In their first 15 games, the Winnipeg Jets have been exciting, infuriating, and unpredictable, all in about equal measure.
Jets Have Plenty of Problems…
And they’re prevalent in nearly every aspect of their game.
Their defence is a motley crew, decimated by the offseason departures of Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers, and Ben Chiarot. The blue line is currently comprised of AHL-calibre journeymen, waiver-wire pickups, and promising but inexperienced youngsters. They’ve given up 205 high-danger scoring chances, have allowed the second-most shots in the NHL with 506, and sport a negative-eight goal differential.
Despite that, they sent down 18-year-old Ville Heinola, who was nothing but impressive in eight games, to the Manitoba Moose. The Dustin Byfuglien holdout saga keeps getting stranger by the day and doesn’t look like it’ll resolve soon or positively.
Their offensive stars have been off and on, more off than on in recent games. Prior to Saturday’s tilt, the trio of Kyle Connor, Mark Scheifele, and Blake Wheeler had combined for just eight points in their past seven games. Wheeler is playing uncharacteristically poorly and is almost unthinkably not one of 270 NHL players with a power-play point — he had 33 last season. The power play is operating at just 15.7 percent, far below the 24.8 percent clip they operated at last season.
They’ve often been forced to play without key personnel. Adam Lowry was suspended for two games for boarding Oliver Kylington in the Heritage Classic. Patrik Laine, Bryan Little, and Josh Morrissey have all missed time with injuries. Nathan Beaulieu hasn’t played yet this season. Sami Niku’s down with the Manitoba Moose after being hampered by a groin problem for most of October.
Speaking of Niku, he and Kristian Vesalainen t-boned another car at 60 clicks on the first day of training camp. Mark Letestu has a heart virus and is out for six months. Mason Appleton broke his foot while playing pickup football.
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The Jets have a worse record when scoring first — 3-4-0 — than they do when their opponent does — 5-3-0. Their penalty kill is second-last in the league and is not even operating at 70 percent efficiency.
Head coach Paul Maurice has used his line blender more than ever this season in repeated attempts to find the right mix and has even separated Scheifele and Wheeler at times.
The veteran bench boss is downright ornery these days and has called out three players by name in the past week; for one example, he said Jack Roslovic was “so bad through two-and-a-half” on Friday in San Jose and later characterized the comment as “constructive criticism.”
…But Are Strangely Compelling and Resilient
Despite all this, the Jets are above .500 at 8-7-0 and fourth in the Central Division. It seems like a miracle.
Watching the Jets over the past few seasons has been like watching a rerun of a television sitcom. You knew the plot points and just about what you were going to get.
Watching the Jets this season has been like watching improv comedy or slam poetry. Sometimes it turns out awesome, and sometimes it turns out to be a train wreck, but you can’t look away either way.
They lose to teams they shouldn’t but conquer teams they shouldn’t, too. Their wins are rarely pretty or convincing. Five of them have come from beyond regulation time and six have been by a single goal.
They somehow managed to shutout Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, and the high-flying Oilers 1-0 a few weeks ago; they fled San Jose with a win Friday only because Connor Hellebuyck put up a brick wall and made a career-high 51 saves in a game in which they were profoundly outplayed.
Save for a pair of rough starts against the New York Rangers and Anaheim Ducks, the Jets’ number-one goalie has been outstanding and more like the rock-solid guy who was nominated for the Vezina two seasons ago.
Improbable players sometimes step up at just the right time. Mathieu Perreault scored two goals to snap an eight-game goalless streak in the Jets’ 4-3 win against the Vegas Golden Knights; the power play finally came through in the third after going zero for their first four as the Jets rallied from down 3-1.
Connor, who scored the OT winner in Sin City, popped off three points in the game and has five points in his past two; he had only two in the five contests prior despite firing nine shots on John Gibson in the first game of the Jets’ three-game West Coast swing.
In some cases, the tail is wagging the dog. Nikolaj Ehlers has been electric with seven goals and seven assists but has asked Maurice NOT to put him on the top power-play unit. Wheeler remains there despite his struggles. Laine only has three goals but he’s suddenly become one of the team’s best playmakers.
Overall, things are weird in Winnipeg. The team, for the most part, is earnest and hard-working. But absolutely nothing comes easily for them.
What the heck will the next 15 games bring? Will the Jets go 15-0? 0-15? 8-7 again? We can make educated predictions, but I’ve personally never felt so unsure of what I’m going to see when I turn on the television or ascend Bell MTS Place’s stairs to the very top row of the upper deck.
While I don’t know where the Jets will ultimately end up this season, (in the playoffs? In the Draft Lottery?) I do know I’m down for the ride. I just know that I’ll need to fasten my seatbelt and return my chain to the upright position, because wherever the ultimate destination is, the flight there is going to be turbulent.
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.