If the Winnipeg Jets want to keep succeeding in the face of injuries, they’ll need to take a “next man up” mentality and get contributions from throughout the lineup.
Appleton Joins Growing List of Injured Forwards
The Jets have taken more than their fair share of hits to their forward depth just 14 games into their pivotal 2022-23 campaign.
Most recently, Mason Appleton joined an ever-growing injured reserve. News broke Wednesday that the 26-year-old — who was playing on the first line and had one goal and five assists — had surgery to correct a wrist injury he sustained Sunday against the Seattle Kraken and will be out eight to twelve weeks.
The injury occurred on an odd and unlucky sequence; rubbed out by Carson Soucy into the boards during the second period, Appleton’s stick got caught up in a glass partition and twisted his arm awkwardly. Soucy was penalized for interference on the play.
In the very best-case scenario, Appleton could return by mid-January and not mid-February, but will still miss at least 30 games.
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Appleton was playing on the first line because Nikolaj Ehlers has missed the past twelve games to injury. The dynamic Dane skated for the first time on Wednesday, but there is no timetable for his return.
Morgan Barron — who began the season on the third line and was hoped to be a reliable producer and physical presence — had wrist surgery in early November and the timetable for his return is four to five weeks, meaning he won’t return until December at the earliest.
Jansen Harkins, who was the odd man out after training camp and sent to the Manitoba Moose, was recalled after putting up nine points in six games for the AHL affiliate but is also nicked up. He took a puck to the face while on the bench during Saturday’s game versus the Flames (but later did return in a full cage.) However, Mikey Eyssimont replaced Harkins for Sunday’s game against the Kraken.
If Harkins is ready to go, both he and Eyssimont will be in the lineup Thursday. If not, the Jets will need to call someone up, with Alex Limoges and Kevin Stenlund being the most logical options.
Contributions From Throughout Lineup Will Be Key
The Jets have surprised most observers with how hot they’ve started, as they hold a 9-4-1 record and sit second in the Central Division (with two games in hand over the Division-leading Dallas Stars.)
Mark Scheifele and Pierre-Luc Dubois are off to strong scoring starts with 10 and seven tallies, respectively, but the next players only have four (Neal Pionk and Blake Wheeler.) Added contributions from veterans as Wheeler and Adam Lowry, but also Sam Gagner — who has been effective no matter where he’s been plugged into the lineup — will be key.
Gagner, who was acquired as a free agent in September and has five points this season, skated with Scheifele and Kyle Connor on the first line during line rushes on Wednesday and seems destined for that assignment until Ehlers returns.
Something else that would go a long way would be a reawakening of Connor. The sniper, who put up 47 goals last season, continues to be extremely snakebitten with just two tallies and only one on a goaltender.
Although the forward depth continues to dwindle, head coach Rick Bowness should still roll four lines. Even fourth liners such as David Gustafsson, Axel Jonsson-Fjallby, and Saku Maenalanen are logging around 10 minutes per game and they’ll need to make good on Bowness’ faith in them by chipping in a goal or two.
It’s not like they can’t put the puck in the net — Gustafsson and Jonsson-Fjallby have been successful scorers in the AHL and Maenalanen had 41 points in 47 games last season for Liiga’s Oulun Kärpät — but the trio has combined for just five points this season.
Another core facet of Bowness’ strategy is for his defenders to be aggressive and jump up in the play to produce offence. That’ll take on an outsized importance until some forwards return. Josh Morrissey has thrived under Bowness, with a team-leading 15 points, and Pionk has 10, but all other defenders have three or fewer. While Brenden Dillon and Dylan DeMelo are decidedly defensive defensemen, Nate Schmidt — who had 32 points last season — has just two this season.
The Jets have an average of 2.35 points from d-men per game this season, an improvement over the 1.98 points per game from d-men last season. If he wants even more offence from the back end, Bowness could consider calling up Ville Heinola, who has seven points in 11 games for the Moose.
Better Team Culture Could Keep Jets On Track
Under Bowness, the Jets are a much tighter-knit squad than they have been since 2017-18. Last season, they became so fractured that some players started calling out others publicly and Paul Maurice resigned in frustration last December partly because no one was listening to him.
With the stern taskmaster Bowness communicating clear expectations — and the consequences for not meeting them — coupled with his viewpoint that everyone needs to be a leader in some way, the Jets seem to actually have a healthy team culture for once. They even developed a three-point pledge — the headers being “purpose,” “integrity,” and “open-handed communication” — that outlines principles everyone must adhere to if they’re to be successful.
Their road ahead isn’t easy without key forwards, but the improvement in team culture gives them a better chance of staying in a playoff position as the all-important American Thanksgiving cutoff approaches. They just need to put that “next man up” mentality — where one player takes over for another seamlessly — into practice. Only teams with strong character can do that.