WINNIPEG – As the Winnipeg Jets slowly sink below the line separating the NHL’s playoff-bound teams from the rest, coach Claude Noel has to hope solid teamwork will get his club’s offence on track.
He won’t directly say the Jets just don’t have the depth of talent needed—particularly when some of their best players have been injured. But he doesn’t argue the point.
“I’ll let you decide whether we have enough, I wouldn’t want to answer that question,” he said Monday.
“If you don’t have enough you become reliant on the group. That’s how you have to play. … I want to be reliant on the group because I think that’s what we need.”
There were no signings that dramatically changed the makeup of the team that failed to make the playoffs in Atlanta last season, before relocating to Winnipeg.
This season, about the biggest move so far was claiming Finnish forward Antti Miettinen off waivers in December.
Noel still hopes the right-winger can be a reliable third-line player, adding perhaps 15 goals a season. So far, Miettinen has three assists and no goals in 21 games with the Jets.
Miettinen had 16 goals and 19 assists with the Minnesota Wild last season.
General manager Kevin Cheveldayoff also hasn’t made any trades that might shake things up before the deadline. So it’s perhaps not surprising the Jets are playing pretty much the same as the Thrashers.
A season-by-season comparison doesn’t reveal much difference and certainly no improvement.
Entering play Monday night, the Jets (24-24-6) were 10th in the Eastern Conference, six points behind the Toronto Maple Leafs, who hold the eighth and final playoff spot. The Leafs will visit Winnipeg on Tuesday night.
After 54 games last season, the then-Thrashers had 57 points, three more than Winnipeg has after the same number of games this season.
Noel, who has been doing his best to forge a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts, still sounds like an optimist.
“I coach what we have,” he said. “You can find ways to get it done.”
The Jets, who were shut out in Montreal over the weekend, are near the bottom of the league with just 129 goals scored this season.
It hasn’t helped that two of the team’s stronger offensive players—forward Evander Kane and defenceman Dustin Byfuglien—have battled injuries.
“For me it’s a great opportunity for players to jump into holes,” offered Noel, once again looking on the bright side.
Byfuglien is back after being sidelined with a knee injury. He has just one assist in three games since returning to the lineup last Thursday.
Another hole may disappear this week when Kane returns from the injured list, which might happen as early as Tuesday or Thursday, Noel said.
With 18 goals, Kane is the team’s top scorer this season. But that’s still only good enough for No. 45 on the NHL’s overall scoring list.
Noel said the coaching staff will be focusing on kickstarting the team’s offence as they look to get back on a winning track.
“We have to do a better job in a lot of areas … my bigger concern isn’t so much the goals against, it’s our way of playing and our way of doing things,” Noel said.
”It’s about winning and we know we have to do that with more regularity,” he added.
Note to readers: This is a corrected version of an earlier story. Antti Miettinen has three assists this season, not three goals and three assists as previously stated.