellebuyck was given a mercy pull after two periods Monday (six goals on 23 shots). I was curious to see if Maurice might let him wear this entirely as a bit of an "I’ll show you" statement, but sanity prevailed.
- In that same game, shutdown centre Adam Lowry, fresh off signing a shiny new contract extension, was rocked with an uncalled for shot to the head by Maple Leafs forward Alex Galchenyuk. He hasn’t returned to the lineup, and the Jets sure could have used him against the Oilers.
- In a nationally televised Hockey Night In Canada rematch on Saturday, superstar centre Mark Scheifele was stapled to the bench for much of the second period after his long shift and lazy line change cost the team a goal. On Monday, he came out spitting fire, suggesting Maurice was wrong to sit him. See a pattern here?
- In that same game, flashy forward Nikolaj Ehlers had numerous run-ins with the likes of Jake Muzzin and Joe Thornton, and now is out for the remainder of the regular-season with a shoulder injury.
If all of this feels a bit familiar, it’s because it kind of is.
I take you back to the end of the 2018-19 season, when the wheels pretty much came off down the stretch following a red-hot start. There were injuries to key players, more losses than wins and even a closed-door meeting just before the playoffs began. The end result was a speedy first-round elimination at the hands of the eventual champion St. Louis Blues, and Maurice’s admission after the fact that he was going to have to do some off-season damage control given all the "ruffled feathers" on his squad.
Fast forward to the 2019-20 season, which seemed cursed from the get-go. There was the surprise Dustin Byfuglien no-show and subsequent retirement. The pre-season car accident involving Kristian Vesalainen and Sami Niku. The heart ailment to Mark Letestu. The freak injury to Mason Appleton playing warm-up football. The freak, friendly-fire injury to Bryan Little that looks to have ended his career. Three separate bone breaks to Nathan Beaulieu, whose dog was killed in a cowardly hit-and-run. The abrupt COVID-19 shutdown to the season. The injuries to Scheifele and Patrik Laine in Game 1 against Calgary in the Edmonton bubble. And the speedy qualifying round elimination.
This current campaign didn’t start much better, with Jack Roslovic unsigned out of camp, Laine getting hurt during the first game, then Laine and Roslovic packaged together in a blockbuster trade for Pierre-Luc Dubois, who had to spend two full weeks in quarantine while the guys he was traded for quickly jumped into the Blue Jackets lineup. Upon finally getting cleared to play, he promptly got hurt. Tucker Poolman got COVID-19 following opening night. And Beaulieu, once again, broke a bone.
That said, things had taken a turn for the better of late. They were comfortably in a playoff spot and enjoying a long stretch of relative good health — Maurice rolled the same 18 skaters for nearly a month straight, which is unheard of around here. They hadn’t lost more than two games in a row all year, showing a terrific bounce-back ability.
Turns out it really is quietest before the storm. And the Jets would appear to be in the teeth of it now, with players publicly complaining about the coach, the lineup in disarray and now a season-high four game losing streak with only a few weeks to go until a playoff appearance that could be extremely brief.
So where does Winnipeg go from here? From my perch, there are two ways.
- Players start feeling sorry for themselves and a once-promising season goes off the proverbial cliff. If that happens, I suspect some of the surprising public griping we’ve seen from Hellebuyck and Scheifele in recent days gets even louder, likely to the point it can’t be ignored by management and ownership and action has to be taken. It’s one thing for fans or media to question the coach. It’s another matter entirely when your franchise players are doing it.
- Players use this as a motivator, dig deep and find a way to rally around each other and get things headed back in the right direction. Hellebuyck and Scheifele have both talked a good game in that regard. Lowry should be back within days, and Ehlers, we’re told, will be good to go for the start of the playoffs in mid-May. In that sense, it’s not all gloom-and-doom, even if it might feel that way to some. That playoff cushion will come in handy, so they have the benefit of time here to get their suddenly messy house in order.
Based on Monday night’s debacle, I know which way I’m leaning.
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.