While there are many teams for whom a tight first-round playoff series would be considered a step forward, for the Winnipeg Jets, their early ouster in the postseason can only be viewed as a failure.
A team once hyped up by The Hockey News as the 2019 Stanley Cup winner, and who seemed to be living up to that hype after an excellent 2017-18 season, the Jets suddenly and dramatically fell flat on their faces after January 1. While the playoffs weren’t a total disaster, the early exit coupled with the poor regular-season finish and a growing trend of third-period faceplants left a bad taste in fans mouths.
While some fans may be questioning their faith in the Jets, however, it’s worth remembering that the Jets are only one year removed from the team getting within three wins of the Stanley Cup Final. On paper, the team is not drastically different, so what changed? And more importantly, what can the team change now to get back to their winning ways?
Limiting the Jets’ woes to only three key issues is a bit reductionist but, for the sake of keeping this shorter than a master’s thesis, we’ll look at three relatively simple (if not necessarily easy) changes the Jets can make to better the team next season, and hopefully contend again.
1: Improve the Defense, Especially the Left Side
By the end of the 2018-19 season, the Jets’ defense no longer seemed like the strong point many once thought it was. Injuries during the campaign had a great deal to do with this, but the fact is their defense was a problem for much of the season.
On the surface, this may seem like a simple enough fix, but the situation is complicated by factors like Jacob Trouba’s need for a new contract. Trouba should be a huge priority for the Jets this offseason, whether they decide to trade him or sign him long-term.
Ideally, the Jets would keep Trouba around for the long-term. He’s a smooth skating puck mover with intelligence and bite to his game, just the type to match-up against the other team’s best players. He also showed this season that he’s more than capable offensively, setting a career high with 50 points. He’s turned into all the Jets could have hoped for when they drafted him and more.
Even if Trouba stays, however (or if he’s traded for another strong young defender, for that is the only thing the Jets should trade him for), there are issues on the Jets’ defense on the left side. An injury to Josh Morrissey late in the season exposed just how thin the Jets are there.
The salary cap is not on the Jets’ side on this one. Trouba is soon to need a big raise, as is Morrissey, as are Kyle Connor and Patrik Laine. Brandon Tanev is likely in line for a raise of his own, should the Jets keep him. So pursuing a free agent target like Jake Gardiner may not be on the table.
Some better options defensively are right in front of the Jets. Sami Niku is turning into a star puck mover in his own right. Nathan Beaulieu, acquired at the trade deadline, filled in nicely for Morrissey went down. Which leads us into the second improvement.
2: Trust the Young Guns
The NHL is getting younger, and you would think that would suit a team like the Jets just fine. After all, they’ve got so much young talent at all positions they should be in the drivers seat of the youth revolution.
That hasn’t been the case, however. Younger players have been the first players to suffer the wrath of head coach Paul Maurice when things go south. It’s their lines he juggles and their lineup spots he replaces. While some players have the longest leash possible, for the youngsters there seems to be no trust at all.
Up front, the Jets refused to use Jack Roslovic in any capacity other than a fourth-liner until injuries bit. Though Bryan Little struggled to find chemistry with Laine, resulting in a horrible drought for the young sniper, Roslovic stayed firmly down the depth chart.
It was on the blue line, however, that the Jets missed the most obvious improvements. While Tyler Myers and Dmitry Kulikov struggled, the Jets frequently scratched or underutilized Niku. The youngster was a power play whizz in the AHL but got hardly any chance to show it in the big leagues.
With Sam Girard and Cale Makar of the Colorado Avalanche showing what young defensemen can do in the playoffs, the Jets have no excuse not to make use of their own considerable young talent. Next season, Niku can and should demand more ice time.
Niku wasn’t the only Jet being snubbed, however. Despite his admirable job filling in for Morrissey in a role well above his usual niche, Beaulieu was scratched throughout the playoffs. One of many head-scratching choices the Jets made down the stretch, which brings us to point number three.
3: A Change in Coaching Philosophy
To be clear, this doesn’t necessarily mean a change in coaching staff, though more than a few fans will argue it should. Maurice may still be part of the solution in Winnipeg.
If you doubt that the Jets’ leadership group appreciates their coach, the words of team captain Blake Wheeler on locker clean out day should silence those doubts. Wheeler was staunch and immediate in his defense of Maurice.
It wasn’t the first time Wheeler, who has steadily grown into a superstar under Maurice, has gone to bat for the Jets coach. If the Jets have another disappointing season in 2019-20, however, even that may not save him.
Wheeler’s praise of Maurice is a major tick mark in his favour. If firing Maurice would have a negative impact on the Jets captain then it would be almost impossible for them to do so. As much as the Jets are getting younger, Wheeler, for much of the last season, was the engine that drove the team. As he went, they went.
It became clear, however, as the season wore on that things weren’t working for the Jets. Their nosedive in the second half made the playoff exit too predictable to be really rage-inducing. And as the Jets fell further out of the top spot in the central, the team made few if any changes.
If Maurice’s choices had led to success, no one would be questioning them. Hockey, however, is a results-oriented business. The Jets were supposed to achieve results in 2018-19 and, simply put, didn’t.
There are far more feet to lay that at than Maurice’s. Laine’s lengthy slump and a slightly less stellar season from goalie Connor Hellebuyck both contributed, as did injuries to Morrissey and Dustin Byfuglien. But the frustrating lack of changes, or changes being made in the wrong places, does fall on Maurice’s shoulders.
Wheeler was right about one thing in his now-famous post-Game 6 interview: the Stanley Cup is a hard trophy to win. Of the 31 teams in the NHL, only one gets to end their year on a truly high note.
But the expectation was the Jets would get far closer to it than they did. To get further next season, they’ll need a few things to change. Perhaps the biggest is for their coach to adapt. Otherwise, none of the other adjustments they make will matter, and we’ll be asking ourselves the same questions and looking for the same improvements after 2019-20.