The 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs are set to begin on May 11. Given the standings as of May 5, the Winnipeg Jets would face-off against the Edmonton Oilers in the first round. However, if they keep losing, that could drastically change.
With an injury that will sideline Nikolaj Ehlers for the remainder of the season, every player on the Jets will have to step it up come playoff time. As of Wednesday morning, the Jets have lost seven straight games, and their season is spiraling out of control. They lost 5-3 on Friday night to the Montreal Canadiens and then dropped a 2-1 decision to the Ottawa Senators on Monday. The situation is draining the team physically and mentally, and with the playoffs around the corner, they need to make changes to get their game back on track.
“When you get into a tough situation like this and, man, there’s not a whole lot of things that are easy for you. You got to put yourself in that mental place that you can have good things happen and not fear the worst when you get out on the ice and be afraid to make the play to make the mistake.”– Winnipeg Jets head coach Paul Maurice.
The Top-Six Is Struggling
With Ehlers out of the lineup, the top-six have lost confidence as a whole. There seems to be no transition game and they are constantly losing the puck to turnovers. Ehlers was one of the most confident players on the Jets when it came to transitioning into the offensive zone, and his playmaking abilities are missed.
The lack of leadership among the veteran players is weighing heavily on the team. The bottom-six and younger forwards are playing a more crucial role than the Sabres’ stars, and the “lack of effort” from the team’s best is another reason for their losing streak. Here are the players who most need to step up for the team to regain control of their season.
Blake Wheeler will need to bring some more energy come playoff time and use his veteran experience to help his team. As the Jets’ captain and the highest-paid player on the team, with a $8,250,000 cap hit, he has a big leadership role to fill. He has been successful offensively in recent seasons, hitting the 90-point mark in back-to-back seasons.
Wheeler has been consistent again this season, recording 36 points in 44 games, but he has also struggled over the last ten games, recording just two goals and four assists, and he has taken a few unnecessary penalties. He was also a minus-4 in the 6-1 loss to the Oilers on April 27. As the losing streak continues, he has been vocal about trying to get his team back into the right mindset before the playoffs.
“They’re all hard right now. We just can’t get over the hump. That one definitely hurts, but so did the last one, so did the one before that.”– Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler
On April 24 against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Scheifele was benched for the first time since 2016. A series of events led to Maurice benching his star forward, but the last straw was when Scheifele failed to backcheck, which allowed William Nylander to score a goal.
Scheifele has four goals in his last ten games and has been producing at a good rate this season. However, since being benched, he has only managed one goal. He will need to provide leadership to help ease the minds of his teammates and allow them to get their game back into a steady rhythm.
Throughout this seven-game losing streak, Kyle Connor has been noticeably absent. No, he was not scratched, he just hasn’t been producing at a rate he normally would. In the last seven games, he has one goal and only a handful of shots. Connor, who has put up three straight 30-plus-goal seasons, has just 22 in 2020-21, albeit in a shortened schedule.
Being the team’s most proficient goal-scorer, he will have to find his groove and get back into the goal column where he belongs. His natural goal-scoring instincts are missed. Don’t count him out though, everyone goes through rough patches, and it’s only a matter of time until Connor gets his name back on the scoresheet.
While Wheeler, Connor and Scheifele struggle, it will be up to Andrew Copp and Mason Appleton to continue their career-high seasons. Paul Stastny, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Adam Lowry, Trevor Lewis, Mathieu Perreault and, the rest of the Jets’ forward group will have to work seamlessly together to avoid getting swept in the first round.
Defence Is Still a Mess
The Jets’ defence has been in shambles for much of the season. However, Neal Pionk has proved to be one of the best defencemen on the team, and he is having a career-high season with 30 points in 51 games. Josh Morrissey scored a goal in Monday’s loss to the Senators, his fourth goal of the season, while Pionk scooped up the assist. Going into the playoffs you have to wonder if Maurice will consider running them as a duo on the blue line.
🎥 Josh Morrissey talks about his goal and putting up a career-high 9 shots on goal against the Senators. pic.twitter.com/kh2JkXH5xd— Winnipeg Jets (@NHLJets) May 4, 2021
Derek Forbort and Dylan DeMelo have developed a bit of chemistry on the penalty kill, a pairing that Maurice should continue to test as the regular season winds down. Both are big stay-at-home defencemen who can shut down a play with their physicality and aren’t afraid to lay the body down to block shots.
Ville Heinola has also been missing from the lineup. He hasn’t dressed since April 15, when the Jets played the Maple Leafs. He played three games in the last week of April with the Manitoba Moose in the AHL, where he put up one assist. Heinola is a crafty defenceman who can use his high hockey IQ to help generate offence while also covering himself in his own zone.
Finally, there’s Tucker Poolman who has bounced around the defence pairings this year. In the last game against Ottawa, he was on the top pairing with Morrissey, but he has just one lone assist this season. Situating him on the third pairing with Logan Stanley, Jordie Benn or Heinola might be worth exploring. At this rate, the Jets should try just about anything.
Between the Pipes
The Jets have the goaltending duo of Connor Hellebuyck and Laurent Brossoit that works well. They will likely start Brossoit as much as they can before the playoffs to give Hellebuyck some time to rest and be 100% ready for the first round.
The clock is ticking, the Jets need to get their wheels in gear or else this will be a bumpy playoff ride.