3 Takeaways from Jets’ Back-to-Back Losses to Panthers and Lightning

The Winnipeg Jets got a lot of sun this week, arriving in Florida three days early to outrun a historic Manitoba blizzard.

While they no doubt enjoyed the sunshine while WInnipeggers hunkered down and despaired about the April snowstorm, when they finally did swap sand for ice, they did not enjoy the 120 minutes they spent on it. They suffered a pair of awful losses which showed clearly why they’re going to finish well out of the playoff picture and near the bottom of the Central Division.

Here are three takeaways from the pair of frustrating contests.

1) Jets Aren’t An Elite Team, But Try to Play Like One, And It’s Killing Them

Something that the 6-1 drubbing at the hands of the Florida Panthers and the embarrassing collapse against the Tampa Bay Lightning a night later proved beyond a shadow of a doubt is that the Jets won’t be successful when trying to play like truly elite teams do.

Blake Wheeler Winnipeg Jets
Blake Wheeler and the Jets found lots of sun but no success in Florida trying to match up against the Panthers and Lightning. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Panthers and Lighting, at first and third in the Atlantic Division respectively and each with an embarrassment of offensive riches, can afford to run and gun, but the Jets cannot. They will find only misery when trying to keep up with Stanley Cup contenders in a track meet-style game.

“If we want to trade chances up and down the ice, that’s not the strength of our hockey team,” interim head coach Dave Lowry said after the Lightning scored five straight en route to a 7-4 victory.

That realization came to Lowry far before Saturday. “We talked about details, what we were going to have to do. And we got caught up in trying to play a rush game, and that wasn’t going to play in our favour,” he said after the Panthers’ game.

But whatever Lowry has said hasn’t made an impression with a Jets group whose lackadaisical approach to defending has burned them on too many nights. On more than a few of the 13 combined goals they allowed on back-to-back nights in the Sunshine State, there were not even any defenders in the same area code as the goal scorer. Check out how open Mikhail Sergachev is below. Where, exactly, IS everybody?

Lowry said that “everyone wants to score a pretty goal, (and) “everyone wants to be a team that makes highlight-reel plays.”

That’s not how true elite teams operate, Paul Stastny, a veteran of more than 1000-career games, said Saturday.

“If you watch their game,” Stastny said, referring to teams such as the Lightning, “yeah — they have some high-end skill, but that high-end skill doesn’t come out right away. They play the game the right way, they almost grind you, force you to make turnovers, and then that high-end skill kind of takes over. You know, that’s how you learn to win. I think you have to realize it’s not going to be easy every single night.”

That type of game obviously doesn’t appeal to the Jets, because if it did and they played more “direct” and “in straight lines,” as Lowry suggested, they’d be a lot better and not allowing six-plus goals per game. But why isn’t it appealing?

“Well I think the biggest reason, the why behind it, is because it’s not pretty hockey,” Lowry said of why the team continues to ignore the grind to its own detriment. “It’s functional. It wins hockey games. And they are critical details. When you’ve been a rush team, you want to continue to try and make plays. And the biggest thing for us right now is when we have our success, we put pucks in behind, we play in straight lines, we play direct going through the neutral zone.”

Dave Lowry Winnipeg Jets
Dave Lowry said the Jets like to try and play “pretty hockey” even to its detriment. He hasn’t been able to convince them to commit to a stouter defensive structure in his four months behind the bench. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The fact Lowry has been unable in the four months since taking over from Paul Maurice to put players running untethered on a leash shows that while he might be a nice guy, he’s no more capable of taking the Jets to the next level than Maurice was.

Some players, like Nikolaj Ehlers, recognize the problems are systemic. “When you don’t play the right way,” a frustrated Ehlers said after Friday’s game, “then it’s not going for you and you keep trying to push the nice plays and all of that…

“You’re just, you know, putting your team in a tough position. And it’s not just one or two guys. It’s almost everyone. … I don’t really know how to explain it. It’s just we’re not playing the right way,” he continued.

If the True North organization doesn’t find a new coach this offseason who can finally put a shock collar on players who think it’s fine to just run wild — and doesn’t also do a deep evaluation of how captain Blake Wheeler and has also failed to motivate the team to do better in this crucial aspect — they’re going to alienate even more of their fan base than they already have.

