The Winnipeg Jets are waking up these days in unfamiliar territory, although I suspect many around the club aren't sleeping all that well right now, given the current state of affairs.
Thursday's 3-1 loss to the New York Islanders dropped them to 4-5-0, which gives them just one more point than their worst-ever start through nine games since relocating from Atlanta (3-5-1 in that inaugural 2011-12 season). It's also the first time they've been below .500 this many games into a season since 2016-17, when they sported an identical 4-5-0 record en route to missing the post-season.
Two straight playoff years have followed (with starts of 4-3-2 and 6-2-1), with many believing they were just the start of a lengthy period of Stanley Cup contention opening up, especially with such a young, talented core. But now? You can already feel things starting to circle the drain following three straight defeats this week on home ice and a date with the red-hot Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers up next Sunday night at Bell MTS Place.
This team, as currently constructed, just doesn't appear good enough. There are too many flaws getting exposed.
However, that doesn't mean all hope should be abandoned and that we're already into "next year" territory. Despite all kinds of off-season turmoil and turnover, most of it salary-cap related, the Jets still have plenty of talent in the lineup. This doesn't have to be a lost season.
The key is finding a way to maximize it on a nightly basis, something coach Paul Maurice and his club have failed to do in the early going. With that in mind, it's time for another semi-regular instalment of Nobody Asked Me, But..., in which I offer up my two cents worth on various issues surrounding the club.
1) Nobody asked me, but... it's time to try Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele on separate lines. There's no question these two have displayed terrific chemistry together in the past, but I'm just not seeing it through the first nine games of the season.
And certainly not after three straight defeats in which the Jets have only scored five goals — and just one of them at five-on-five, by fourth-liner Mathieu Perreault.
With veteran centre Bryan Little set to return to the lineup from a concussion, it's time to rethink the line configurations and split up the dynamic duo, other than on the power play.
Wheeler isn't even the best right-winger on his team right now. That would be Nikolaj Ehlers, who seems to have found another level to his game. Why not try Ehlers with Scheifele and Patrik Laine on the top trio?
Drop Wheeler down to the second line for a reunion with his longtime linemate in Little, with Kyle Connor on the left wing. That would allow for Andrew Copp to reunite with Adam Lowry on the third line, and throw in speedster Jack Roslovic to give Winnipeg an intriguing top nine.
Then you have a fourth line including the likes of Perreault, David Gustafsson, Mason Appleton, Gabriel Bourque and Mark Letestu (when healthy), or even options on the farm with the Moose such as Joona Luoto, Andrei Chibisov, C.J. Suess, Kristian Vesalainen, Jansen Harkins, Logan Shaw or Seth Griffith, who are among a number of players who are pushing for work and creating internal competition.
2) Nobody asked me, but... it's time to get some closure on the Dustin Byfuglien situation. The veteran defenceman continues to hold the Jets hostage by delaying a decision on whether he intends to continue playing hockey. That can't continue.
General manager Kevin Cheveldayoff needs some clarity and he needs it now. I realize he likely can't force Byfuglien to decide tomorrow, but some pressure needs to be applied. It seems like the Jets, at least so far, have been willing to sit back and give Byfuglien all the time and space he needs, but that's happening to the detriment of their own bottom line. Enough is enough.
If Byfuglien and his US$7.6 million cap hit are returning, the Jets need to figure out exactly what they'll be getting in a 34-year-old coming off three injuries last season who has done very little skating or training to this point. Nobody should expect Big Buff to swoop in wearing a cape to save the day, but at least the Jets can plan accordingly.
And if he isn't coming back, that opens up additional opportunities for the team.
3) Nobody asked me, but... it's time to fix the penalty kill. File this one under "Duh!" The only thing the Jets are killing when they take a penalty is their chance of winning the game. Despite being angels on the ice and taking just 16 minors so far, Winnipeg has already given up seven power-plays goals. That's an efficiency rate — and I use that term very loosely — of 56.3 per cent. That's also dead-last in the NHL, by a considerable margin.
Wheeler said following Thursday's loss that "there’s capable bodies there, guys that can do the job." Perhaps, but they might soon find themselves on the unemployment line if they can't turn things around. Getting in lanes and blocking shots has been a huge issue, with the Jets either unwilling or unable to do it. Wheeler said as much, alluding to players needing to be "committed to eating some pucks."
This should be priority No. 1 right now for the coaching staff to figure out, complete with exhaustive video study and practice, practice, practice, something the Jets have done only a handful of times so far due to a busy schedule that had them playing an NHL-leading nine games through Thursday.
If the current group isn't up to snuff, it's time to either try other bodies on the PK or start looking elsewhere.
4) Nobody asked me, but... it's time to swing a trade. The needs are many, with two major areas of concern — the blue-line and the penalty kill — highlighted above. And, as already stated, Cheveldayoff's hands are somewhat tied right now with the Byfuglien matter. As of now, the Jets could only really do a deal if the salary going out matches the salary coming back.
I've long thought a player like Roslovic, with his top-six potential but lack of available space for such a role in Winnipeg, would be a valuable chip. Problem is, he's still in his entry-level deal, making $894,000, which would limit what kind of return you get for him. This is where some creativity might have to be involved, with another piece going out such as Perreault ($4.125 million) or defenceman Dmitry Kulikov ($4.333 million).
At the risk of repeating myself, this is why the Byfuglien situation needs to be solved ASAP. It's too late to hit the free-agent market for this season, so his freed-up money would be of no assistance in that department, but it could help considerably on the trade market.
5) Nobody asked me, but... keep playing the kid. Ville Heinola has proven to be one of Winnipeg's best defencemen despite being just 18. At this point, taking him out of the lineup under the guise of helping his development or saving the first year of his entry-level deal from being burned (after he plays nine NHL games) is hogwash.
Heinola makes the Jets better. Period. Sure, he's going to make mistakes, but he's hardly alone in that department. After four very strong games to start his career and one tough one against Minnesota, Maurice made Heinola a healthy scratch for three straight. Only an injury to journeyman Anthony Bitetto got him back in Thursday night, and Heinola impressed once again.
I'll add Sami Niku to this as well, although he's still battling a nagging groin injury down with the Moose. Once healthy and back up to speed, there's no reason Niku shouldn't be up with the big club playing a regular role.
If nothing else, the two two young Finnish blue-liners will provide plenty of excitement in what might end up being a long season for fans.
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.