by Scott Swail
When Winnipeg played and lost to Florida a week ago, the pundits were calling it a “must win” for the Jets, with the usual mea culpa that it still wasn’t mathematically impossible for Winnipeg to get to the playoffs. Two days later, they said the Jets had to win against Vancouver. They got pummeled 5-1. They pulled out an exciting and well-played victory two days after that against St. Louis.
Last night’s game against the Philadelphia Flyers was yet another must win for Winnipeg and they didn’t make it happen. From my perspective, this WAS the must win. They needed to beat a team coming off a 14-game losing streak. Unfortunately, the Jets aren’t much better. In fact, Winnipeg has lost 7 of their last 8 games. Winnipeg Jets will not make the playoffs. They have left too many points on the cie and deserve postseason play. Connor Hellebuyck had it completely right last week when he said Winnipeg had to make it happen now, because this is when the good teams make a run and win games. Winnipeg is showing it isn’t up for the competition.
In a nutshell, too many top players aren’t playing well enough. Mark Scheifele gave up a bag of pucks last night, failed to extend plays, and had simple puck dumps get intercepted by the defense. Both he, Wheeler, and Copp were -2. Hellebuyck needs to be better, but he isn’t as bad as many armchairs think he is. After $10M in defensive support added this summer, the defense isn’t good enough to support the goalie. Still, I think Helly would love that first goal back from the circle. In addition, while everyone loves Pionk, he coughed up the puck ad nauseum last night, allowing the Flyers to re-enter the zone and extend their zone presence. Dillon made mistakes. Heinola ended up -1, but that’s in part due to a bad pass by Dubois which allowed the Flyers to go on a 2-on-1, which gave Philly the lead.
In all, it wasn’t a bad game for Winnipeg. But this has become the lament over the season: this is how they play. They play mostly okay, but don’t generate enough offense to weather a storm. I wrote a few weeks ago that the Jets had only 1.4 goals for in their losses against a league average of 1.7 goals. That’s a big difference. In 19 of their 42 games this season (45 percent), Winnipeg has scored two goals or less, including 12 games with 1 goal or less. You can’t win like this and they aren’t winning.
As stated, the Jets played decently last night. They could have won, given how lousy Philly has been lately. But the Flyers played better. Here is what the Flyers did that Winnipeg did not: they extended zone time compared to Winnipeg’s one and dones. In fact, Winnipeg had entries where they never touched the puck, having it cleanly cleared out by the Philadelphia defense. As any fan will say, this is one of the most frustrating things to watch about a team: to watch your team dump it in and, unless you get there first or on time to create a fight on the boards, have the other team quickly move the puck out. Second, Philly was able to move the puck out of their zone relatively easily. Winnipeg’s forecheck has improved immensely, but still, the Flyers were able to remove the danger quickly. On our end of things, the Flyers forecheck caused havoc and countless times when Winnipeg should have been able to move the puck out of the zone they ended up passing it to a Flyer or having a good forecheck keep it in. Pionk seemed to hold on to the puck a little too long last night and it cost them in terms of turnovers.
This was the game. Winnipeg is now 7 points back of Calgary who has a game in hand. A lot of hockey left to play, but Hellebuyck was right: this is the time of year when the good teams take it away. We left two points off the table last night because we just can’t put up a good score.
This is a lot for the team to sleep on for a week since their next game isn’t until Tuesday due to the All-Star Break. But they’ve had that reality twice since late December. We’ve come back from those vacations and won the next game, but our woeful inability to put a streak together is distressing.
The Winnipeg Jets are 2-6-2 in their last 10 and are sub .500 in their last 20. In other words, the second quarter found them to be a failing team. If the Jets remain middling for their next 4-5 games, I expect them to shift from older to younger player in order to get them experience. I also expect Cheveldayoff to shop Mark Scheifele’s wonderful, cap-friendly, long-term contract around, due in part to his recent remarks about “team identity.” But his remarks combined with his uneven play are making him expendable for the right price. If a team wants someone to help in the playoffs, Scheifele would be a good target. The right price is a bonafide player and a draft pick.
I also expect Cheveldayoff to be relieved of his duties. He should already be gone, just like Maurice, even though both should have been removed two years ago or more. Chevy has done a commendable job, but he has made some faux paux, including taking on $10 million in long term contracts for two defenseman this summer when we have three young guys that have to come up full time. Samberg, Stanley, and Heinola need a permanent place next September and now we have a problem with long-term commitments. As I’ve written, Winnipeg is second in the league in defensive spending at about $30 million. Far too much, and the GM, whomever that is, must make the hard decision to trade either Morrissey, Schmidt, Pionk, or Dillon. One of those four guys is gone in July or earlier. Beaulieu has likely played his last game with Winnipeg as he is a UFA and they will play the young guys. They have a cap-friendly deal with DeMelo and he is a great locker-room guy. They may hold on to him.
Chevy needs to make some deals. But his rope is very short right now, and it may be put on the new guy, if the Jets’ management has the balls to make the move. Their one criterion is simple: how do we look in Year 11?