The Winnipeg Jets have stumbled out of the gate during a season most believe them to be a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.
They didn’t look like one during the first two games of 2020-21, which by all accounts, should have been relatively easy victories against rebuilding opponents in the Anaheim Ducks and San Jose Sharks.
The Jets are in Minnesota tonight for a date with the Wild in their first Central Division matchup since February, 2019. Here are three key things the visitors must do if they want to capture their first victory of the campaign, salvage the road trip, and stop things from spirialing any more out of control than they already have.
1: Get Better Goaltending
Connor Hellebuyck is usually one Jet you don’t have to worry about, and has stolen countless games for his side over six seasons. But he was poor in both of his California starts, allowing eight goals (four in each outing) on a combined 45 shots.
GM Kevin Cheveldayoff greatly improved the Jets’ defence over the offseason, but giving up fewer high-danger chances won’t matter if the man in the crease doesn’t stop the pucks that he should.
Hellebuyck, who had COVID-19 in late August and only got vaccinated after that, hasn’t looked alert or dialed in at all. The goaltender allowed the first shot he faced all season to tickle the twine, and since, he’s frequently lost track of the puck and failed to control his rebounds.
The Jets need Hellebuyck to get out of his fog and get his mojo back soon, becauase he’s going to start 65 games at least — the inexperienced Eric Comrie is not a high-quality backup like Laurent Brossoit was.
2: Shore Up the Penalty Kill (Or Stay Out of the Box)
The main strategy of the Jets’ penalty-killing system is to prevent cross-crease passes by allowing less dangerous shots from the perimeter. But it is overly passive and hasn’t kept pucks out of the net.
The only way to characterize the PK through two games is “disjointed mess. It’s allowed four goals on 10 shorthanded opportunities, the forwards and defensemen aren’t in sync, and failures to clear the zone are rampant.
Last season, the Jets’ penalty kill was decent, finshing 14th in the NHL with a 80.54 per cent efficiency. Andrew Copp and Adam Lowry played key roles, as did the now-departed Trevor Lewis and Nate Thompson. Copp and Lowry lead the team in PK ice time among forwards so far, and they will likely get it together soon.
But behind them in ice time are Paul Stasnty and Blake Wheeler. As older players who are also part of the power play units, they shouldn’t also have to shoulder big minutes down a man.
If the Jets’ penalty kill can’t perform better than 60 per cent, then everyone will just have to stay out of the box. That won’t be easy, considering officials are now cracking down harder on a number of infractions, cross checking in particular.
The Wild are 2-0 to begin the campaign, and their power play is 1-6 so far.
3: Shake Up the Top Line
It’s been proven, time and time again over a number of seasons, that the top line of Kyle Connor, Mark Scheifele, and Blake Wheeler is too weak at even-strength to be a viable trio. They produce their fair share of goals to be sure, but are consistently out-chanced five-on-five.
Through two games, the three have combined for two points (a Connor goal assisted by Wheeler against the Ducks accounting for their entire output) and all are either even or minus. A shakeup would be best for everyone.
(A shakeup might come against the Wild out of necessity. Blake Wheeler missed Monday’s practice after being placed in COVID-19 protocol, and his status for tonight is unknown.)
Regardless of whether Wheeler misses a few weeks thanks to a positive COVID test or is cleared, at 35 years old, he is no longer a viable top-six option. While he’s the team’s highest-paid player, he can’t keep up with the opponents’ best, evidenced by the pair of penalties he took against the Ducks because he was behind the play.
Wheeler — by far the team’s worst player at five-on-five last season at minus 17 — is a liablity when playing 20-plus minutes per night and needs to be kept out of situations where he cannot succeed. His first-line duties should be given to someone who can handle them and the captain should accept a lesser role on the bottom six. Setting him up for success would allow him to age more gracefully.
Scheifele and Connor could do with someone with more speed on their line, such as the dynamic Nikolaj Ehlers or top prospect Cole Perfetti. The latter took a shift with Connor and Scheifele in San Jose after Wheeler played on the penalty kill.
Third Game of the Season Not Quite a Must-Win, but It’s Close
If the Jets lose to the Wild, it will be the first time they began the season with three straight losses since their inaugural 2011-12 campaign. Back then, expectations of a weak transplanted Atlanta Thrashers squad were slim to none. More than a decade later, The Jets are deep on paper and expected to succeed.
However, it’s worth noting the last time the Jets began their season with two straight losses — in 2017-18 — they finished 52-20-10 and advanced all the way to the Western Conference Final.
Two games does not a season make or break, and it’s how the Jets respond from here that matters. However, they should be approaching their next matchup with urgency as win #1 needs to come sooner than later.
Declan Schroeder is a 27-year-old communications specialist and freelance journalist in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He holds a diploma in Creative Communications with a major in journalism from Red River College and a bachelors in Rhetoric and Communications from the University of Winnipeg.
Deeply rooted in the city’s hockey culture, the original Jets skipped town when he was two and the 2.0 version came onto the scene when he was 17.