The Jets were a popular breakout pick for 2016-17 thanks to all their young talent. They instead remain mired in mediocrity. How can they save their season?
We really didn’t see this coming, Jets fans. We swear.
We oozed optimism last summer while forecasting Winnipeg’s 2016-17 finish in the Central Division standings. We saw the Jets rising into a Western Conference wild-card playoff position. They’d landed one of the game’s most dynamic young talents in Patrik Laine. Mark Scheifele had blossomed into a true No. 1 center after a torrid finish to 2016-17. Dustin Byfuglien was inked long term to be the franchise’s horse on defense. New captain Blake Wheeler was fresh off a top-10 finish in scoring.
Two seasons earlier, in our 2015 edition of THN Future Watch, we dubbed the Jets “2019 Stanley Cup champions.” We felt confident making that call because they had the game’s best youth brigade. Jacob Trouba flashed all-star potential on the blueline. Josh Morrissey had potential as a rushing defenseman. Nikolaj Ehlers had oodles of speed and offensive creativity. Connor Hellebuyck was a star goaltender in the making and only needed his chance. And, heck, in the two years since that magazine printed, the Jets padded their elite farm system even more. They traded for Marko Dano, drafted Kyle Connor and Jack Roslovic in 2015 and, of course, landed Laine last June at the draft. Plus they still had veterans like Mathieu Perreault and Bryan Little up front and Tyler Myers and Tobias Enstrom on defense.
We absolutely thought the Jets would ascend past the Minnesota Wild and swipe a playoff seed. It hasn’t happened. Last night, the Jets suffered their 11th loss by three or more goals this season and, as you’ve likely seen already, coach Paul Maurice blew a gasket. Three wins into a four-game stretch suddenly became two losses in a three-game stretch, Wednesday’s by an ugly 7-4 margin. It was a boiling point for a team hovering just below .500 at 20-21-3, technically one point out of a playoff berth but having played three more games than the L.A. Kings, the team they’re chasing. With Laine out an indefinite amount of time with a concussion, the Jets’ playoff hopes look grimmer by the day.
What on earth went wrong with this promising squad? And what solutions might rescue its season?
Any fan who rejoiced Ondrej Pavelec’s demotion was justified. That’s not meant as an insult to Pavelec. But, statistically, he’s had a devil of a time stopping the puck over the past half decade. Forty-two goaltenders have appeared in 100 or more games over the past five seasons. Among them, Pavelec ranks 41st in save percentage over that time at .906. So yes, it was a godsend when the Jets settled on a young battery of Hellebuyck and Michael Hutchinson to start 2016-17.
Their performance, however? Uninspired. Among the 47 goalies with enough game action to qualify for the league leaders, Hutchinson’s .890 SP across 17 appearances ranks 46th. Hellebuyck sits at a pedestrian .910 over 33 appearances, placing him 30th. The supposedly improved Jets goaltending has looked positively Pavelecian thus far. What’s the solution? Do the Jets have to promote Pavelec? Explore the trade market? Stay the course?
SOLUTION: Stay the course. One thing Winnipeg has done right this season is give Hellebuyck, a top-notch netminding prospect, the chance to establish himself as the unquestioned bellcow. He’s started 31 games to Hutchinson’s 13. Hellebuyck hasn’t performed nearly as well as advertised, but it’s far too early to write him off. I interviewed him for the first time in fall 2015, and the attribute of his that blew me away the most wasn’t his size, athleticism or accomplishments for his age, all of which were impressive. It was Hellebuyck’s swagger that stood out most. He’s breezy in his demeanor, a gamer who believes in himself wholeheartedly. Mental toughness in goalies goes a long way – the same trait foreshadowed Matt Murray’s rise last season – and Hellebuyck has what it takes to get hot in the second half.
It was already happening before he coughed up three goals in 14 minutes Wednesday and got pulled for Hutchinson. Hellebuyck was 6-3-0 with a .924 SP in his previous nine appearances.
