October 14, 2019

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Opinion

I'm not saying the Jets will do it... I'm saying they could

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>The Winnipeg Jets congratulate goaltender Connor Hellebuyck (37) for a shutout against the Calgary Flames on Monday.</p>

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

The Winnipeg Jets congratulate goaltender Connor Hellebuyck (37) for a shutout against the Calgary Flames on Monday.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 10/1/2017 (1006 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

They’ve lost more often in regulation time this season than all but two other NHL teams.

They were the only team in Canada not in a playoff position at one point last weekend.

And the oddsmakers still have them listed as a prohibitive longshot to make the playoffs. One estimate gives the team just a 27 per cent chance.

So why is it then that the Jets look more like a legitimate playoff contender to me right now than they have since their arrival in 2011, including the year they actually made the playoffs only to be swept four straight?

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 10/1/2017 (1006 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

They’ve lost more often in regulation time this season than all but two other NHL teams.

They were the only team in Canada not in a playoff position at one point last weekend.

And the oddsmakers still have them listed as a prohibitive longshot to make the playoffs. One estimate gives the team just a 27 per cent chance.

So why is it then that the Jets look more like a legitimate playoff contender to me right now than they have since their arrival in 2011, including the year they actually made the playoffs only to be swept four straight?

Because I’m stupid? Definitely a possibility.

But let’s consider another possibility — because this is a really talented hockey team that quietly turned a corner in the past month.

Crazy? Maybe. But let’s go for a walk.

With that 2-0 win over the Calgary Flames Monday night at MTS Centre, the Jets are now 7-4-0 since ending a four-game losing streak in early December.

They've beat Chicago, in Chicago. They’ve posted gritty road wins on back-to-back nights in Florida. They are 4-2-0 in their last six road games.

They’re been more disciplined in their own end and more opportunistic in their opponent’s end. They’ve been getting better goaltending. Jacob Trouba is playing the best hockey of his life. Ditto Nikolaj Ehlers. Blake Wheeler has 11 points in 11 games.

They’ve currently got four players in the top 30 in scoring. The Jets, along with the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins, are the only teams in the league with three players who have at least 37 points.

The power-play is better, clicking in six of the last nine games. The penalty kill is perfect in the last three. And the second-period woes that were killing this team in 2016? Winnipeg has outscored opponents 7-2 in the second period through four games in 2017.

Look, I’m not saying it’s going to be easy. This team dug itself a huge deficit through the first 10 weeks of the season and it’s going to take quite a run through the second half to make up all that lost ground.

How good of a run? Well, the general consensus right now appears to be the Jets will need to earn at least 49 points in their final 39 games in order to qualify for the playoffs with an anticipated minimum threshold of 92 points.

So what would that look like? Well, a 22-12-5 record the rest of the way would give the Jets that 92 points — and that would give Winnipeg a better than 90 per cent chance of making the playoffs, according to the math gurus over at sportsclubstats.com.

Trade one of those five overtime losses for a win and the same guys say the odds would rise to better than 96 per cent with 93 points.

So is that doable? Can a team that hasn’t won three games in a row all season — a team that turned a 3-1 third-period lead in Buffalo Saturday afternoon into a complete debacle — put together that kind of run?

Mathematically, the answer is clearly yes. For all the angst in Jets Nation over this team’s failure to string three wins together this year, it’s a bit of a red herring.

If the Jets did nothing more the rest of this season than win two and lose one, over and over again, they would go 26-13-0 (better if some losses came in overtime) and finish the season with at least 95 points, which the math guys will tell you would give them a 99.5 per cent chance of lacing up their skates in the playoff derby.

Indeed, if any team did nothing all season long but intersperse consecutive wins with a regulation loss, they’d finish the season with 108 points and be in the hunt for the President’s Trophy.

All of which is to say — how about we put away the whole, "They can’t even win three in a row" thing and talk about something that matters?

It’s not the failure to win three in a row that has put them in their precarious position. It was the five straight losses in November and December's four-game losing streak that separates them in the standings from the other six Canadian teams.

And while we’re on that subject, can we talk about the overcooked reaction over the past week to the Jets being the only Canadian team out of the playoffs at the season’s midway point, which even included one paper blaring the headline: "Jets could be Canada's worst NHL team."

Well, sure, they could be anything. But they’re not.

Ask yourself this: which Canadian team would you rather have as the principal tenant of the MTS Centre? The Canadiens, who pay the Jets a visit Wednesday? For sure. And Edmonton might be fun to watch every night just because of Connor McDavid.

The Leafs? I wouldn’t trade Patrik Laine for Auston Matthews or Winnipeg for Toronto, but to each his own.

But Vancouver? Calgary? Ottawa? Don’t make me laugh. The fans in Ottawa don’t even want the Senators — the National Post reported this week that Ottawa is averaging just 15,678 fans per game this season in a building that holds close to 19,000. The Sens have posted just one sellout through their first 20 home dates and hit rock-bottom back in October when they drew just 11,061 for a game against the Arizona Coyotes.

As for the Jets, it’s not a coincidence that the improvement of late has come at the same time as the team finally got close to being healthy — at least until Laine went down with a concussion Saturday in Buffalo — and the schedule-maker finally took his foot off this team’s throat.

Given a reasonably healthy lineup and a schedule that is no longer making history as the most onerous in NHL history, this team has demonstrated over the past four weeks that it can compete night in and night out.

Now, the uncertainty surrounding Laine's injury is obviously an ongoing concern. A return this week is a possibility. That’d be good. But a return in weeks — or even months — is also always a possibility with concussions. And that’d be a nightmare for a team trying to make a push for spring hockey.

And the other lingering uncertainty moving forward is how Connor Hellebuyck will respond if, as it now appears, the team decides to ride him hard as their starting goaltender for the balance of the season.

I have no idea how being the de facto No. 1 will look on Hellebuyck. But I am certain of this — the Jets know what they have in Michael Hutchinson: a below-average NHL goalie. It’s now time they find out what they have in Hellebuyck, for better or worse.

As for the schedule the rest of the way, it gives the Jets every opportunity to succeed. Six of the nine games they will play before the all-star break at the end of the month will be against the Pacific Division, including teams they need to track down in the standings. And 21 of Winnipeg’s final 39 games will be at home, including nine against Central Division rivals.

Look, predicting the final regular-season standings three months from now is a fool’s errand, even if we knew what Laine’s prognosis was and how Hellebuyck will respond.

But the Jets look a lot more like a playoff team to me today than they did a month ago, even if their position in the standings hasn’t meaningfully changed.

Like I said, maybe I’m delusional.

But what if I’m not?

 

paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @PaulWiecek

Paul Wiecek

Paul Wiecek
Reporter (retired)

Paul Wiecek was born and raised in Winnipeg’s North End and delivered the Free Press -- 53 papers, Machray Avenue, between Main and Salter Streets -- long before he was first hired as a Free Press reporter in 1989.

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