4 Jets Who Are Key to a Playoff Push

After a lengthy break, the Winnipeg Jets are officially back in action, and the push toward the playoffs is well underway. Several players played key roles for the team in the first half, but they’ll likely need a few more to step up as they head down the stretch.

Some players have already established themselves as key contributors through the first half of the season, but this is the time of year when others need to step up. The Jets seem well-positioned to cruise into the playoffs, but that stretch run can wear players down. The role players and key contributors can help ease that wear, but some could play an even more important role than others.

Dylan DeMelo

After a three-game absence, Dylan DeMelo is back in the Jets’ lineup and primed to make an impact on the back end. He’s spent most of this season acting as their best pure defender, and that’s something that needs to be recognized. He is often overlooked due to his lack of offense and simplicity, but he’s the key to providing balance to the top four.

Dylan DeMelo Winnipeg Jets
Dylan DeMelo, Winnipeg Jets (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

DeMelo is at his best when he’s paired with Josh Morrissey, and that is something he hasn’t done since his return to the lineup. The current makeup of the defensive group has him on the second pair with Brenden Dillon, while Neal Pionk is paired with Morrissey.

Pionk and Morrissey have had their fair share of struggles in their time together over the past couple of seasons. With how Morrissey plays his game, a defensive specialist helps to free him up for offensive play. DeMelo fits that role perfectly, while Pionk’s defensive struggles can create challenges.

The best bet would be to reunite DeMelo and Morrissey and move Pionk down to the second or third pair. DeMelo’s defensive game is something that will undoubtedly help the Jets down the stretch, and he should be the one to face the opposing team’s best.

Nikolaj Ehlers

After missing nearly the full first half of the season, Nikolaj Ehlers is back at full strength and producing at a high level once again. Since his return on Jan. 6, he has recorded 17 points in 17 games and has spent the bulk of his time in the top-six. The key for Ehlers, however, is to remain healthy and continue playing those top minutes.

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This is as much of a coaching discussion as it is a player discussion, as Ehlers is at his most effective when playing top minutes at even strength and on the power play. That said, since the return from the All-Star Break, he has not played more than 16 minutes in a game and often finds himself limited in the closing minutes of close games. He has also found himself on the second power-play unit, and perhaps not so coincidentally, the first unit has struggled mightily since his demotion.

Over the past month, the Jets’ power play has converted at a 14.9% success rate, which ranks 23rd in the league over that time. Ehlers’ ability to enter the zone with speed allows the Jets to set up faster and create more offense. He is also good at rotating around the wall to open up shooting lanes. Without him on the top unit, they lack an elite zone entry threat to set up and often find themselves stagnant and tend to over pass to try and find the shooting lanes. Simply put, Ehlers should be on that top unit for the betterment of the team.

Ehlers has proven himself as one of the Jets’ most effective forwards and he needs to be treated as such. His contributions will be key to the team’s success moving forward, but only if he’s used properly.

Morgan Barron

Morgan Barron has been a fixture in the Jets’ middle six for most of this season. His offensive contributions aren’t flashy, but he’s been a valuable player in different ways and could be key to the bottom six’s success down the stretch.

Morgan Barron Winnipeg Jets
Morgan Barron, Winnipeg Jets (Photo by Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images)

Defensively, the 23-year-old has been very solid, working well with Adam Lowry to create a valuable checking unit. Barron also generates offense, but the issue is his lack of finishing ability. He has five goals in 43 games this season but looks as if he could have more to give in the proper situation. That situation might present itself in the form of a trade deadline acquisition.

One of the most noticeable holes in the Jets’ lineup is in the middle six, and more specifically, the third-line right-wing spot that has most recently been filled by Karson Kuhlman. If the Jets acquire a talented player, chances are that line gets an offensive upgrade by default. If a more offensively-minded player plays alongside Barron and Lowry, those chances might start going in.

Offensive potential aside, Barron’s current form is still very valuable. The closer teams get to the postseason, the closer to playoff hockey you’ll wind up playing. The games will get tougher, and heavier, and can wear you down as you grind to the finish line. To have a big, defensively sound forward like Barron in a shutdown role can help benefit the Jets as they lean on their checking lines. Getting more offense out of him will be a bonus, but his current game is key to the battles ahead.

David Rittich

After struggling mightily last season with the Nashville Predators, the Jets’ signing of David Rittich prompted many questions. Now, the Jets’ backup is proving valuable as the season progresses and is slowly returning to the form that earned him the nickname, “Big Save Dave”.

David Rittich Winnipeg Jets
David Rittich, Winnipeg Jets (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Rittich’s value down the stretch will come largely in the form of giving Connor Hellebuyck some well-earned rest. With 27 games remaining in the regular season, getting Rittich time in the net will be key to easing the load on an already heavily worked Hellebuyck.

In his 15 appearances this season (14 starts), Rittich owns a .911 save percentage (SV%), which ranks five points above the league-average SV% of .906. Having an above-average backup is a great development for the Jets, especially when Rittich was somewhat of a wildcard given his struggles with the Predators. According to Money Puck, he also carries a 1.7 goals saved above expected (GSAX), which places him fairly high among backup goaltenders in the league.

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If Rittich can keep up his surprising success and hold down the fort when Hellebuyck needs rest, he’ll be a big part of the stretch run. He likely sees another five to ten starts this season, meaning he’ll have a fairly important role to play in getting the Jets better positioned in the division battle.

Not all players have the same expectations of them, but every player has an importance to the roster. In the Jets’ case, they’ll need to lean on their talent and role players to help them on their way to a divisional playoff spot.