The Winnipeg Jets ended a five-game skid last night with an imperfect win, but in the NHL, any win is good at any time. This one came at a critical time for the Jets. Six losses in a row, and two in a row against a very good Nashville time, would have been demoralizing for this young team.
But even with last night’s win, the Jets clearly are not playing very good hockey. This is due, in part, to a rash of injuries that makes fielding a competitive team difficult. But all NHL teams have to deal with injury as a regular part of the job. How a team executes when hurt tells a lot about the organization as a whole, and indeed much about the farm system. The Jets have brought players up to fill the void, but it is clear that depth is a limited commodity in Winnipeg.
The good thing about Winnipeg is that the fans are a positive force and always have the teams collective back. The bad thing is that they aren’t always realistic about the team’s prognosis. Winnipeg has currently played 24 games, about 30 percent of the season. This is the most games played by any team in the NHL, and to be fair, this has been a grueling schedule for the Jets compared to most other teams. At some point it will catch up with the others.
But even with as much as four games in hand against division rivals, the Jets are in sixth place out of seven teams in the Central. The only team that pads them from the cellar is Colorado, who sit three points back with four games in hand. If the Avs split those games they will be a point in front of Winnipeg.
Let’s put this in more perspective: there are only six teams in the NHL below Winnipeg in terms of points, and all but one team (Calgary) has several games in hand on the Jets. Within a couple of weeks, when other teams catch up in number of games, it is likely that Winnipeg will sit in second last place in the NHL. Given that the Jets have amassed 22 points thus far, they are on track to post 75 points this season. How does 75 points look? It would be their worst season for 2.0, even worse than last year’s 78 points.
Is it possible that Winnipeg improves over the course of this year? Yes. This team showed early on that it has great potential. There last significant win was against Chicago on November 15th. They took it to Chicago and showed that this team can play. Then they fell completely apart on the road. One thing every team will mention about the Winnipeg Jets is that they don’t stop. They work hard. The challenge of moving to the youth movement this year is that it becomes an issue of two steps forward, one step back. The Jets have taken a step backwards in hopes that they push forward. With almost a third of the season gone, the question will be can they play enough catch up to be not only respectable, but catch a playoff berth? Minnesota made the playoffs in the Central Division last year with 87 points. That was, by far, the lowest point team to make the playoffs. The next up was Detroit with 93 points then Nashville with 96, so 87 may not cut it. But using that level as a yardstick, the Jets must amass 65 points in the next 58 games, or, on average, 1.12 points per game, which is above .500 play. The Jets are currently playing at a 0.92 points per game average, or .455 average. Put into real terms, the Jets would need something resembling a 26-20-6 record for the rest of the year.
Is this possible? Again, it is if they get their collective act together. Those numbers are not insurmountable. In my mind, I think they need probably two more wins to gain a spot because 87 points likely won’t do it this year. But it is a mark.
All games are tough in the NHL. With salary caps in place, there is incredible parity at play. The best teams typically are those with the strongest farm system in place. Right now the top four teams in the NHL are original six teams. The Jets are still building their system but most would agree than the Moose/Jet tandem will be exceptionally strong over time.
Important to note that this is Year Six in the 2.0 era. So even though Winnipeg is on a youth trend right now, the Jets were not an expansion team and did not have growing pains associated with such. But the Jets took a gamble by signing the Thrasher players to long-term contracts and not making trades and deals at the time, relying solely on the draft. But the draft isn’t enough to build a great team. Sometimes big trades should be made. The Kane deal with Buffalo qualifies as a big trade, and to date, the Jets were the big winners in that one. Myers and Stafford remain important players on this Winnipeg team and Joel Armia looked awfully good before he was injured. But Kevin Cheveldayoff, the Jets GM, could have and should have done more. This is Year Six, and this team should not be last in their division.
By next September, one members of the current team will be at training camp for the Vegas Golden Knights. Many articles have postulated who it will be, but one way or another, they will be players that the Jets would rather like to keep. That’s how expansion drafts work. So Cheveldayoff will have to plan for that reality, too.
If the Jets do not turn this around, the immediate pressure will be on Winnipeg coach Paul Maurice. The Jets organization is incredibly loyal—arguably to a fault—to its staff. But if this team finishes last in the division and doesn’t show enough signs—soon—of improvement, a change will need to be made. It could be argued that Maurice is too much of a players coach. Who knows. He is likable. He has the respect of his team. He says the right things. But he isn’t winning right now, and in the end, that’s all the matters.
If Maurice does go, then that will be two coaches in six years for Cheveldayoff, and that could announce the end for him, too. Again, this is a patient management system in Winnipeg. But at some point, you have to acknowledge that you shouldn’t be in the cellar in Year Six.
POST NOTES: The Jets have three tough games coming up, all the teams that are playing better than Winnipeg. The Devils travel to Winnipeg tomorrow and are 10-6-5 but only 3-6-3 on the road. On Thursday the Jets host the Edmonton Oilers who are nothing but hot with a 7-4-2 road record. And on Saturday the Jets travel to St. Louis for their first of five meetings this year.
THANKS to readers who offered quick corrections on this piece.