Answers to early-season questions are shaping Jets’ current trajectory

Winnipeg Jets centre Pierre-Luc Dubois reacts after scoring a goal. (Kyusung Gong/AP)

WINNIPEG – With the NHL All-Star break in the rearview mirror, the Winnipeg Jets quest to try and propel themselves back into the playoff race is about to take centre stage around these parts.

On the surface, things are looking pretty bleak for the Jets, who currently own a record of 18-17-7 going into Tuesday’s matchup with the Minnesota Wild, who just so happen to be riding a six-game winning streak that has them squarely in a race with the Nashville Predators for second spot in the Central Division standings.

Meanwhile, with 43 points the Jets are sixth in the Central and 13th in the Western Conference standings and they’ll need to leapfrog five teams to sneak into the second wild card spot – which is occupied by the Calgary Flames (52 points).

It’s clear the Jets need to find the requisite level of urgency quickly and with five consecutive games coming against Central Division opponents, it shouldn’t take long for the intensity to be ratcheted up.

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Whether or not the results will follow remains to be seen.

How the Jets respond to this stretch of games is going to have far-reaching implications, specifically as it relates to the March 21 NHL trade deadline.

With a late afternoon practice on the horizon, there could be some injury updates forthcoming but for the time being, let’s use some time to review some of the pressing questions the Jets had coming into training camp.

Predictions are always enjoyable, but it’s also important to review the receipts on occasion as well.

1. IS DUBOIS READY FOR A BOUNCE-BACK SEASON?

This is a resounding yes.

Given how impactful Pierre-Luc Dubois has been for the Jets, the centre has clearly answered any questions about whether or not last season was an outlier.

Clearly the circumstances that led to his departure from the Columbus Blue Jackets and the injuries he endured after coming out of a 14-day quarantine after the blockbuster trade were major factors.

But Dubois was determined to leave that chapter of his life behind him and spending the additional time on the ice in Montreal last summer allowed him to return to form as a powerful, two-way player.

Dubois plays with an edge and his offensive production has been impressive to witness.

With 18 goals (including a team-high nine on the power play) and 33 points in 42 games, Dubois sits second on the Jets in both categories behind frequent linemate Kyle Connor.

Dubois has been the most consistent centre on the roster and at 23 years old, he’s showing signs that his best hockey is in front of him.

On numerous occasions this season, Dubois has elevated his level of play when tasked with going head-to-head with some of the best players in the game.

He’s going to need to continue that trend during the second half of the season, but the next question surrounding Dubois has transformed to how much it’s going to cost to keep him.

You can be sure the Jets would like Dubois to be the latest core piece to commit long term, but in order for that to happen, the pending restricted free agent is going to be due a raise from his $5 million AAV and $6.65 million salary he’s being paid.

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2. HOW WILL THE DEFENCE PIECES FIT?

The top priority for Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff during the off-season was to upgrade the defence corps and he did that by acquiring Brenden Dillon from the Washington Capitals and Nate Schmidt from the Vancouver Canucks.

Since both players had term on their respective contracts (three years for Dillon, four for Schmidt), these moves were viewed as more than just stop-gap solutions.

While there’s no doubt the personnel on the back end was upgraded, the anticipated results have not followed, though this issue has more to do with the way the Jets have been defending as a five-man unit (coupled with the early-season struggles on the penalty kill that still ranks 28th in the NHL despite a marked improvement since December).

Injuries and bouts with Covid-19 have contributed to the Jets already using 11 different blue-liners this season.

In some ways, that’s allowed the Jets an opportunity to get a look at some of the up-and-comers in the system and those players have performed well in their respective auditions.

In other ways, it’s complicated matters, since the six blue-liners that have been used the most are all under contract for multiple seasons.

The only restricted free agent in the group is Nathan Beaulieu and he’s played in fewer than half the games (19).

Dylan DeMelo, Dylan Samberg, Logan Stanley and Beaulieu were all unavailable to play last week in Philadelphia, leaving Ville Heinola, Johnny Kovacevic and Declan Chisholm to suit up for the Jets against the Flyers.

DeMelo is expected to return to action on Tuesday, but the status of the other three injured D-men is still unclear, though all of Heinola, Kovacevic and Chisholm played for the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League on Sunday afternoon against the Texas Stars.

With some of those prospects pushing for full-time work, the Jets could consider making a move involving a D-man, since they are sure to be in high demand during the next six weeks or so.

Although how the pieces of the defence corps fit going into the season was basically as expected coming out of training camp, with Stanley winning the No. 6 job, how the group fits after the trade deadline passes is still very much up in the air.

Even with some of the uncertainty regarding the future composition, the biggest story involving the defence corps to this point of the season has been the ability of Josh Morrissey to return to form and anchor the top pairing.

3. CAN ERIC COMRIE HANDLE THE BACKUP JOB?

Even with a workhorse like Connor Hellebuyck handling the No. 1 job, the nature of the schedule meant the Jets were going to need the backup goalie to perform when called upon and secure some victories, not just keep the team in games and give them a chance.

While remembering the sample size has still been relatively small, Eric Comrie has held up his end of the bargain.

For a guy who entered the season with only nine NHL appearances, Comrie has mostly looked confident between the pipes and his raw numbers – 4-2-1 record with a 2.34 goals-against average and .920 save percentage – back that up.

Were there a few goals he’d like to have back? Of course, but you can say that about virtually every goalie in the NHL.

During his seven starts and eight appearances, Comrie has been quieter in his crease than he’s been in the past and he’s turned aside 208 of the 226 shots on goal that he’s faced.

With seven sets of back-to-backs remaining, Comrie is going to need to regularly play the way that he did against the St. Louis Blues on Jan. 29, when he stood tall and made 28 saves after a lengthy absence and led his team to victory (snapping a six-game losing skid in the process).

This isn’t just a short-term question that needs to be answered, as the Jets are going to have another decision to make next fall.

Comrie is a restricted free agent, but top goalie prospect Mikhail Berdin will no longer be exempt from waivers and is on a one-way deal next season.

So the internal competition will already be on. That comes with the territory and Comrie has a full grasp of what is riding on this season.

Establishing himself as a bona fide backup was the goal going into the campaign and remains top of mind.

What will be interesting to monitor will be how many starts Comrie is called upon to make.

Hellebuyck is a goalie who thrives on rhythm and routine, but the taxing nature of the schedule (40 games over the final 81 days) ensures Comrie won’t be going more than seven weeks between starts again.

With 35 starts already, Hellebuyck is on pace to eclipse his career high for starts (64) and appearances (67) – both set during the 2017-18 season – but one would expect Comrie to reach (or surpass) 15 starts, which would represent an important step forward for him as well.

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