What do you get when you take a below-.500 team and subtract two of its most notable players due to COVID-19 protocol? A four-game point streak, apparently.
The Winnipeg Jets, thus far, have fared just fine without captain Blake Wheeler and number-one centre Mark Scheifele, going 3-0-1 without the former and 3-0-0 without the latter since a nightmarish three-game road trip to start the 2021-22 season.
Success is due to a number of factors.
“High-Numbers” Line Producing at a High Level
Three of the Jets with the biggest numbers on their backs are putting up some of the biggest numbers on the scoresheet.
The trio of Evgeny Svechnikov, Pierre-Luc Dubois, and Kyle Connor — numbers #71, #80, and #81 respectively — have 14 points in their three games together. Six game in their first game as a line, a ‘ 5-1 home-opener victory last Thursday.
Tuesday’s game-opening goal against the Anaheim Ducks — where Connor dished the puck to Dubois, who walked it into the offensive zone before hitting Svechnikov with a perfect backhanded pass the latter ripped past John Gibson, is just one example of a number of dangerous chances they’ve produced.
Dubois is finally perfoming like the power foward the Jets thought they were getting from the Columbus Blue Jackets back in January. The 23-year-old is riding a five-game point streak, with four goals and three assists in that span.
Svechnikov — whose Tuesday goal was his first as a Jet — has three points since joining the line. He and Dubois were teammates with the QMJHL’s Screaming Eagles in 2014-15 and 2015-16, and in their second season together, were first and second on the team in scoring. Dubois had 42 goals and 57 assists for 99 points and Svechnikov had 32 goals and 47 assists for 79 points. The two have obvious chemistry and have picked up right where they left off half a decade ago.
When combined with Connor’s innate ability to finish, Dubois’ size and nose for the net and Svechnikov’s ability to make good things happen with the puck under pressure makes for a heady combination that is a threat to score nearly every shift.
Copp and Stastny Chipping In, Ehlers Breaking Out
The Jets’ other top-six line (it was the first line until Tuesday’s game) is also chipping in consistently.
Andrew Copp, who set career highs last season and received a well-deserve promotion from the bottom six, is second on the team in points with eight, scoring four goals and adding four assists. The versatile forward is proving more than capable of being a key weapon in the Jets’ offensive arsenal.
Copp is also winning more than 56 per cent of his faceoffs. His key offensive-zone draw victories led to both Jets goals in the final two minutes Tuesday, where the visitors shocked the home side by scoring a pair in 19 seconds to win 4-3.
The scorer of both late-game goals was Nikolaj Ehlers, who somehow came into the contest without a goal despite firing 21 shots on net, many of the high-quality variety. The dynamic Dane was doing everything right and his slow start wasn’t much cause for concern — it was only a matter of time until a few of his shots found twine. The game winner was a flukey deflection, but the game-tying goal was a thing of beauty.
Meanwhile, the line’s elder statesman in Paul Stastny continues to demonstrate his value. Providing the team with a steady presence and the option to play him at centre or wing on any line, Stastny has two goals and four assists already.
Bottom-Six Coping with Odd Circumstances
Since putting players in COVID-19 protocol does not provide salary cap relief, the Jets have no space to call anyone up from the Manitoba Moose and have had to play with 11 forwards and seven defensemen.
The younger forwards — Jansen Harkins and Kristian Vesalainen — have done well with the increased opportunities the offseason departures of older players Trevor Lewis, Mathieu Perreault, and Nate Thompson have presented them.
Both Harkins and Vesalainen are skating career-high minutes, and on Tuesay, both played 14-plus. They are gaining the trust of head coach Paul Maurice with Adam Lowry between them, and are taking some of the pressure off the top six. Riley Nash and Dominic Toninato are also cycling in as needed.
Having only 11 forwards has led to some peculiar player usage. Nash, a shut-down centre who produces nearly no offense, has drawn time on the power play. Nathan Beaulieu, the heavy seventh defenseman, has played some shifts at forward on the left wing — with top-line players, no less.
Defence Bringing the Offense
With Brenden Dillon and Nate Schmidt added this offseason to bolster a Jets’ top-four that also features Josh Morrissey and Neal Pionk, the defense was expected to produce more points, and so far, it has.
A large portion of the Jets’ offense has originated at the blue line, especially when slick puck-movers Pionk and Schmidt are on the ice. They are tied for the team lead in assists with six apiece. Five of their twelve combined assists have come on the power play.
The Jets’ blue-line as a whole is producing more than double the points per game than they did last season. In the 56-game 2020-21 campaign, Jets’ d-men had 81 total points (46 coming from Morrissey and Pionk alone), an average of 1.44 per game. This season, Jets’ d-men have 18 points, an average of 3.00 per game.
Where do Scheifele and Wheeler Fit in Upon their Returns?
With three straight wins, there is no need for the Jets to panic if Wheeler — who practiced Wednesday after finishing his mandatory 10-day quaratine after his symptomatic infection and joining the team in Los Angeles — or Scheifele — who is asymptomatic but still hasn’t seen the ice in a while and won’t re-join the team until they return home — need a little bit of time to get back up to game speed.
When Scheifele returns, he will go right back to the top line where he belongs, alongside Connor. This will bump Dubois down to the second line and Stastny down to third line wing, where he began the season with Lowry.
Wheeler should be given third-line duty as he’s no longer able to keep up at five-on-five and is a defensive liability against opponents’ top stars. But given Maurice’s stubborness and unwillingness to unstaple the captain from Connor and Scheifele, don’t be surprised if Svechnikov is demonted and Wheeler is placed on the top line in his first game back and skates 20-plus minutes.
Amassing Depth Pays Dividends
This is what a team as deep as the Jets should be capable of: winning games when missing key personnel and facing adversity. The Jets have seen their fair share of adversity already, and their play hasn’t often been pretty, but everyone seems to be at least pulling in the same direction.
“They’re not using it as an excuse, that would be for sure,” Maurice said post-game Tuesday. “Those are two really well-liked guys in the room and they’re going to look forward to them coming back… that’s a fairly dangerous thing to lose those to guys and be six-of-eight on the road to start the season, you can get yourself in a hole you really gotta scratch and claw to get back to, so I’m really proud of the way they’ve handled it.
Declan Schroeder is a 26-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.