by Watson Scott Swail
By now it has sunk in: the Winnipeg Jets lost their series 3-1 to the Calgary Flames. Before the series started, the Jets, like almost all of the 24 teams in the NHL Playoffs this year, were about as healthy as one can get. Bryan Little wasn’t around, but everyone had four months to recoup their health after 71 regular season games in mid-March.
Five minutes into the revamped bubble hockey playoffs, things fell apart for Winnipeg. First Mark Scheifele went out with a strange injury that would keep him out for the remainder (and no, it wasn’t a dirty hit. It just happened because of aggressive, playoff hockey play). Later in the game, Jet’s sniper Patrik Laine left due to a wrist injury that put him out of contention. Mason Appleton hurt his shoulder. Mattieu Perrault got dinged-up. Tucker Poolman took one to the face. And we heard other players, like Josh Morrissey, were banged up after the pre-season game versus Vancouver.
The Jets couldn’t catch a break. Adding insult to injury, the remaining high-powered crew, in the names of Wheeler and Connor, couldn’t muster much in the way of positive offence, registering two assists total for the $16 million price tag. This was no lack of effort. But Wheeler seemed to consistently miss the net and Connor, on the rare times he did shoot, went for Talbot’s logo.
To be fair, scoring has been an issue all year for the Winnipeg Jets, who ended up 16th in league scoring. Not bad, but not great for a team that possesses players like Scheifele, Laine, Connor, and Wheeler. Take it another level and Copp, Roslovic, Ehlers have scoring prowess as well. The Jets do not lack goal scorers.
What they lack are the systems to allow for high-potential shots, and those were missing most of the year. Throughout the 2019-20 season, heat maps showcased the proximity of shots by the Jets, which seemed to reside on the periphery while their opponent camped in front of Connor Hellebuyck.
The Jets’ power play was 15th in the league; the penalty kill 22nd. The only reason that people had hope for the Jets in the COVID playoffs was that we were on a roll at the end of the season. The team was relatively healthy and had won four straight leading into the final stretch of a Jets-leaning schedule. Winnipeg was still sitting on the edge of the playoff bubble (who knew that would become a different term?), but the schedule seemed to line up nicely for us to make the round of 16.
The truth is that this team was what it was: middling. As per the PP and PK, we were middling in almost every category: 13th in wins; 16th in goals for; 12th in goals against. These aren’t bad, but they aren’t elite, either. They are … middling.
My thesis remains that teams live or die on their systems play. And systems play is a coaching issue. Sure, the players have to execute, and execution becomes much tougher when a coach is jerry-rigging a team together. Still, this has been a consistent issue for several years, all in a year where the Jets extend Paul Maurice’s contract for an unspecified number of years. For a team that is the scoring envy of the NHL, the Jets have an average, at best, power play, and that shouldn’t be happening. Three seasons ago it seemed no one could stop the Jets. Wheeler would play quarterback on the right circle and filter pucks to either Scheifele in the pocket or to Laine for the “Ovechkin,” or one-timer. But teams figured this out and it stopped. The Jets never reverted to anything resembling a strong power play since. I always wondered, with someone like Laine on the left, why the Jets didn’t simply copy the Capitals power play. Yes, the Jets actually had a better power play than the Caps this year, but I mean, the strategy is there for the taking. Laine should get 1/2 of his goals on the power play.
We can post mortem all day long. Are there players missing from this team? What else do we need to go deep in the playoffs? People immediately point to the defense, but the defense is going to be fine. Next year some young players need to graduate. Assuming they sign DeMelo, we’ll have Morrissey, DeMelo, Pionk, to begin with. Kulikov is likely to leave for some other pasture, although he was consistently underrated by the fans and deserves a better fate. He’s one player I would work to resign, but not likely at $4.3 million. Some other team will likely pay that or more for him. Beaulieu will likely be gone to free agency. At $1 million/year, he is due an increase. He looks good in a Jets jersey. Poolman is becoming a better D man, but others are waiting in the wings, including Sami Niku, Carl Dahlstrom, and Ville Heinola. Expect Heinola to be on the big club this fall. It was egregious that we let Chariot walk last year.
The offense is the trick for the Jets. Our top players are locked up for years. Wheeler has another four years on his contract, Connor six years, Scheifele, four years, Ehlers five years. Laine has another one year left and then the Jets will likely sign him to a record contract. Perreault is in his final days as a Jet. He will be left open for the Seattle draft next year but won’t be resigned by the team even if he comes down from his $4.1 contract: we have too many other players who can now fill his place. We have seen how important Lowry and Copp are to this team, so after next year we will have to open up the purse a bit or lose Lowry to free agency. Copp will be an RFA so he isn’t going anywhere. Eakin won’t be here. He’s been solid, but nothing that awe inspiring. Bryan Little remains a question mark, but I expect him back next year. Although he is one of the best center men in the league for faceoffs, he may move to the third line. At $5.3 million, he’s an expensive third-liner, but he would be great there. BTW, he still has another four years left on his contract. I love the guy, but not at his salary. Hey Seattle, wanna talk?
Once the trade window opens (I’m guessing in October?), the Jets have to figure out what to do with Roslovic, Harkins, and Appleton. Shouldn’t be a big deal unless the team wants to make a splash using Roslovic as trade bait. He’s a good, young player. But I remain uncertain how good he will become. A lot of upside to Roslovic, but whether he is close to his potential is to question.
This is the year Vesalainen either comes up or remains an AHL player for life. This year or never. Gustafsson showed some great stuff this year; he is a possibility.
If I had my choice, I’d draft another forward and trade for a top-six player for this team. The Jets could use another strong center for the second line (unless they move Wheeler to the second line as permanent center) or another scoring wing. I actually believe our third and fourth lines are solid, even as much as they improvise as a carousel.
Who knows. Now that the Jets are done, prognostication is easy. Readers will probably think I’m crazy. I am, but so are you. No one knows and no one can agree on what will push this team forward. I’m just saying: defense isn’t the problem on this team. Scoring is.
There is always October. Um, I mean November. Or December. Don’t expect the teams to want to play bubble hockey all next year unless they carve the season up into packets (not the worst idea; make it like Premier League).
Now, back to your endless summer, brought to you by COVID-19 and your public safety officials.