He ranks near the top of the NHL in low-danger SP among goalies with 1,000 or more minutes played but sits near the bottom in medium- and high-danger SP. That obviously means Hellebuyck needs to be better, but his 5-on-5 SP is better than what the Jets are used to so far in his career, and his sample size remains small. Check out this study from Garret Hohl for a good breakdown.
Trouba ended his holdout in early November and played his first game of 2016-17 Nov. 11. Myers sustained a lower-body injury that same game and hasn’t suited up since. He recently left the team due to a personal matter. That one fateful game Nov. 11, Winnipeg iced Trouba, Myers, Byfuglien, Enstrom and Morrissey simultaneously. Interestingly, the Jets are one of the NHL’s best this season at suppressing shot attempts, ranking fourth in the NHL at 5-on-5 Corsi Against per 60, but when their depth is tested because of injuries, they’re subbing in stopgap players like Ben Chiarot and Paul Postma, who grade out poorly in shot suppression.
SOLUTION: Get healthy. Hopefully Myers rejoins the lineup soon and we can finally see this group at full strength. It’s been especially encouraging to see Morrissey post strong possession numbers. His offense hasn’t arrived yet, but he’s been sneaky effective.
Oh, the irony! The Jets missed the playoffs in 2013-14 and 2015-16 largely because they couldn’t beat their Central neighbors during the regular season, going 9-15-5 and 11-16-2, respectively. In 2014-15, a playoff year, they went 16-8-5 against Central opponents. This year the Jets are a sparkling 9-4-1 in divisional play…and 7-12-2 against the Eastern Conference. Ouch.
SOLUTION: Here’s one we know the Jets can accomplish: play the East less. Winnipeg is 2-7-1 against the powerhouse Metro Division. Every team gets pummelled by the Metro, so that’s forgivable. Winnipeg has faced the East in 47.7 percent of its games so far. It only plays cross-conference 11 more times, or 28.9 percent of its remaining schedule. The Jets also face the Metro just six more times, thank goodness.
The Jets would never be confused with a “shallow” team in terms of forward depth but, in today’s NHL, every line counts. Look no further than the Columbus Blue Jackets, who have gotten tremendous mileage out of Scott Hartnell and Sam Gagner as high-skill fourth liners. The Jets’ fourth line has been somewhat of a bugaboo. Brandon Tanev and Chris Thorburn have each posted ugly possession numbers, the worst on the team 5-on-5, when slotted in there.
THE SOLUTION: Winnipeg needs Marko Dano back. He can play a rambunctious game in the bottom six but with a nice dose of skill. Unfortunately, he’s out until March with a lower-body injury. At least he’ll be the equivalent of a trade-deadline upgrade when he comes back.
Finally, we get to Maurice. All the problems above suggest we can’t blame the Jets’ underwhelming 2016-17 entirely on coaching, but most bench bosses eventually pay for their teams’ sins. Winnipeg ranks 19th in power play efficiency, 26th in penalty killing and 24th in shots on goal per game. It’s the NHL’s second-worst faceoff team. Only the Calgary Flames have taken more minor penalties. This team is struggling to master far too many small details.
And why does Maurice always seem to get a pass? He’s long been a media pet, a likable straight shooter, easy to root for. But how much more mileage can a coach get from being a good guy? Maurice has coached in the Stanley Cup playoffs five times in 18 completed seasons. His teams have missed the playoffs in nine of his past 11 seasons. Even if we subtract 2013-14, when he replaced Claude Noel in Winnipeg mid-season, that’s eight misses in 10 seasons. Maurice’s 2014-15 playoff run with the Jets was his only one in his past five seasons.
Maurice hasn’t typically enjoyed a stacked roster to work with, rarely in his Hartford and Carolina days, never in his Leafs days and not for much of his Jets days. But he also hasn’t been saddled with laughing-stock franchises many times. And he has more talent in Winnipeg right now than he’s ever had, albeit some of it is young and raw.
SOLUTION: It’s doubtful anything happens to Maurice this season barring a major team slump, but it wouldn’t be unreasonable for Jets management to start paying close attention to how well this team responds to its coach over the rest of the season. We know Noel lost the room in three years ago. It happens. Sooner or later, Maurice has to start winning.
Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to thn.com. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin