Since playing rather inconsistently early on this season as they searched to find an identity after a trying offseason full of changes, the Winnipeg Jets have begun to hit their stride, having gone 6-1-1 so far in November.
At the quarter mark, the Jets have finally found their identity as a scrappy, hard-working team that battles for every single inch of ice.
An Earnest, Hard-Working Crew
The Jets have been winning on a razor’s edge this season — 9 of their 12 wins have come by just one goal, and six of them have come beyond regulation — but they are winning nonetheless.
Nothing comes easily for them; they know they have to work their hardest if they want to win.
That’s a huge departure from the past two seasons, where they knew they could coast by on talent alone and simply outscore their opponents on most nights. The first half of last season was like watching a skills competition at times. This season, they know they can’t just put on a clinic — their forwards have to carry some of the defensive mail — and hence have replaced sheer skill with lunch-bucket tendencies.
The team is better for the huge amount of adversity they’ve faced over the past few months. Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor’s contract holdouts, Dustin Byfuglien’s ongoing holdout that keeps getting weirder, and Bryan Little’s long-term head injury, and a pile of other less-than-ideal happenings have strengthened the team’s resolve. They’re fire-forged.
“We’ve had a bunch of shocks to our group,” head coach Paul Maurice said last week. “It’s brought everybody a little closer together, so we kind of laugh differently than we used to. I think we are a closer group.” (from ‘Jets rallying around turbulent start to season,’ Winnipeg Sun, 11/11/19.)
It’s certainly a closer group than last season — when things started to unravel in the latter half of 2018-19, no one knew how to handle the tough stretch because they’d never faced any. The dressing room reportedly became divided, the team fell apart down the stretch, and they were dispatched in the first round by the St. Louis Blues.
“Staying in the Fight”
The Jets are displaying a soldier’s mentalities these days — every man is fighting for the man next to him. In fact, “staying in the fight” has become their motto. In seasons past, they simply blew teams away, especially at home. This season, they are winning the hard way thanks to contributions from throughout their lineup.
Sometimes success starts from the crease out — Connor Hellebuyck’s been in Vezina-calibre form this season and the Jets’ goaltending duo of he and Laurent Brossoit have a .949 save percentage this month.
Success still starts from the Jets’ top line at times — the new-look trio of Connor, Mark Scheifele, and Laine are beginning to shine. Just as often, though, it’s been Nikolaj Ehlers, Jack Roslovic, Adam Lowry, Mathieu Perreault, or others making a key play at the key time, whether that’s scoring a timely power-play tally, drawing a penalty to swing momentum, or winning a key face off to prevent an opponent from a chance at a tying goal with their goalie pulled.
Everybody’s just chipping in, working hard, and you get results,” Perreault, who scored the game-opening goal on a deft deflection in the Jets’ 4-3 Saturday afternoon win over the Tampa Bay Lightning, said post-game.
“It hardens your team,” captain Blake Wheeler said of the hardships the team has faced. “Whether we’re rallying around it, more than anything we’re just staying in the fight and just staying with it together. If you learn how to win the hard way, with everyone involved, those are the things you can take with you for a long run.”
If the Jets, third in the Central Division, do manage to make the playoffs, they’ll certainly know how to respond to the adverse situations.
Jets Still Have Things to Fix
Of course, none of this is to suggest the team is by any means playing perfectly. They’re winning ugly, and there’s a case to be made they’re winning unsustainably as well.
A lot of these games would look a lot different if they weren’t getting outstanding goaltending; the Jets defence has given up the third-most high danger chances against per 60 minutes at 12.58, their team Corsi and Fenwick numbers at 5-on-5 are both below 50 percent. On the other side of the puck, they are last in expected goals this month.
Some players such as Dmitry Kulikov — who’s taken nine minor penalties, only two fewer than the rest of the Jets’ d-men combined — need to step it up in a big way. The fourth line, consisting of Joona Luoto, David Gustafson, and Logan Shaw, often get hemmed in their own end.
“We need that fourth line to play in the other end of the ice. That’s the next step for those guys,” Maurice said of the trio that’s been together for five games but has generated no goals and hasn’t been able to take the pressure off the Jets’ top three lines. “They gotta get pucks going north, they gotta get a little heavier in the offensive zone, they gotta hang onto the puck so that the line at least is controlling at least some of the flow of play.”
But at the same time, they don’t ask you “how”, they ask you “how many.” And the answer to “how many” is “12”, higher than many thought it would be at the beginning of a season full of uncertainty.
While the Jets have a ton of room to improve, and the floor may fall out from under them if they don’t shore up some of their issues, let’s let Brent Bellamy — a well-known Winnipeg urbanist architect and Jets fan who responded to Murat Ates’ above thread — have the last word:
“Be happy the points are coming, and hope the underlying numbers improve before the magic dries up.”
Because there is a certain magic around the Jets right now, and it’s come as a result of the team just “staying in the fight.”