WINNIPEG – However great or small the divide in the Winnipeg Jets’ locker room – and every team has at least a few hairline fractures – the turmoil of the last two months has the power to fix it. Or turn it into the Grand Canyon.
Centre Bryan Little’s severe vertigo and perforated ear drum, punctured by teammate Nikolaj Ehlers’ slapshot in Tuesday’s 2-1 shootout loss to the New Jersey Devils, is the most horrifying incident to challenge the focus of Winnipeg players.
But it’s not the most impactful because the biggest wallop of the NHL season so far was the stunning exit of top defenceman Dustin Byfuglien before training camp, a literal and figurative leviathan who finished last season healthy (according to the team) and reported to this one injured (according to the player) and whose professional future will now be determined by the most expensive lawyers the league and its players association can muster.
Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported this week that Byfuglien also had issues last season with the dressing-room divide, which led captain Blake Wheeler to alter his leadership style.
At about the same time Byfuglien was leaving for the Minnesota woods, then-unsigned and unhappy sniper Patrik Laine complained in Europe about his long-standing deployment on the Jets’ second line, telling a Finnish reporter: “With the merits I have, somewhere else I’d have an opportunity to play with the best players. There are top lines and then there is our line.”
Across the Atlantic, Wheeler responded to reporters: “He’s a young kid that’s certainly had a lot of success in three years (but) he’s definitely not doing it by himself, I can guarantee you that.”
Eventually, Laine signed for two years at $6.75 million, briefly was granted his wish of skating on the first line, and now plays in front of a defence featuring guys named Pionk (Neal), Poolman (Tucker) and Bitetto (Anthony), supplemented by waiver pickups Carl Dahlstrom and Luca Sbisa.
In his second day with the Jets, Sbisa accidentally injured Laine, who immediately left practice and missed two games, although Winnipeg coach Paul Maurice insisted Laine’s medical condition was pre-existing. Top defenceman Josh Morrissey also missed games after colliding during the pre-game warmup with teammate Bitetto.
Amid this drama, the Jets have started 8-7-1. Their 114-point season feels a lot longer ago than two years.
“You have no idea,” Wheeler said Thursday when asked about the challenge of staying positive. “It’s a new challenge, seemingly, every day. Very unique situations in every way, shape and form.
“I was having dinner with Sbisa last night and it was kind of what we were talking about — everything we’ve been through, even pretty much within every single game. You stay in it long enough and you just fight long enough.”
The St. Louis Blues, who went from last in the NHL on Jan. 3 to Stanley Cup champions on June 12, have become a Jets’ rallying cry.
“At the end of the year, the battle-tested teams are the teams that end up winning,” Wheeler said. “That’s kind of where I ultimately get to every day: we’re in the fight. This team hasn’t given up at all for one single day.”
Little was due to be released from hospital on Thursday, but his absence from the Jets is indefinite.
Maurice said Little’s ear required “25 to 30” stitches.
“The traumatic part’s over and then you see where you’re at and you go from there,” the coach said after the Jets practised. “He’s in good spirits. One side of his head’s bigger than the other. But he’s good.”
For the Jets this season, the traumatic part never seems to be over.
“It’s been a great challenge,” Maurice said. “The theme running through this so far — and it’s what I tell myself every day — when a Bryan Little goes down, because this version of an event that you didn’t predict would happen happens, if you handle it right, it turns out to be better for your team. So, we’re kind of grinding through some games.
“Every bad thing that happens truly is an opportunity for you to get a benefit. You just may not see the benefit this week or you may not feel it tonight behind the bench. But there’s a potential benefit here, if you handle it right, and that’s how we’re moving every day.”
Maurice has always been loathe to split first-liners Mark Scheifele and Wheeler, who wield influence and like to play with each other.
But when the Vancouver Canucks visit Winnipeg on Friday, Wheeler will be centring Ehlers and Jack Roslovic on the second line, while Scheifele is flanked by Laine and Kyle Connor on the top unit.
Maurice agreed that adversity has the power to pull his team together.
“I think we’ve had a great room from the start,” he said. “The work level was outstanding in training camp and then we’ve done some things (for) team building to get together. I’m going to say yes.
“You’ll never know until you’re hanging around every day and even the coach (doesn’t know for sure). I don’t have a stall in the room but you can tell on the bench, and that’s part of why we’ve been able to come back in games and battle back. They’re playing for each other and they’re staying in the fight.”