WINNIPEG — The turbulence has certainly been prevalent, but the pilot of the Winnipeg Jets plane appears ready to turn the fasten seat belt sign off - even if it’s not completely safe to walk about the cabin.
No, this is not to suggest there won’t be any more unexpected bumps or inclement weather on the horizon because if the early portion of this 2021 campaign has taught us anything, it’s that dealing with momentum swings is going to be the rule and not the exception.
By closing out a too-close-for-comfort 3-2 victory over the Calgary Flames on Tuesday night, the Jets improved to 6-3-1.
Of course it’s early - and the twists and turns are merely beginning - but that record is good enough to leave the Jets third in both points and points percentage - just two points behind the Toronto Maple Leafs and three points back of the Montreal Canadiens.
While it’s true the Jets have already played the last-place Ottawa Senators three times (and won all three), you can only play the teams on the schedule.
And with the exception of a flat game against the Maple Leafs in the second game of the season and two mostly lethargic periods against the Vancouver Canucks last Saturday, the Jets have shown signs of rounding into form.
There’s plenty of room for improvement and the Jets have spent more time chasing the game than playing with the lead, but some important steps were taken.
“We’ve got pieces of our game that look really good that look differently than they have in the past,” said Jets head coach Paul Maurice. “I’m starting to very much like our offensive game, I don’t think I would have said that to you over the last couple of years. I like where the team is going, I like where the culture of the team is going.”
When you consider Patrik Laine was only available for one game before he was injured and subsequently traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets in the blockbuster for Pierre-Luc Dubois, it’s clear the Jets have done more than simply tread water as they wait for the two-way centre to see his first action in Game 12 next Tuesday in Calgary.
Here are 10 observations from the opening 10 games from this roller-coaster of a condensed season:
Ehlers is electric
Nikolaj Ehlers’ ascent to the upper echelon has something to behold.
Ehlers has done an excellent job producing offence at even strength during the past several seasons and he’s been able to continue that trend.
The dynamic Dane leads his team in even-strength points (with 10) and he’s been playing so well that he’s earning a bump in ice time that was probably overdue.
He’s one of the most explosive skaters in the NHL and his willingness to look for his shot has made both himself and his linemates more dangerous.
Ehlers isn’t afraid to point the finger at himself after a rare rough outing and one of the impressive parts of that discussion is how high he’s raised the standard when it comes to his self-assessments.
In the game he wasn’t happy with on Monday, Ehlers wasn’t at his peak but still generated five shots on goal and drew two penalties.
And after expressing his disappointment on Tuesday morning, all he did was score the game-winning goal on a nifty redirection.
Two of his six goals this season are game-winners.
Hellebuyck showing flashes
Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck has been victimized by a handful of soft goals early in this season, but his ability to slam the door after they’ve occurred has represented another step in his progression.
Hellebuyck surrendered a goal from Flames defenceman Chris Tanev on Monday from the far blue line, a skipping puck that somehow found the back of the net.
The goal proved to be a turning point for the Flames, but it also helped Hellebuyck get locked in, as he made a number of highlight-reel saves - including one with his paddle on Elias Lindholm during the third period that helped the Jets preserve a point.
“Ice level, I didn’t see it moving a whole lot. I saw it was touching the blue line and it looked like it was just skidding across the top of the ice until the last second, where it kind of picked up speed and took a wild bounce,” said Hellebuyck. “It sucks, but I thought I responded well. One of the flukiest goals I’ve let in in my entire career and then I make probably one of the best saves in my entire career. The ice kind of gave out on my left skate so I wasn’t able to push with it, so that was my desperation and I just kept my eye on it. Kind of crazy I got it.”
Once Flames forward Johnny Gaudreau sealed the extra point in the shootout, Hellebuyck showed his emotion by smashing his goal stick on his way down the tunnel.
“Yeah, it was one of the tougher ones, too, because I like to try to stay even keel and don't let emotions get too high or too low. But I think in a moment like this, I had to just let it out and let the process take place,” said Hellebuyck. “Let myself be angry, let myself be upset and just let it all out so I can bring it back down and get back to that even level. I can't hold onto those emotions forever, because they'll just continue to build up and build up.”
Copp’s coming-out party
Andrew Copp hasn’t been afraid to express a desire for an enhanced role, but was always adamant he was going to let his play do the talking.
That’s exactly what he’s done.
While many had pigeon-holed him into maxing out in a checking-line-only role, Copp was determined to show he could bring some additional offence to go with his defensively-conscious game.
