The Winnipeg Jets are mired in a six-game losing streak and a team that two short weeks ago had a chance of finishing first in the North Division will now be lucky to finish third.
While the fact they’re on their longest losing skid since relocating from Atlanta a decade ago is alarming enough, the fact most of the Jets aren’t acknowledging the fundamental issues with their play or are totally without answers is perhaps even more so.
Hellebuyck Is Overconfident
Some players are in straight denial mode, such Connor Hellebuyck. The goaltender has tremendous confidence that borders on delusion at times and even after the losing streak reached five with a 3-1 loss, he was defiant.
“We’re going to snap out of this and it’s going to be big and we’re going to carry that momentum,” he said post-game April 28. “It’s a matter of time.”
“We’re not scoring as much as we were, but that just means once we start scoring we’re going to be scoring a lot,” he continued. “Playoffs are right around the corner, so if we’re saving all our goals for the playoffs that’s huge. I think you know our team is very offensive and they’re going to come.”
“Just flipping the switch” in the playoffs isn’t really something that’s possible and you can’t “save up goals” when you haven’t deserved to score them in the first place.
Wheeler Is at a Loss
Others players, such as captain Blake Wheeler, know there are big problems but have no idea how to fix them. Wheeler’s media appearances have been extremely brief lately, and none-too-insightful.
It’s never good when your captain begins an answer with “I’m not really sure,” but he did just that when asked how things slipped away in the Friday-night 5-3 defeat at the hands of a depleted Montreal Canadiens squad in which the Jets blew a 3-1 lead.
When asked what the answer to getting out of the slump is, a defeated-sounding Wheeler said “um… I guess we don’t know that or otherwise we probably would have won the game tonight… just try to put together sixty-minute efforts and hope that’s good enough to get a result.”
After April 26th’s embarrassing 6-1 loss to the Edmonton Oilers, he wasn’t even made available to the media. So much for accountability.
Perhaps Wheeler’s hesitance is because he knows he’s a huge part of the problem. One of the worst players in the NHL at five-on-five, Wheeler is a horrendous minus 23 and a shell of the former 90-plus point-per-season guy from just a few seasons ago. The drop-off in his play has been sudden and drastic, and that’s a huge problem given he’s set to make a whopping $10 million ($8.25 million cap hit) next season.
Maurice Is Downplaying Problems
Even as the demoralizing losses pile up and his team keeps getting outworked and out-willed, head coach Paul Maurice continues to downplay problems. Maurice said the team has been working hard, but it certainly hasn’t looked like it as they’ve been outscored 26-9 in the losing streak and the stars have been MIA.
“I’m not too worried about where we are. I wouldn’t panic yet,” he said after Friday’s loss.
When pressed by the Winnipeg Sun’s Scott Billeck, who asked when the time to panic would be if not now, Maurice doubled down, saying “we’ve got a good team here and we’re going through a real struggle, so you can panic at your own time but we won’t here.”
One may be reminded, upon hearing Maurice’s comments, of the meme of the dog with flames rising all around him calmly sitting with his coffee and declaring “this is fine.”
It’s not fine. The Jets are on fire, and they’re not a good team right now despite Maurice claiming the contrary. While they shouldn’t be panicking — because panicking never solves anything — they should be acting with great urgency to put out the blaze.
Unfortunately, Maurice has no urgency to grab an extinguisher — the second-longest tenured NHL bench boss is well-known for his total unwillingness to make any changes to the status quo. He trots out the same looks and lines game after game that fundamentally don’t work. He doesn’t play the young guys even when he promises to. He favours journeymen plugs over top prospects.
One has to wonder if Maurice taken the Jets as far as they can go and if they need a new voice who brings new ideas that can inspire. Maurice’s systems lack creativity, making the team less than the sum of its powerful parts.
If the True North organization wants to communicate to players and fans alike that it’s committed to winning, they may have to make a change soon. If they don’t, they might be surprised how many fans simply don’t return to Bell MTS Place post-pandemic who have decided a team content with mediocrity isn’t worth investing time, money, or emotional bandwidth into.
Stastny Is the Only One Being Honest
Paul Stastny is just about the only player willing to acknowledge the Jets’ sorry state of affairs. While others deny the issues or don’t know how to fix them, Stastny has been thoughtful and refreshingly honest.
While Wheeler avoided reporters following the 6-1 loss, Stastny gave a searing assessment of the Jets’ play and said what anyone paying attention has noticed but no one else within the organization is willing to admit: that the Jets had been cheating far prior to the slump they’re still mired in.
“It’s the way we’ve been playing for 10, 15, 20 games — sometimes we got away with it and when you get away with it you think you’re playing well and you’re not playing well, sometimes (Hellebuyck) stood on his head and saved us and people don’t notice that,” the veteran of nearly 1,000 games said on April 26.
But when you’ve been around the game as long as I have, I can tell when we’re playing good and we’re not playing good,” he continued, going on to say a rout was a long time coming. “We left (Hellebuyck) out to dry as we have a lot lately, so that’s embarrassing on our behalf. We just got take a look at ourselves and know what works and know what doesn’t work and kind of have a game plan and simplify it… if you have to adjust to certain guys, certain teams, you gotta be willing to do that if you want to win.”
It seems Stastny’s words has fallen on deaf ears as the Jets have lost both games since he spoke out, which is unfortunate, because his assessment was bang-on. The rest of the team — especially the coach, the so-called “leadership core,” and the stars who make the big bucks — need to take his words to heart and start being honest like him.
Only the harshest of self-assessment will get the Jets out of the lowest point this franchise has seen in a long time.
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.