Jets Should Separate Connor, Scheifele, Wheeler Line

The Winnipeg Jets began the 2021-22 season with a three-game losing streak; however, they responded with four straight wins. From Oct. 30 to Nov. 18, the team posted an exceptional 5-1-2 record. However, the latter half of November was far less kind. Between Nov. 19 and 29, they lost five of six games, and in the process, found themselves on the outside of a playoff spot. While they have gained some ground back into a postseason berth, they would do well to avoid a similar slump.

The team is off to a good start in December, but consistency will be key given the competitive teams around them in the Western Conference. 

Jets Facing a Competitive Central Division and Western Conference

While the season is far from over, this recent slide is cause for concern, given how competitive the Western Conference has been this season. In the Central Division, the Minnesota Wild are leading the way, while the Jets are in a tough race with the St. Louis Blues, Colorado Avalanche, surprising Nashville Predators, and the Dallas Stars. Meanwhile, the injury-riddled Vegas Golden Knights are holding a wild card spot.

Contending for a playoff spot will not be easy, as the Stars and Golden Knights are in contention, while the Los Angeles Kings are not far behind. If they cannot find consistency within the next month, the Jets’ recent level of play could keep them out of the playoff race if they can’t gain any ground.

Jets head coach Paul Maurice should be looking for solutions to jumpstart his squad so that they might avoid finishing their season in the middle-of-the-pack, where they neither contend in the Stanley Cup Playoffs nor receive a high draft pick in the summer. 

However, the coaching staff doesn’t have to look far, as one of the most glaring issues is the top line of Kyle Connor, Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler. While Maurice might hesitate to break up this trio, the team needs a level of production that may no longer be possible. 

Jets’ Top Line Needs New Vision

The Connor, Scheifele and Wheeler line has been a staple for a while and deservedly so. They have found plenty of success in the past, but there have been some recent concerning trends. Dating back to the latter half of 2020-21, their level of play together has declined. There are some possible reasons for this.

Kyle Connor, Jordan Binnington, Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler
Winnipeg Jets left wing Kyle Connor celebrates with Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler.
(AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Having spent a significant amount of time together, other teams might be used to playing against and shutting down this line. If that is the case, then retooling the top line could be one way to create offence while also boosting other lines with talented players.

On the other hand, the top line’s struggles could be related to individual performance. Connor’s 27 points (15 goals, 12 assists) in 24 games this season means he is likely not to blame. Scheifele, while he is not producing at his regular point-per-game pace, is still doing well with 14 points (6 goals, 8 assists) in 18 games. Moreover, he is a capable two-way player, so he is valuable both with and without the puck.

As for the right-wing, Wheeler’s point total stands out relative to his two linemates. On the surface, it may not seem out of the ordinary, considering it is relatively close to his centreman; however, his 12 points are from a mix of primary and secondary assists. In 18 games, he has yet to record a goal. 

Moreover, it is not just the scoresheet where he is lacking in results. Wheeler has shown visible signs of decline from a physical standpoint. Considering he is 35 years old, his decreased production should not be surprising. However, this also means that he and the coaching should be making adjustments to accommodate his changing game.

Jets’ Wheeler Can Still Be Effective Despite Decline

Since he was traded from the Boston Bruins to the Atlanta Thrashers, who were relocating to Winnipeg, Wheeler has been one of the organization’s best and most consistent forwards. Following Andrew Ladd’s trade to the Chicago Blackhawks in Feb. 2016, the power forward’s leadership and contributions both on and off the ice were acknowledged when he was named captain during the following summer.

In 1000 games since he made his NHL debut, Wheeler has 279 goals and 538 assists. He has played some of his best hockey in a Jets uniform, where he was nearly a point-per-game player in some seasons and exceeded that with two 91-point seasons in 2017-18 and 2018-19. He also captained his teammates to the Western Conference Final in 2018. 

Blake Wheeler Winnipeg Jets
Blake Wheeler, Winnipeg Jets (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

While December has been kinder to Wheeler, with five assists in his last two games, there are elements of his game that would be better suited to a spot on either the second or third line with less ice time. He is still very capable in several facets of the game, so ensuring his effectiveness may simply come down to managing his minutes. 

Who Should Play on the Jets’ Top Line?

As Scheifele is the team’s de-facto first-line centre, he should remain in this position, and Connor is a particularly versatile player who should remain in the top-six, especially considering his level of play in the last season or so. He should also remain on the top line unless the coaching staff is looking to spread the offence throughout the top-nine. 

Related: Jets Failing to Convert on Scoring Opportunities on 3-Game Slide

If Scheifele and Connor remain together, then it’s a matter of determining who plays alongside them in Wheeler’s spot on the right-wing. One likely candidate could be Nikolaj Ehlers, who is coming off a career season with 46 points (21 goals, 25 assists) in 47 games, and he is very capable of playing right wing. However, if the coaching staff would like to have another experienced veteran on the top line, Paul Stastny, who still has quite a few strides left in his game, could also work. 

Honourable mentions include Andrew Copp, who is capable of playing anywhere in the lineup given his two-way prowess, and Pierre-Luc Dubois, who is currently on pace to have one of the best seasons of his career with 22 points (12 goals, 10 assists) in 24 games. However, both players are more suited to playing on the left-wing or at centre.

Forward Depth Is the Jets’ Biggest Strength

It would be a shame if the Jets’ coaching staff does not capitalize on opportunities to make use of their forward depth to revitalize not only the top line but the entire lineup itself. Connor, Scheifele and Wheeler were one of the most reliable trios on the roster for quite some time; however, in the case of the team’s captain, it would be best to maximize his capabilities and give the opportunity to another player to line up alongside Scheifele. On the current roster, players like Ehlers, Dubois, and Copp are all capable of playing up and down the lineup.

“We have to change the way we attack our game.”

Jets head coach Paul Maurice

The coaching staff can likewise turn to the Manitoba Moose for possible options at the forward position. Cole Perfetti and David Gustafsson are two players who come to mind. The latter has already spent a season with the Moose where he recorded 26 points (9 goals, 17 assists) in 32 points and is already having another exceptional season with 15 points (6 goals, 9 assists) in 17 games. If the Jets believe Perfetti can assist them in bolstering their offense, his recent level of play warrants a call-up. However, there is still no need to rush him into the lineup if he shows signs of needing more seasoning in the American Hockey League. 

As for Gustafsson, the 2018 second-rounder has been waiting to carve his spot into the lineup since making his NHL debut in 2019. With 14 points (five goals, nine assists) in 20 games played with the Moose, he could likewise be an option to place into the lineup, although his ability to translate his offensive skills into the NHL remains to be seen. 

While they do not have to play on the top line themselves, having more choices at their disposal may assist the coaching staff in moving players around and deciding the best approach moving forward in reinvigorating the first line.

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