The Winnipeg Jets — currently in possession of the Western Conference’s second wild card spot — are receiving a raft of reinforcements for their battles down the stretch, and they couldn’t have come at a better time.
An Influx of Forwards
The Jets’ injured reserve list has been a long and exhausting read for most of the season. They’ve lost more than 300 man-games to injury, eighth-most in the NHL, and two-thirds of them have been up front.
The most recent returnee is sniper Patrik Laine, who took a Michal Kempny shot off the foot just 23 seconds into his first shift of last Thursday’s game against the Washington Capitals. He was forced to leave that game and also had to sit out Saturday’s tilt against the Edmonton Oilers. Luckily for the Jets, Laine returned Tuesday against the Buffalo Sabres and looked no worse for wear, skating 15:3 while dishing out three hits and recording three shots on goal.
Two more Jets’ mainstays are nearing returns, too. Mathieu Perreault, sidelined since Jan. 31 after taking a hellacious hit from the Boston Bruin’s Karson Kuhlman, is skating in a contact jersey and is considered “day-to-day,” head coach Paul Maurice said Tuesday; his return could come as soon as Friday against the Vegas Golden Knights.
Adam Lowry, meanwhile — who is irreplaceable on the penalty kill and is one of the few Jets who plays a heavy game — hasn’t played since Jan. 19, when he was knocked out of a game against the Chicago Blackhawks by a questionable Drake Caggiula blindside hit. His return will be a big boost to the Jets’ penalty kill that actually played more respectably than expected without the pugnacious power forward and face off specialist.
Lowry skated Tuesday in the gold (many would say mustard-yellow) non-contract jersey and Maurice said he’s “at the tail end of the gold,” and “in the next two or three days he’ll come out of that as well and move into contact.”
“Both of those injuries are upper-body, so they’ve been able to skate so there’s not the conditioning concern…” the bench boss explained. “Once they get through the bump and feel strong, they’ll be available. It’ll be a pretty quick turnaround from coming out of the gold.”
Even Mark Letestu — sidelined since late October with myocarditis, a virus that attacks the heart — has been medically cleared to play. However, the veteran of 567 career games is understandably “a ways off his fitness and game speed” and there is still no timeline for his return.
Battered Blue Line Getting Back to Health
Just call the d-corp the “walking wounded.” Nathan Beaulieu, Carl Dahlstrom, Dmitry Kulikov, Josh Morrissey, Sami Niku, Tucker Poolman, and Luca Sbisa have all missed stretches in 2019-2020.
Morrissey, who missed the past four games with an upper-body injury, returned to his spot on the top pairing — flanked for the first time by Dylan DeMelo — and played 20:02. Dahlstrom did not play but is available again after missing nearly two months with a broken bone in his hand.
The d-pairings the Jets trotted out Tuesday were the deepest they’ve been all season. Beaulieu and Poolman have been healthy for nearly a month and DeMelo, who GM Kevin Cheveldayoff smartly added ahead of last month’s deadline, has been nothing short of excellent in his seven games with the Jets thus far.
“In a rather rare occurrence at Bell MTS Place on Monday morning, the Jets had their best cast of blueliners dressed and skating with one another in pairings that didn’t threaten a Twitter meltdown,” the Winnipeg Sun’s Scott Billeck wrote, in reference to online gnashing of teeth due to fringe players and waiver wire pickups playing starring roles far too often and giving up too many high-danger chances. (from ‘Jets set to ice best six defencemen as Morrissey returns to health, paired with DeMelo,’ Winnipeg Sun, 03/02/2020.)
Too Many Healthy Bodies: A Good Problem to Have
Maurice is now faced with the unfamiliar problem of having too many players to find ice time for, especially with the recent acquisition of hometown centre Cody Eakin.
Maurice will have some tough decisions down the stretch, both regarding line combinations and who to send to the press box. Youngsters such as Mason Appleton and Jansen Harkins have played well — especially together on a line with fellow 2015 pick Jack Roslovic — and there’s certainly an argument to be made for letting the “kids” play in crucial situations.
Post-deadline, there are restrictions of how many times NHL teams can call players up from the AHL, so careful consideration needs to be taken before sending players down you might need again.
Having a bunch of guys champing at the bit, eager for ice time, and pushing each other can only be a good thing for the Jets, who are fighting for their playoff lives. After their win against the Sabres, they have just 14 games remaining and are competing closely with the Vancouver Canucks, Nashville Predators, Arizona Coyotes, and Minnesota Wild for just two postseason slots.
There should be no excuses: the Jets have the personnel to win. They simply need to go out there and do it.