It’s not the conference, it’s the geography for the Winnipeg Jets.
They’re in the Central Division and the Western Conference now after being stuck in the Southeast for two seasons. When the NHL realigned for this season, the organization welcomed the move because the trade-off for tougher competition was more meetings with natural rivals and more games in the Central Time Zone.
That means more chances for players to sleep in their own beds. But as the Jets get to the tail end of their longest road trip of the season, they know it’ll never be a perfect situation
“Just the geography of Winnipeg, it’s not really close to many NHL cities, so we’re going to be travelling quite a bit,” winger Blake Wheeler said in a phone interview from Florida, where the Jets face the Panthers on Thursday night. “I think that’s just the way it’s going to be as long as there’s a team in Winnipeg. It certainly helps our division, staying in the same time zone for the most part. Most of those flights are pretty quick. That definitely helps.”
It also helps that the Jets are 3-1-0 on their current, six-game Eastern Conference swing with two left to play. The team has 13 one-game trips this season, but a long one like this can pay dividends.
“You’re going out to dinner quite a bit with a lot of guys and spending some quality time together,” defenceman Mark Stuart said. “I think it can help a lot, especially if you’re winning. You get on a roll on a longer trip like this, and it can be really good.”
Longer trips are what the West is all about. It’s not uncommon for teams to stay on the road for long stretches: the Chicago Blackhawks just returned from a seven-game, 10-day trip while the circus was in town, and the Nashville Predators had a seven-game, 16-day trip that began in late October.
According to the Forechecker blog, which calculates the distances flown by NHL teams, the Jets were set to travel 74,797 kilometres this season compared to 71,820 in the last full season in 2011-12.
No longer must the Jets make multiple trips to Washington, Raleigh, N.C., Sunrise, Fla., and Tampa. Now they frequent Chicago, St. Louis, St. Paul, Minn., Nashville, Dallas and Denver.
“I guess the biggest difference would be two years ago we were flying out here to Florida and maybe playing a couple games and then head back to Winnipeg and we were getting in pretty late because it’s such a long flight,” Stuart said. “You’re getting in, it’s 3 in the morning sometimes. But now it’s a little bit better. We’re mostly staying in our same time zone and flying to places like Chicago and usually coming back right after those games.”
Wheeler said flying East isn’t as taxing on his body as losing two hours when going to the West Coast. The Jets have yet to play a game in the Pacific Time Zone yet this season, though they have seven on the schedule after just two in 2011-12.
That’s something for the Jets to worry about later, though. Their focus now is on wrapping up this road trip, which has been a welcome chance to settle in to a routine.
“It’s been kind of nice this trip to get all these games out of the way at the same time, six games in one trip,” Stuart said. “It is a long trip, but it makes it easier because once you’re on the road you’re on the road. You don’t have to go back and forth from Winnipeg. We’re out here for six and then we head home.”
Whatever the reason, the Jets have thrived. Their only loss on the trip came at the Philadelphia Flyers, an 11:30 a.m. start the day after U.S. Thanksgiving, and the’ve beaten the New York Rangers, New York Islanders and New Jersey Devils.
“I think we’ve gotten on the road and just kind of each game worked on just kind of emptying the tank and pouring everything we can into every game,” Wheeler said. “Our schedule up till this point we’ve been playing pretty much every other day for a couple months. Sometimes that can take a toll on a team.
“After that Philly came we got a couple days to take a little break and then after the Rangers game we got a couple more days here, so I think it helps our team get healthy, kind of catch our breath a little bit, which, I think, has helped us play some good hockey.”
Good hockey, but not exactly where the Jets would like to be. Going into Wednesday night’s games around the league, Winnipeg was six points out of the second wild-card spot in the West.
While that’s a big gap, Wheeler believes a strong finish to this road trip could jump-start the Jets to make a run.
“We’ve been scratching and clawing to get back to .500 here. So if we can string some more wins together and just kind of realize that we haven’t accomplished anything yet—we’ve been playing good hockey, but we have a long ways to go if we’re going to get to where we want to go,” he said. “We still have goals (from) the beginning of the season, and we’re far from accomplishing those.
“But (if) we keep doing the things we’re doing right now and playing good hockey and staying focused each night, then we’re going to give ourselves an opportunity to achieve some of those goals.”
Follow Stephen Whyno on Twitter at @SWhyno.