It wasn’t for a lack of opportunities in the past and because of his high level of hockey intelligence, he’s able to put himself and his linemates in the right spots to generate quality scoring chances.
After spending another offseason working on refining his finishing skills, a breakthrough has been on display, as Copp already has four goals and 10 points through 10 games.
He’s playing so well that he’s going to be under serious consideration to remain on one of the top-two lines once Dubois comes into the lineup.
Copp has the ability to move up and down the lineup and have an impact on the game is a testament to his versatility and he’s never been more valuable.
In each of the past two games, Copp has led all forwards in ice time - and he was also on the ice when the Jets pulled their goalie and scored the equalizer with the extra attacker on Monday.
Lowry leans in
The first sign of a bounceback was evident during the qualifying round series in August, as Adam Lowry began the process of putting an injury-plagued season behind him with a strong showing against the Flames.
The checking-line centre has followed that up with a hot start (four goals, eight points) that has sparked memories of his 15 goal, 29 point campaign he recorded back in 2016-17.
Lowry’s value has always stretched beyond the points he’s produced, though what he’s doing right now has provided an obvious boost.
“I kind of view my role and my minutes individually and collectively as someone's got to take on that responsibility,” said Lowry. “You can't just have 12 guys that are filling the stat sheet every night. You need guys to go out there and defend, play in your own end, take key draws, kind of things like that.
“The minutes I get and the role I have on this team is something I've embraced and something I enjoy doing. It's always nice to chip in offensively and I'm on a bit of a run here. The makeup of our team, I view what I do is important and if I can continue to just provide some secondary scoring, then that's great.”
Lowry has long been a favourite of Maurice and you can expect Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff to be working behind the scenes on a contract extension before the season is over.
With the Jets trading both Laine and Jack Roslovic to Columbus, there is some additional room available up front to protect Lowry in the Seattle Kraken expansion draft provided a new deal is reached.
Losing Laine to injury and eventually moving on from him in the trade made the Jets overhauled the structure the top unit has been utilizing during most of the past four seasons.
Instead of playing the role of primary distributor on the right-wing half wall, Blake Wheeler is splitting his time between being down low below the goal line and serving as a net-front presence for point shots.
Mark Scheifele has moved from the slot to the left-wing trigger spot and is getting a lot more touches, while Kyle Connor has moved from down low to the right-wing side and is currently the primary one-timer option.
In that new configuration, Connor has scored four of his six goals with the man-advantage and he’s looking comfortable in the spot he enjoyed ample success in during his impressive freshman season with the University of Michigan Wolverines.
The early returns have been mostly positive and the Jets are operating at an efficiency rate of 21.6%, which leaves them right in the middle of the pack.
Can the Jets get back to being a top-5 unit?
That remains to be seen, but the potential appears to be there and adding Dubois to the mix will bring another weapon into the equation.
Another thing the Jets talked about going into the campaign was getting back to having two units that can chip in and to this point, the second unit is keeping up its end off the bargain, scoring three of the eight goals.
What’s up with Wheeler?
The online criticism has been fast and furious when it comes to the Jets captain and no matter how you slice it, Wheeler hasn’t fully looked like himself, at least when it comes to five-on-five play.
Wheeler’s skating has always been one of his biggest strengths throughout his career and to this point, he hasn’t been getting to the same spots that he’s accustomed to.
Slow starts aren’t all that uncommon — and to his credit, Wheeler has found a way to still be productive offensively but only four of his 11 points have come on the power play, two more have come with an extra attacker and another has come with the opponent’s net empty.
This isn’t a lack of effort on Wheeler’s part, but his frustration has been evident countless times as he makes his way to the bench after a shift.
It’s prompted many folks to wonder if Wheeler might be playing through an injury and Maurice was asked if that was the case on Tuesday night.
“Yeah, he’s dealing with you guys. That’s got to be enough,” said Maurice. “No, he’s been great. I’ve moved him around. What’s he got, 11 points? Real good. He’s been really, really good.”
Wheeler spoke via zoom on Wednesday and made an effort to discount any potential concerns about his health, noting he’s doing the best that he can.
“I mean, if I’m in the lineup you should take that as me being 100 per cent,” said Wheeler. “So, I guess I do understand that you guys love to focus on me. But we’ve got a lot of really good things going on. I don’t want to bring up a negative vibe. It’s a really good thing that we’ve got going in our room. If I’m on the ice or if I’m in the game, feel free to treat me like I’m 100 per cent.”