2) Ehlers is Electric, But Still Underused

Speaking of Ehlers, he has done nothing but produce down the stretch, despite the Jets falling totally out of Western Conference Wild Card contention.

Nikolaj Ehlers Winnipeg Jets
Nikolaj Ehlers has 26 points in 22 games since returning from injury and 51 points in 56 games this season. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Since returning from a knee injury in early March, the dynamic Dane has 13 goals and 13 assists for 26 points in just 22 games and is currently riding a nine-game point streak. The heady mixture of creativity and speed he brings makes him tough for opponents to handle, and quite simply, advanced statistics show the Jets are better when he’s on the ice. A good example of the speed and playmaking ability he possesses can be seen below, on his setup of Morgan Barron’s first goal with the Jets.

Despite his skill, Ehlers is still underrated and still underused. He’s sixth among forwards in ice time with an ATOI of 18:08 — below Kyle Connor, Mark Scheifele, the now-departed Andrew Copp, Wheeler, and Pierre-Luc Dubois — despite being their best player.

The first-line right wing spot is somehow still reserved primarily for Wheeler, who the organization believes is still a top-six forward despite plenty of evidence to the contrary. The Jets need to change this in seasons to come.

3) Hellebuyck Is too Exhausted to Bail the Jets Out Anymore

While many hockey fans are quick to blame the goaltender for what ails their team, Connor Hellebuyck is, in many ways, a victim, not the problem.

Yes, he allowed 13 goals on the weekend and was yanked in both games. Yes, his numbers — a 27-27-10 record, 3.03 GAA, and .909 SV% — are subpar and a big step back from previous campaigns.

But those are just symptoms something Hellebuyck cannot control: that he’s been egregiously overused.

Connor Hellebuyck Winnipeg Jets
Connor Hellebuyck has been egregiously overused this season. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

This author warned in late January that Hellebuyck was being run ragged. At the time, he had started 13 straight games, and the author pointed to the Jets’ need to better manage his workload to keep him fresh for the stretch run.

His numbers at that time were already alarming and indicated signs of fatigue. In the last six starts of that stretch of 13 straight — before he finally got a break against the St. Louis Blues on Jan. 29 — he was 0-4-2 with a 3.84 GAA and .876 SV%.

Related: Jets’ Hellebuyck Badly Needs a Break After 13 Straight Starts

They have not managed his workload any better since after the All-Star Break. By mid-March, they were paying a heavy price for their mismanagement, as soft goals went by him with regularity and he was not stealing games like he used to.

It’s no wonder Hellebuyck is exhausted when you look at how often he’s been trotted out over not just this season — he’s number-one in the NHL in starts, minutes played, shots faced, saves, and goals against — but over the last number of seasons. 45 starts in 56 games last season. 56 in 2019-20. 62 in 2018-19. 67 in 2017-18.

No other team rides their goalie as hard as the Jets ride Hellebuyck — he’s led the NHL in appearances in four of the past five seasons — and the reason other teams don’t do that it’s because it’s obviously unsustainable.

Would finishing well out of the playoffs been the Jets’ fate in 2017-18, in 2019-20 — when Hellebuyck won the Vezina Trophy _ and even last season? Everyone knows he was a key to success during the 2017-18 Western Conference Final run and during those other campaigns, but was he really the only straw stirring the drink? Were the Jets’ accomplishment all a Fugazi disguised by good goaltending?

Connor Hellebuyck Winnipeg Jets
The Jets simply cannot ride Hellebucyk as hard next season. If they do, he’ll be worn down by the stretch run again. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The answer to that question looks to be yes. Or at least, a Fugazi disguised by a goaltender whose back wasn’t yet broken by the heavy load he was asked to carry.

Backup Eric Comrie has had a good season, but Dave Lowry doesn’t trust him enough to play more than once in a blue moon. If the organization doesn’t consider Comrie a legitimate option, they need GM Kevin Cheveldayoff to find someone new this offseason, because Hellebuyck will only keep going downhill if he’s forced to make 65-plus starts again next season.

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