3 key issues the Jets must address to remain in the playoff hunt

Tampa Bay Lightning's Ondrej Palat sets up a streaking Anthony Cirelli, who makes a nice move to fake out Connor Hellebuyck and score on the backhand for his second of the game against the Winnipeg Jets.

If the Winnipeg Jets aren’t yet in crisis mode, they’re certainly close.

Fresh off a pair of losses that saw Winnipeg outscored 12-3, Blake Wheeler and Co. opted for a players-only meeting to address the issues that have plagued the club of late. But the problems go back further than the shellackings from Chicago and Tampa Bay, or the recent stretch of five losses in six games.

After starting the 2019-20 campaign as one of the top teams in the West through the first two months of the season, the Jets have ranked as one of the league’s worst since the start of December. As things currently stand, they sit three points out of a wild-card spot and four points out of the Central’s top three with one game remaining before the all-star break.

That being the case, let’s take a look at the checklist the Jets brass must address post-all-star break if they hope to stem the slide and keep their squad a part of the playoff picture:

Finally address the very expected blue-line issues

There was no mystery surrounding where the club’s issues would likely lie this season. The hefty losses on the blue line over the summer have been well-documented, the most notable of which being Jet-turned-Ranger Jacob Trouba, and veteran Dustin Byfuglien, who has yet to return to the club as the season enters the home stretch.

Injuries have exacerbated the issue further, stretching thinner an already lacklustre blue line, as Nathan Bealieu, Tucker Poolman and Carl Dahlstrom all find themselves on the injured reserve — leaving a fairly inexperienced group of Dmitry Kulikov, Josh Morrissey, Neal Pionk, Sami Niku, and Anthony Bitetto.

The result? Winnipeg currently ranks fourth-worst in the league in its ability to limit shots, allowing 33 per game. In terms of the most dangerous attempts on their own net, they’ve been even worse, ranking last in the league in terms of high-danger scoring chances against per 60 minutes.

This shouldn’t be news to the Jets front office, as GM Kevin Cheveldayoff had to assume these issues would arise given the off-season subtractions. With the rest of the roster seemingly set up to contend — a forward corps featuring strong top-end talent and a net stocked with an elite goaltender — finally addressing the blue-line issues via the trade market seems a necessity heading into the final months of the season.

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Dip into free-agent rental market to shore up centre depth

The Jets’ centre depth has been similarly ravaged by injuries. Top-line pivot Mark Scheifele has thankfully remained healthy and on track for a career year, but below him on the depth chart, Bryan Little, Mark Letestu, and more recently Adam Lowry have all fallen to the injured reserve.

Wheeler’s filled in admirably as the second-line centre, moving from his usual spot on Scheifele’s wing. The veteran has managed 42 points on the season while Scheifele, separated from his long-time linemate, has done just fine with a team-leading 54 of his own.

But with Andrew Copp and Nick Shore manning the middle of the ice on the third and fourth lines at the moment, the Jets aren’t set up to contend with the depth of the league’s elite, as production from the bottom six has been minimal.

And it won’t get better any time soon — Little’s been out for most of the season with a perforated eardrum, last playing in early November. He’s set to get back on the ice soon in a non-contact capacity, but doesn’t seem close. Letestu was shut down for six months in October while dealing with myocarditis, and Lowry — just injured on Sunday — is out for at least a month, per Paul Maurice.

Luckily, the club has room to work. Per CapFriendly, the Jets currently sit with $10 million in cap space at their disposal, certainly enough to add a minor rental to beef up that centre depth and allow Maurice to move some pieces around.

Looking to Rory Boylen’s recent roundup of trade candidates likely to hear their names churn through the rumour mill before the late-February trade deadline, the options are plenty.

A young, emerging star like Jean-Gabriel Pageau, or an affordable, versatile veteran like Nick Bonino might cost a bit too much for what Winnipeg’s seeking, but what about a wild card like Kyle Turris? The former standout has found himself on Predators GM David Poile’s trade block for a fair while, and the Jets are one of the few teams who could use his services while also being able and willing to absorb his cap hit. Or there’s young Flames pivot Mark Jankowski, who’s had a tough go in what’s been a tumultuous Flames season. Even Alex Galchenyuk — whom the Penguins seem more than willing to move, and who’s logged time at centre in the past, could be a decent temporary option for the Jets.

The question is whether the team’s brass feel 2019-20 is salvageable, or whether the rash of misfortune is enough to convince the club to let things play out as they may before regrouping in the off-season.

Ease Connor Hellebuyck’s workload in the cage

With a subpar blue line in front of him, Hellebuyck’s been perhaps the Jets’ most important player this season, logging more appearances in the cage than any other netminder in the NHL while putting up a .917 save percentage, 2.74 goals-against average and a league-leading four shutouts.

Is that the road the Jets want to go down, though?

Much has been made recently of the shift taking place among championship netminders and their workloads, with the past three Cup-winning goalies hovering around the 50-game mark in the regular season. That seems to be the new blueprint, according to the Blues, Capitals and Penguins — a dominant starter who can carry the load but is held back to be kept fresh for the post-season, and a solid No. 2 option who can hold their own for a fair chunk of regular-season games.

The problem is Hellebuyck’s already at 42 appearances so far this season, having played nearly all of the Jets’ 50 games. So unless the team plans to sit him for 24 of the remaining 32 tilts, he’s on track to finish far, far above that 50-game mark once again, potentially leaving him too burnt out to compete at his highest level by the time the playoffs roll around, even if the Jets do manage to make it.

Laurent Brossoit is the resident backup, and the results so far haven’t been too inspiring — through 14 games, the 26-year-old has posted a .885 save percentage and a 3.67 goals-against average. He is, however, coming off of a strong 2018-19 in which he finished with a .925 save percentage through 21 appearances.

So the issue falls on the Jets’ decision-makers — either give Brossoit a longer leash and a bigger role to allow Hellebuyck some rest, or, if the feeling is he isn’t capable of holding down the fort for roughly 30 games a year, bring in a stronger option for the backup role.

Hellebuyck’s logged more than 60 games in each of the past two seasons — peaking at 67 appearances in 2017-18 — so convincing the former Vezina Trophy finalist to pull it back a bit won’t be the easiest of tasks. But this is a different Jets team, requiring a different approach.

Drastic changes to the blue line in front of him have meant more defensive breakdowns, and more pressure on Hellebuyck to keep things afloat. Doing that game in and game out for most of the next 32 games to get the Jets to the dance will only mean the 26-year-old netminder could be too tired to do his best work once the most important slate of the schedule comes.

If they’re to get there with any type of meaning and realistic shot at moving on, some balance must be brought to the Jets’ net.

The Jets have one more chance to stop the slide before the all-star break when they take on the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday. Catch the game on Sportsnet and Sportsnet NOW at 7:30 p.m. ET / 6:30 p.m. CST.

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