After seven games, four wins, three losses, moments of jubilation, anxiety, and pure frustration, the Winnipeg Jets have a layoff to reflect on the start to their season. They have a lot to think about.
There’s the reassuring trend of the top-six forwards getting the job done offensively. There’s the unsettling trend of the bottom-six forwards producing nothing at even strength. There’s been one solid goaltender and one who’s flopped.
Then there’s the defense, employing an odd structure that’s had trouble keeping teams to the outside. And the injury bug, which bit the Jets so hard last season, has reared its ugly head once again.
Dmitry Kulikov and Mathieu Perreault will not return to tonight’s game due to lower body injuries.
— Winnipeg Jets PR (@WpgJetsPR) October 15, 2017
The venerable Bob McKenzie always says the first two weeks of the season can be a bit of a write-off but anything that happens after those two weeks is grounds for a trend. We’re just past that mark now, so how have the Jets fared?
There’s a lot to wade through and dissect ahead of the Jets’ next game, which comes Oct. 26 against Pittsburgh, a team against whom they never fail to get into a track meet and almost always lose. While the Jets prepare for that tough opponent, let’s look at how they’ve handled the season so far and what trends we can pick up on after seven games.
Let’s start with the really obvious one, shall we? The Jets have won more games than they’ve lost. Four wins and three losses through seven games isn’t world-beating, but it isn’t season-ruining either.
So, how have the Jets won four games? Well, those four wins have come at least in part on the strength of their goaltending. As odd as it is to type that, Connor Hellebuyck has a 4-0 record, a 2.32 goals-against average (GAA), and a .928 save percentage as of this writing.
It’s a small sample size and possibly unsustainable (the unblemished win-loss record certainly is), but it’s an encouraging sign that at least one Jets goalie is performing in the early going. We’ll touch on the other one later.
They say your best players need to be your best for you to win, and Winnipeg’s top forwards have been so far. Blake Wheeler, Mark Scheifele, and Nikolaj Ehlers are all at or over a point per game, with Patrik Laine not far behind.
Speaking of Ehlers, he’s done his best to immediately justify his recent extension by leading the team in goals with six through seven games. Laine sits right behind him with four, and the team’s offense appears to be in good hands at the top end.
Joining that top-end offense recently has been Kyle Connor, filling in for the injured Mathieu Perreault. Connor started out on the second line, earned a promotion to the first, and made Paul Maurice look good for it by firing in a goal in his first game. His beautiful assist in the game against Minnesota didn’t hurt either.
Speaking of beautiful, I’m not going to go through the good and not mention this goal by Joel Armia. It was in a game that was out of reach, but anything that gets Armia going and injects some life into the bottom-six forwards is good in my books.
Armia keeps teasing us with plays like this, but if this goal gets his confidence up and precedes a boost in play from him, then it was well worth scoring despite the meaninglessness of the moment in-game.
Of course, it’s not all been roses for the Jets, as they do have plenty of problems to sort out, some of which are more pressing than others. Which leads us to…
I suffered some indecision on whether certain things belong here or in the inevitable “The Ugly” section that anyone with a sense of pattern recognition knows is coming. Debate amongst yourselves if I’ve made the right call.
For the second year in a row, the injury bug has paid the Jets an early visit. Mathieu Perreault, a perennial victim of the bug, went down in the Oct. 14 game against Carolina, and Dmitry Kulikov (who’s had injury troubles of his own) went along with him.
With Adam Lowry already on the shelf and Matt Hendricks only just coming off, the season has started with another parade to the sick bay by the Jets.
Even when the Jets were totally healthy, however, there were problems. Asset management remains a source of hot debate among pundits and fans alike, but the underlying numbers seem to favor leaving some of Maurice’s favorites in the press box.
Some of those favorites are supposed to be helping on the penalty kill, but the Jets’ PK is a dismal 72 percent and sits dead last in the entire NHL. Their power play is a bit better (ranked 17th) but still not good enough for a team with so many weapons.
Sending Connor to the minors brought quite a negative reaction from the fanbase, and Connor’s play since his recall has proven the fans right so far. Are the Jets missing a step by misevaluating the talent they so shrewdly assembled?
No discussion of the uglier side of Winnipeg’s young season would be complete without making mention of Steve Mason’s abhorrent 5.98 GAA and cringe-worthy .846 save percentage. Only Antti Niemi is worse in both categories, and he was put on waivers on Oct. 23.
In fairness to Mason, it’s early enough that he could and indeed should turn it around. Even in his worst years in Columbus, he was never this bad, and at times in his career, he’s been stellar. This could easily be an anomaly.
It’s an anomaly that’s undeniably ugly, however, and needs to be fixed in a hurry. Hellebuyck has been good so far, but riding him all season isn’t likely to be an option, young as he is.
The other slot in the ugly category could have been reserved for the penalty kill, and while that has been ugly it’s a symptom of a much larger, much uglier problem: the Jets’ lack of depth up front.
Now, this is not a problem the Jets were expected to have. The high-flying, free-wheeling offense of last year was largely driven by the top-six, it’s true, but the bottom-six was never this disastrously bad.
In two games in a Winnipeg Jets uniform, Connor has more even-strength goals than the entire Jets bottom six, with a whopping total of one. That’s a huge indictment of team depth.
The Jets’ lower forwards have just two goals on the year. One is the Armia goal above. The other was a shorthanded goal by Brandon Tanev in the second game. Andrew Copp has a shorthanded assist, and that’s all she wrote for the depth scoring.
Nic Petan, Shawn Matthias, Marko Dano and Adam Lowry have no points of any kind. With the exception of Petan, their possession numbers have been dismal. It’s a small sample size, but it does back up what the eye can clearly see. The Jets’ bottom six has not been good enough, and for a team with so much young skill, that’s not an acceptable result.
So these are the problems besetting the Winnipeg Jets and the strengths offsetting them that have allowed them to outnumber their losses with wins. Only time will tell if they can keep it up.