Wheeler has played through pain plenty of times throughout his Jets’ tenure, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if he’s doing so again and is trying not to draw attention to himself.
For those who are concerned about a drop in Wheeler’s level off play through 10 games, he still holds himself to a high standard, even if he doesn’t beat himself up publicly.
“If people feel that my game is not where it needs to be, there is not a bigger critic than I am of myself. I’m very honest with myself about my game,” said Wheeler. “That’s where I stand with it. I’d like to focus on the guys that are playing great right now, because we’ve got a lot of really good performances in our team.”
It’s too early to say definitively that this is the start of a precipitous decline for Wheeler. He’s been productive for far too long. Even after a slower start by his own lofty standards last season (with eight points in 16 games), Wheeler was a point-per-game player
over the final 55 games despite moving off the top line and into the middle on the second for the majority of that time.
Count him out at your own risk.
Forbort fits like a glove
One of the biggest questions coming into a shortened training camp revolved around whether or not free-agent blue-liner Derek Forbort could handle playing top-4 minutes after he signed a bargain-basement, one-year deal.
Not only has Forbort found a way to fit in seamlessly on a pairing with Neal Pionk, but that group has also morphed into the Jets’ shutdown specialists in many of the games.
“That’s kind of the role I like being in, shutting down other team’s top lines and being hard to play against,” said Forbort. “That’s what I (pride) myself on and hopefully, I can just keep doing it.”
Forbort is known best for his physical play and work on the penalty kill, but he’s also managed to put up some offence, with a goal and five points (only Pionk has more among the Jets’ defence corps, with seven) to go along with 16 hits and 16 blocked shots.
For good measure, Forbort has been responsible for keeping two goals out of the Jets net — channelling his inner road hockey goal once and batting a puck out of the air on the other.
“He’s been awesome,” said Jets forward Trevor Lewis, a teammate of Forbort’s with the Los Angeles Kings. “He’s got a good stick, very good positionally, huge on the P.K. He’s been great since he’s been here.”
Brossoit battles back
Although he came into the season knowing that he wasn’t going to get a ton of work behind Hellebuyck, Brossoit knew he’d be counted on to deliver in the backup role.
He’s already made three starts so far, winning two of them and he was 0.7 seconds away from at least getting the Jets to overtime before Leon Draisaitl scored to cap a comeback in the final 3:05 of regulation time.
Tuesday’s game saw Brossoit turn aside 16 shots during a wild third period and he finished with 29 in the contest - bumping his save % up to .918.
“It was such an important game for him, in that the Edmonton game didn’t end fairly in some ways to him because he made some good saves in that game and he’s got to carry it around with him for a couple of days,” said Maurice. “He wasn’t lucky, he was just darn good. The thing I’m most excited about was how he was able to get himself so sharp after a tough loss.”
Brossoit has looked positionally-sound in the net and how he’s played so far will make it easier for Maurice to increase his workload and to help keep Hellebuyck fresh.
Defence still a work in progress
Most observers believed the biggest question mark for the Jets going into this season revolved around how the defence corps would hold up.
The early returns are that this unheralded bunch remains a work in progress.
Whether it was Tucker Poolman missing nine games (and counting) after landing on the Covid Protocol Related Absence list or Dylan DeMelo missing the first four games after becoming a father for the first time, the Jets are still searching for the best way to put their pairings together.
The Jets have already dressed nine different defencemen this season, with rookie Dylan Samberg waiting patiently for his opportunity and Ville Heinola only suiting up in one game so far after missing all of training camp at the World Junior Hockey Championship and the subsequent quarantine.
Defending isn’t just about the play of the blue-liners and Maurice made it clear during training camp that this would be a taxing process that would take ample time to achieve the pursuit of incremental improvement.
The Jets' goal was to reduce the number of high-danger scoring chances allowed this season and make life easier on the netminders.
In this area, the Jets still require further improvement, as they’ve given up the fourth most high-danger chanes (99) according to Naturalstattrick.com.
PK putting slow start in rearview mirror
The tough start was impossible to ignore as the Jets were 29th on the penalty kill not long ago, but by going 17-for-19, Winnipeg has improved to 18th in the NHL (78.6 per cent).
Tuesday’s game represented the first time this season the Flames failed to convert at least one opportunity with the man-advantage and the Jets also managed to score the first shorthanded goal when Mason Appleton set up Lewis.
Given how tight the standings are expected to be in the North Division this season, it’s imperative the Jets don’t reside near the bottom third of this category or they’ll run the risk of leaving valuable points on the table.