The first half of the 2021-22 season did not go to plan for the Winnipeg Jets. They came into the campaign considered a legitimate Stanley Cup contender, but for various reasons, have struggled through their first 42 games and hold a mediocre 18-17-7 record.
At fifth in the Central Division and nine points out of the second wild card spot, the Jets face an uphill climb in their last 40 games if they want to avoid a costly lost season.
Here are four players worth keeping a close eye on as the second half of the Jets’ season gets underway Tuesday.
1) Mark Scheifele
Mark Scheifele has been a shell of his usual self this season. His point total is respectable — 29 in 36 games — but his overall game has left a lot to be desired.
He’s often looked lazy and oddly uninterested, his turnovers have been glaring, and his poor defensive-zone play has hurt the team. Interim head coach Dave Lowry recognized that recently and sent Scheifele a message during the game against the St. Louis Blues, stapling the alternate captain to the bench for the final 3:27 after a series of egregious turnovers led to Grade-A chances for the opposition.
Scheifele came into this season with every reason to be highly motivated: he had a chance to represent Canada at the 2022 Winter Olympics dangling in front of him and also had a bee in his bonnet from the suspension he received in the second round of the playoffs for charging the Montreal Canadiens’ Jake Evans. He felt the four-game band the NHL DoPS handed down — which ended his season — was overly harsh.
This author even predicted Scheifele, seemingly in his prime at 28 years old and a dedicated student of the game, would reach the 100-point plateau for the first time in his career. But a player who is usually one of the Jets’ best has been one of their worst.
There are a number of possible reasons. Perhaps he’s feeling down after his Olympic hopes were dashed when the NHL announced players would not be heading to Beijing due to the COVID-19 Omicron wave. Perhaps he’s still gun-shy after his suspension. Perhaps he’s still feeling the residual effects of his COVID-19 infection in October. Perhaps he’s feeling the pressure from Pierre-Luc Dubois, who has elevated his game in a big way and is now the go-to centre. Perhaps he’s dealing with sometime else entirely, that no one knows about.
Regardless, the Jets need the play-driving Scheifele of old back if they want to succeed in the second half. If he continues to regress, GM Kevin Cheveldayoff might have to consider what was once unthinkable — trading his first-ever draft pick while his value is still high and his contract is reasonable.
2) Kyle Connor
Unlike Scheifele, Kyle Connor is enjoying another excellent and consistent campaign.
The sniper is just off a 50-goal pace, with his goal Tuesday being his 25th in his first 42 games. He also has 20 assists and leads the Jets in points with 45. At only 25 years old, he is already second in Thrashers/Jets franchise history in most career 25-plus goal seasons with five.
Sixth in NHL goals scored this season, Connor was named an NHL All-Star for the first time in his career, and was the Jets’ only representative in Las Vegas last weekend.
Connor is consistently underrated despite scoring more goals over the past five seasons than everyone not named Alexander Ovechkin, Auston Matthews, or Leon Draisaitl. Scoring 50 would force the league to sit up and take notice of his superb shot and would vault him to superstar status.
Even if the Jets continue to struggle, it will be worth watching Connor and rooting for him to become the first 50-goal guy of Jets 2.0 history, the first of the Thrashers/Jets franchise since Ilya Kovalchuk in 2007-08, and the first Jet to do it (when taking the WHA and 1.0 eras into consideration) since Keith Tkachuk in 1995-96.
3) Andrew Copp
If the Jets fall further out of the Wild Card picture and decide to sell at the Trade Deadline, Andrew Copp is their biggest asset.
Copp, 27, is enjoying a strong offensive season in a top-six role, with 12 goals and 16 assists for 28 points. His success comes on the heels of an excellent 2020-21, where he showcased consistent scoring touch while not sacrificing anything from the stalwart defensive game he has come to be known for in eight seasons.
Copp’s one-year, $3.64 million contract — which the RFA signed last August — is innately moveable and he will be an attractive rental option for a number of playoff-bound teams; Copp is a strong two-way player who can play centre or wing. The Jets could get draft picks or prospects in return for Copp if they decide a rebuild is necessary.
If he remains a Jet past March 21, he will be worth watching to see if Cheveldayoff can afford to keep him in the fold, as he’ll be a UFA for the first time this offseason and will undoubtedly be demanding a substantial raise and a longer-term deal. He may have already pushed his way out of the team’s budget.
4) Connor Hellebuyck
As goes Connor Hellebuyck, so do the Jets. Nobody has willed the team to victories more often over the past few seasons.
If the Jets have any chance at the playoffs, they’ll net their netminder to bring his A-game. He didn’t bring it in the first half, with his numbers — a 14-15-6 record, 2.90 GAA, and .910 SV% — and play not representing his potential.
Hellebucyk showed signs of physical and mental fatigue in January as he was run ragged. At one point, he made 13-straight starts, and how overworked he was shows in his stats: in his past seven starts, he is 0-5-2 with a 3.58 GAA and .888 SV%.
The Jets have 12 games in February and will go through a punishing stretch of eight previously-postponed games in a 14 day span during what was supposed to be the 2022 Olympic break. That stretch, between Feb. 8 and Feb. 23, includes two back-to-backs and a stretch of four games in six days (really, five-and-a-half days because the fourth game is an afternoon matchup.)
Hellebuyck cannot possibly play in all of those. At least, he cannot possibly play in them all well. If the Jets manage his workload better and give Eric Comrie more starts, hopefully he will round back into form for when the Jets may need him most.
Which Jets will you be watching closely in the second half? Comment below!