The NHL’s North Division has given Canadian fans some of the most intense regular-season hockey we’ve seen in a long time. As every game quickly becomes a game against your biggest rival, it’s easy to see how there is a playoff-like atmosphere this season, even without fans in the arena.
For the Winnipeg Jets, however, the season hasn’t gone as well as expected so far. They are in third place with 13 points, but they have looked like the best of the rest rather than a legitimate top tier team in the North Division.
The North Division
The North Division is headlined by the Montreal Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs who are top-five seeds in the league. Both teams have started the season like a house on fire with no end in sight. In the most recent version of the NBC Sports NHL power ranking, the Canadiens rank number one, and the Leafs are in sixth. While you can’t judge anything solely based on power rankings, they do give a general idea of how things are going.
The Canadiens are led by a couple of new-comers, Tyler Toffoli and Josh Anderson, and a couple of their young players in Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi. The Habs have one of the best all-around lineups you will find in the NHL this season. Defensively, Shea Weber and Jeff Petry have been as good as always, and Alexander Romanov has stepped in and played very well in his rookie season. Between the pipes, Carey Price and Jake Allen are hands down the best duo in the league.
The Canadiens have been beating the wheels off of teams this season. Their few losses have been in overtime or a shootout when they couldn’t stay out of the penalty box and against the Calgary Flames when Jacob Markstrom stood on his head and stole one.
While the Canadiens have been getting the headlines and surprising the NHL, the Maple Leafs have continued their regular-season success from previous seasons. Again led by their big-four offensive weapons in Auston Matthews, Mitchell Marner, John Tavares, and William Nylander, the Maple Leafs still lack a little in the defensive and goaltending departments.
With Morgan Rielly, Jake Muzzin, and T.J. Brodie on the backend, Toronto doesn’t have the worst defensive core in the league (that spot is reserved for another team in the North Division), but they are a far cry from the best. As for their goaltending, Fredrick Anderson is an average starter who won’t lose you too many games, but probably won’t win you too many either. Jack Campbell has played well in his two games this season, but can only do so much in his current role.
For now, the North Division seems like it will be a battle between the Canadiens and Maple Leafs for the top spot, but the Jets still have time to figure things out and join the race.
What’s Holding the Jets Back?
A couple of things are holding the Jets back from battling with the heavy-weights in the division this season, but mostly, it’s their inconsistency. There are many different aspects to that, but they have been unable to string together three full periods and it’s hurting them in the standings.
This season, Winnipeg’s defence sticks out like a sore thumb. They rank 20th in the NHL in goals-against, and that’s not been the fault of the goaltending for the most part. It is difficult to know where exactly the Jets stand, considering many of the teams above them in goals-against have played fewer games, but too often, the opposition has been left wide open on the back door to tap in an easy pass.
Opposing teams easily build sustained pressure in the offensive zone against the Jets, who don’t have the horses in their own zone to keep up. This is the root cause of another concerning trend this season, and that is the Jets’ inability to close out games when they have the lead. In their last two games against the Flames, the Jets had a two-goal lead in both games, and either blew it or nearly blew it both times.
Not only is poor defence an issue when it comes to blowing a lead, but the offence must share the blame for the Jets’ misfortunes. Too many times have they let chances to score slip away in close games. For a team that has so many offensive weapons to play with, you would expect to see more scoring, especially when you know that your ability to keep the puck out of your net isn’t up to snuff.
What’s the Solution?
These issues can be fixed, especially on offence. Pierre-Luc Dubois, who the Jets recently acquired for Patrik Laine, has yet to suit up for his new team and adding him to the lineup, whenever that may be, should inject some added scoring. Although it will help, it won’t completely solve the Jets’ problems.
Production from the Jets’ top players has been strong this season, with Mark Scheifele, Nikolaj Ehlers, Kyle Connor, Blake Wheeler, and Andrew Copp all at a point-per-game pace or better. The team ranks fourth in the NHL in goals per game, but they need a little more production from the bottom of the lineup and some of their defencemen.
While the Jets would like to see more offensive production from their defencemen, the forwards also need to get back more often to help in the defensive zone. There have been plays where the forwards have taken a back seat and watched a preventable goal be scored, like the one below.
Taking shortcuts won’t get them to the top of the North Division, and it will cost them dearly when the games matter most. All three Jets forwards who were on the ice for this Brock Boeser goal did nothing to stop him from cutting to the net and scoring an easy one, and that goal isn’t a one-off. There are many clips that show the players standing around in their own end. Winnipeg needs urgency in the defensive zone, not just from the forwards but from the team as a whole.
You can expect to see the Jets score more goals as the season progresses and they get some crucial players into the lineup, but the same can’t be said for the defence. Players need to step up and take charge. If the answer can’t be found internally, a trade needs to be on the table. With the talent they have offensively and the goaltending they have in Connor Hellebuyck, there is no reason the Jets can’t be a legitimate contender to win the North Division.