Jets mid-season report: Search for November form lurks over team

Winnipeg reporter Sean Reynolds joins Hockey Central to discuss why he believes the Jets are a legit playoff team, that could contend for a Stanley Cup if they clean a couple of small things up.

If not for a scorching November where they posted 10 wins, the Winnipeg Jets would be in serious peril when it comes to chasing down a Western Conference playoff spot.

As it stands, with 43 games in the books, Winnipeg has to feel reasonably good about how the season has gone considering four defencemen — Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers, Ben Chiarot and Dustin Byfuglien — who played major roles with last year’s squad are no longer contributing members of the team.

Three games into 2020, the Jets remain in the thick of the wild-card chase. But if they can’t recapture their November form soon, sneaking into the post-season dance is going to be a big-time challenge.

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Team Record: 23-16-4 (8th in Western Conference)

Goals For: 3.05 per game (17th in NHL)

Goals Against: 3.02 (14th in NHL)

Power Play: 20.3% (12th in NHL)

Penalty Kill: 72.2% (31st in NHL)

Best Surprise: It’s hard to believe many Jets fans were familiar with Neal Pionk’s game when the right-shot defenceman was acquired from the New York Rangers as part of the June trade that sent Trouba east. Playing in his second full NHL season, Pionk has already eclipsed the 26 points he put up last year and is on pace to post between 45 and 50. (He’s outscoring Trouba 27 points to 21, by the way.) Pionk has seen very little time with the team’s other top D-man, Josh Morrissey, meaning he’s been the anchor on his pair for the vast majority of the season.

The 24-year-old is averaging 23:12 of ice time per game, more than anybody else on the squad. He’s the lone defenceman on the first power-play unit and his cerebral game should keep him a fixture on the Jets blue line for years to come.

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Biggest Disappointment: While the drop in backup goalie Laurent Brossoit’s save percentage from the .925 he registered last year to the .889 he’s currently sporting certainly hasn’t helped, the biggest disappointment has to be that the Hockey Gods couldn’t cut Winnipeg’s defence corps a break. Pionk is the only blueliner to dress in every Jets game this year as the injury bug has taken a significant bite, forcing the squad to pluck the likes of Carl Dahlstrom and Luca Sbisa off waivers.

Forwards: The Jets are one of three teams, along with Boston and Edmonton, to feature two 20-goal forwards at the midway point. That pair would be linemates Mark Scheifele (20 goals) and Kyle Connor (21). The third member of the top line, Patrik Laine, is also having a fantastic year as his game diversifies. With 25 assists so far, Laine is just three shy of his previous career high for helpers and there’s a very good chance he’ll top 30 goals once again.

The big development up front has been Blake Wheeler switching from Scheifele’s wing to the middle of the second line. Wheeler has 26 points in his past 20 outings, as the Jets captain proves his worth in a new role. What Winnipeg could really use is some production outside the big five of Wheeler, Scheifele, Connor, Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers. If bottom-sixers like Andrew Copp and Adam Lowry can pick up the offensive pace in the second half, it would go a long way toward relieving the pressure on the top gunners.

Grade: B-plus

Defence: They’re doing what they can. In Monday’s 3-2 win over the Montreal Canadiens, Sami Niku became the 10th rearguard to play at least two games for the Jets this year. Dmitry Kulikov, who had a tough couple years in Winnipeg after signing as a free agent in 2017, was seeing nearly 20 minutes per night through the first two months before being sidelined with an upper-body injury the team hopes he’ll return from very soon. The most recent D-man to go out of the lineup is Nathan Beaulieu, who’s expected to be sidelined for at least a month with a lower-body ailment.

With all the summer departures, it was understood that Morrissey would have to take the next step in his development and the 24-year-old is producing points at the best clip of his young career. Morrissey’s partner, Tucker Poolman, might be the second-best story on the back end after Pionk. With just 24 NHL games on his career resume — all of them coming two years ago in 2017-18 — Poolman has established himself as a big-leaguer at age 26. His big frame is a welcome sight on a defence crew that needs all the muscle it can find.

Grade: C-minus

Goaltending: Connor Hellebuyck has been nothing shy of the team’s saviour through half a season. The overmatched defence surrenders plenty of Grade A chances and Hellebuyck’s high-danger save percentage of .855 is third-best among goalies who’ve seen at least 1,200 minutes’ worth of crease time.

The fear in Manitoba has to be that Hellebuyck will tire playing for a club which allows the third-most shots against per game (33.2) in the NHL. His numbers have slipped since Dec. 1, with his overall save percentage falling from .933 through the first 21 games to .900 in 15 contests since. If ever there was a time for Brossoit to re-discover the form that made him one of the best backups in the league last year, this is it.

Grade: A

Coaching: At least a portion of the blame for a last-place penalty-kill has to fall on the authors of the X’s and O’s. That said, Paul Maurice and his staff have done a wonderful job guiding this team through some stormy waters. Maurice, now in his sixth full season behind the Jets bench, has become an incredibly stabilizing force in the organization.

Grade: B-plus

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