Someone ought to ask Winnipeg Jets coach Paul Maurice and GM Kevin Cheveldayoff who exactly they wronged to deserve losing five of their six starting defensemen, because at this point it’s starting to get cruel.
Before Monday’s game, it was revealed that Jets blueliner Grant Clitsome would be sidelined with an undisclosed injury and that he would be on the shelf on a day-to-day basis. However, it’s believed he’ll be out for at least a week or two. Clitsome adds to a list of injured rearguards that includes Toby Enstrom, Zach Bogosian, Jacob Trouba, and Mark Stuart. With so many defensemen sidelined, how will Winnipeg survive in the tough Western Conference?
First and foremost, the Jets are going to have to rely on goaltender Michael Hutchinson. ‘Hutch the Clutch,’ as he’s become known in some circles, has not been officially crowned as Winnipeg’s starter, but you can be certain that at this point, he is.
Through the first 16 games of the season, Hutchinson started a mere two games. Over the next 17 games of the Jets season, Hutchinson and fellow netminder Ondrej Pavelec have split starts, with Hutchinson seeing eight starts plus 41 minutes of relief duty in an overtime loss to Minnesota. In the team’s last seven outings, Hutchinson has been between the pipes for five contests, Pavelec for just two.
Hutchinson’s numbers have been stellar, too, with him leading the league in save percentage and goals-against average by goaltenders who have started at least 15 contests. While his .936 SP and 1.88 GAA may be seen by some as unsustainable, they’ll only truly need to ride Hutchinson and hope his numbers hold for at least another month until the Jets starting getting some troops back.
In attempting to stay in the Western Conference playoff race, it will also be incredibly important for the Jets to maintain a similar level of team defense. However, as one would figure, that will be incredibly difficult with the current injuries. What will help the team, though, is that they’ve consistently been among the league’s best teams at possessing the puck in 2014-15, and with so many blueliners on the shelf, keeping the puck in the attacking zone is going to be of utmost importance.
As for keeping the puck in the offensive zone, there are only 11 teams in the league that have started more of their faceoffs in the offensive zone than the Jets, and with almost their entire fleet of defensemen out of the lineup, it’s a necessity that the team keep that trend going. What may strike fear into Winnipeg is that three of those teams are from their own Central Division – Chicago, Nashville, and Minnesota.
Winnipeg will also need to keep its incredible commitment to giving up nothing on the penalty kill. Regardless of their two power play goals on Monday, their play with the extra man remains below average. But they’ve been dominating when down a man. Only six teams kill penalties better than the Jets, and only eight boast a better save percentage when shorthanded.
But maybe most important of all, Winnipeg needs to start finding the back of the net. What has plagued the Jets all season long hasn’t been goaltending or defense, as many suspected heading into the season. Rather, it has been their inability to score. At 5-on-5, Winnipeg has the third worst shooting percentage. In tight games, it gets a bit better, but not much.
In Monday’s game against the Sharks, it was evident just how difficult things may get for the Jets as they await the return of many of their blueliners. The Jets allowed 37 shots, mustered only 19 of their own, and were downed on a Marc-Edouard Vlasic goal with five seconds remaining in the game.
With Dustin Byfuglien back on the blueline – a move that was made out of necessity, but one which seriously benefits the Jets chances of winning even if they were to have a healthy lineup – Winnipeg has a dynamic roster, one that can move the puck up ice quickly and crisply and play the transition game so many teams want. If Winnipeg can maintain it, they stand a chance at holding on to that final wild card spot, staving off the hard-charging Dallas Stars, and getting healthy before the injuries get to be too much.