Few — if any — clubs could claim to have endured more off- and early-season turbulence than the Winnipeg Jets.
Beyond losing a huge chunk of the defence via trades and free agency, Winnipeg also had tough negotiations with restricted free agents Kyle Connor and Patrik Laine go down to the wire. Then they found out defenceman Dustin Byfuglien was stepping away from hockey and, as the weeks passed, that story has morphed into a contentious subplot nobody on either side of the dispute is anxious to talk about.
Despite the slings and arrows, Winnipeg has posted a respectable 11-8-1 record through 20 contest and the squad is 5-1-1 since the calendar flipped to November. The Jets are getting incredible play at the most important position and good offensive production from a trio of young, core forwards.
So while things are far from perfect in Manitoba, coach Paul Maurice and his charges have done a good job of keeping a lid on a potentially awful situation.
MOST IMPORTANT DEVELOPMENT
Two years ago, Connor Hellebuyck was runner-up for the Vezina Trophy. His form — while still decent — slipped a little last season, so there was a touch of concern around the big Yankee stopper. Thus far, he’s kicked away those questions like so many opposing shots. Given the state of the team — specifically, the rebuilt-on-the-fly blue line — this might be the most important regular-season work of Hellebuyck’s career.
Another key development for Winnipeg is one it really has nothing to do with: Nobody other than St. Louis is off to the start it hoped for in the Central Division, aka the NHL’s Group of Death.
MOST WORRISOME DEVELOPMENT
Hellebuyck’s play has been so vital because not only are the Jets allowing a large quantity of shots, they’re also giving opponents quality looks. Shoving bodies out of prime real estate was something Byfuglien, Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot all excelled at, and not one of those guys returned to the team this fall. Winnipeg was never going to escape all that turnover unscathed. As such, only five teams allow more pucks on goal per game than the Jets and the club is the NHL’s worst team when it comes to surrendering high-danger opportunities.
TOP-SIX FORWARDS GRADE: B-minus
Mark Scheifele is leading the way with his point-per-game pace, while Nikolaj Ehlers is tracking the first 30-goal season of his young career. After a summer of contract uncertainty, Laine — by numerous accounts — looks more engaged all around the ice. Though the goals haven’t come the way one would expect, the big Finn is picking up assists at better than twice the rate of any other point in his career.
The second-line centre spot has been a years-long issue for Winnipeg and the club recently took the significant step of moving captain Blake Wheeler off his usual spot to the right of Scheifele and made him 2C. Wheeler excelled up the middle a couple seasons ago when Scheifele was on the shelf for an extended stretch with a shoulder injury.
The hope for Winnipeg is that Wheeler can drive a line with Ehlers on it, while Scheifele, Laine and Connor form a potent top unit.
BOTTOM-SIX FORWARDS: C-minus
The Jets need this group to chip in more. The likes of Adam Lowry (two goals), Mathieu Perreault (six points) and Andrew Copp aren’t counted on to drive the offence, but they have to help relieve the burden here and there.
Jack Roslovic bounces between the second and third lines, and regardless of where the 23-year-old plays, the team needs him to take a step. It’s worth noting Bryan Little — best suited to a third-line role — has five points in the seven games he’s played during this injury marred campaign. The 32-year-old is dealing with vertigo and there’s no clear timeline for his return.
The bottom line is Winnipeg ranks 25th in the league in terms of goals per game. Maybe that is due to rise a bit given the team’s eight per cent shooting percentage, but everybody needs to pull on the rope.
Give these guys credit for doing all they can.
Neal Pionk was coming off his first full season with the Rangers when he found himself going the other way in the deal that sent Trouba to Manhattan. A quarter of the way through the season, he’s the only defenceman to appear in all 20 games Winnipeg has played. Pionk has been one of the best stories on the team so far, skating over 23 minutes a night. In fact, the only guy who sees more ice time is Josh Morrissey, suddenly the clear No. 1 of this group. Fresh off signing a big extension in September, the 24-year-old is showing he can thrive in that position, playing his usual cerebral game and scoring at a career-best, 55-point clip.
Tucker Poolman is making his bid to be a full-time NHLer, Dmitry Kulikov is providing 20 minutes a night and Nathan Beaulieu — injured in the Jets’ final pre-season game — returned a few weeks ago and has formed a passable third pair with Luca Sbisa, who was claimed off waivers a couple weeks into the season.
Whether or not we ever see Byfuglien this year, this group will be doing its best to punch above its weight.
The only goalie with a better even-strength save percentage than Hellebuyck’s .936 is New York Islanders stopper Thomas Greiss (.949). Unfortunately, backup Laurent Brossoit has not been able to maintain the high level of play he turned in last year as his save percentage has dropped from .925 to a troubling .871.
MOST IMPROVED PLAYER: Connor Hellebuyck
BEST DEFENSIVE PLAYER: Andrew Copp
MOST PHYSICAL PLAYER: Adam Lowry