The Winnipeg Jets, currently 6-7-0, had more ups and downs in October than a volatile stock. An in-flux club still searching for its identity and consistency, the Jets have some players who are on the upswing while others are trending in a downward direction. Here’s a look at three of each.
Up: Connor Hellebuyck
You’ll need some luck to get a puck past Hellebuyck. His most recent start against the Anaheim Ducks notwithstanding, the Jets’ No. 1 goaltender has been stellar this season after his 2018-19 campaign was full of ups and downs. Even after allowing five goals on 19 shots Tuesday, he still sports a 2.53 goals-against average, .924 save percentage, and a .700 quality start percentage.
Hellebuyck looks collected, calm, and confident — just as he did in 2017-18 when he was nominated for the Vezina Trophy and was instrumental in the Jets’ franchise-high 52 victories and Western Conference Final appearance. He’s giving the team the big saves they need: his five-on-five high-danger save percentage is .857, better than his 2018-19 mark by nearly 50 points.
The goaltender’s consistency has been a breath of fresh air given how uncertain the team has been, and his overall body of work is even more impressive given the defence corp in front of him is a motley crew made up of journeymen, waiver-wire pick-ups, and promising but inexperienced youngsters.
As we explored in the piece linked above, internal competition brings out Hellebuyck’s best. Laurent Brossoit’s presence as a quality backup champing at the bit for more work should give the Michigan native plenty of motivation.
Down: Mason Appleton
October was full of tricks and not many treats for the 23-year-old.
Appleton had the dubious distinction of joining the ranks of professional athletes to suffer a silly injury: he broke his foot playing football last Friday at Regina’s Mosaic Stadium a day prior to the 2019 Heritage Classic. He will be out for at least a month.
The Jets and this author were expecting the second-year pro to play a bigger role this season, but it hasn’t worked out so far. Prior to his freak injury, Appleton recorded no points in nine games and was a healthy scratch for the Jets’ two matchups before the outdoor game. He didn’t have a particularly strong preseason either.
Appleton’s clearly capable of a lot more: The 2015 sixth-round pick has shown offensive awareness, strong puck handling skills, and the ability to turn a game on its head throughout his career. He posted 10 points in 36 games last season and was part of an outstanding fourth line that proved excellent at pursuing the puck and producing chances; the season prior, he posted 66 points for the Manitoba Moose and was named the AHL’s Outstanding Rookie.
Now that he’s out, his future role is a bit cloudier than it was a month ago. Other players will have a chance to make a bigger impression than he has so far this season while he sits up in the press box with a walking boot on his foot.
Up: Bryan Little
Bryan Little couldn’t have picked a better time to score his first goal of the season.
In the swirling snow, in front of more than than 30,000 freezing fans, the veteran centre scored the overtime winner to give the Jets a 2-1 triumph over the Calgary Flames in the 2019 Heritage Classic.
That’s the type of goal that can really get a player going, and was especially important for Little, given he had to sit out the Jets first eight games with a concussion he sustained in preseason.
The 31-year old has had a positive impact in his four games back: he followed up his Heritage Classic heroics with his best effort of the season Tuesday against the Ducks, tallying a goal and an assist on a line with Nikolaj Ehlers and Jack Roslovic that produced a ton of chances. Little’s possession metrics are also eye-popping, with a Corsi For percentage at even-strength (CF%) of 63.6 and Fenwick For percentage at even-strength (FF%) of 59.4.
While the Ehlers/Little/Roslovic line is not likely to stick once Patrik Laine comes back from his minor lower-body injury, if Little can find some chemistry with Ehlers as second-line centre — whether he’s a suitable linemate for the Dane has long been a point of debate amongst Jets fans — it would go a long way to justifying his $5.3 million annual cap hit.
Down: Sami Niku
Another player expected to be an NHL fixture this season has played just one game and doesn’t seem set to play a second anytime soon.
That player is D-man Sami Niku, who the Jets were counting on to be a key contributor on a blue-line that was decimated over the offseason.
Niku got into a car crash on day one of training camp — he and passenger Kristian Vesalainen “broadsided a car making a left turn at an intersection” at 60 km/ph while on their way to Bell MTS Iceplex. (from Jets’ Niku, Vesalainen, ‘in shock’ after crash,’ Winnipeg Sun, Sept. 17, 2019.)
He’s also been hampered with nagging groin/hamstring injuries. The 23-year old suited up for the Jets on Oct. 8, but otherwise, has been on a conditioning stint with the Moose since he only played one preseason game. The same injury has prevented him from playing since Oct. 11; he’s missed the AHL squad’s past five games.
Niku looks like he’ll be healthy enough to play in the Moose’s two-game homestand this weekend; Moose bench boss Pascal Vincent promised he’d get big minutes to get him back up to speed. However, as The Athletic’s Murat Ates noted, it looks as though the Finn will be down on the farm for a while yet.
Up: Tucker Poolman
You may not notice him on a nightly basis, but that’s a good thing. Poolman has been quietly solid for the Jets and one of their overall best defenders.
He’s not flashy, but he’s a smart decision-maker who rarely gets burned and the team doesn’t have to worry about deploying. He’s also an exceedingly hard worker. Take this play in the Heritage Classic as an example: he broke his stick on a point shot attempt which led to a turnover, but turned on the afterburners, got to the bench to snag a new stick, then broke up the Flames’ scoring chance.
He’s played fewer than 50 career games, but at 26 years old, has looked like a veteran for most of the year (although, like the rest of the Jets’ blueliners, had a rough go on Tuesday, posting a negative five rating.
Poolman’s no Jacob Trouba, but complements Josh Morrissey, who he’s played with recently, well nonetheless. Finding Morrissey’s permanent partner will be important, as the alternate captain signed a big eight-year extension in September.
Poolman’s skated a modest 15:36 on average, but will definitely see that number rise if he keeps playing with Morrissey.
Down: Blake Wheeler
The Jets’ captain played uncharacteristically poorly in October.
No one expected Wheeler, the ultra-consistent, playmaking power forward, would struggle so mightily in the early part of 2019-20, considering he recorded 91 points in both 2017-18 and 2018-19.
But here we are, with the Jets’ leader looking mostly lost: the 33-year-old suffered through a six-game pointless streak, which he snapped against the Ducks on Tuesday by scoring on a yawning cage after John Gibson and Jacob Larsson had some misadventures behind the net. The right-winger has just seven points so far and alarmingly, zero power-play points, which is almost unthinkable given the personnel he plays with and that everything goes through him on the man advantage’s top unit.
It seems being the captain of such an embryonic team is taking its toll on Wheeler, who hasn’t been his brash and assertive self with the media. Whatever the reason for his struggles (possible reasons for which we explored in the piece linked above), the Jets need the real Wheeler back soon — perhaps his fortuitous goal can get him going again. He is a dedicated player with a great track record, usually someone the team doesn’t have to worry about not producing. They’d like to be able to stop worrying about him again.
The Jets will be busy in November, playing 14 games. Only time will tell how these players and others will trend after those contests are said and done.
Which other Jets do you feel are on the rise or falling off? Comment below!
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.