WINNIPEG - The question was rather innocuous, though the answer from Blake Wheeler was quite revealing.
After the Winnipeg Jets lost for the eighth time in the past nine games — this one a 4-2 defeat that included the first career NHL hat trick for Ottawa Senators rookie Tim Stutzle — the captain of the reeling club was asked what it was going to take for his team to get the struggling offence back on track.
“That’s a dangerous conversation, because when you start talking about offence or the things that we’ve built in our game, there are some simple things, the typical hockey clichés — we need to get more guys in front of their goalie and create some dirty pucks around the crease and bang in a couple dirty goals. That would be a good place to start,” said Wheeler. “I think as well, when you’re going through a tough stretch and you’re scoring one or two goals a game, you’ve got a hockey team full of guys squeezing the stick pretty tight as well. We’ve got three games to hopefully build some confidence going into the playoffs.”
Wheeler’s answer was crystal clear.
The Jets are more concerned about buckling down defensively, while creating more offence is on the back burner, at least for the time being.
It can be dangerous drawing concrete conclusions about a team with the Stanley Cup Playoffs just around the corner. But as it stands right now, the Jets look like a team in the midst of an identity crisis.
They won’t be confused with a defensive juggernaut and don’t have enough runway left in the regular season to suddenly morph into one. That’s simply not the way this roster has been constructed.
They need to be committed to that process as a five-man unit and connected when it comes to execution. Even on the days those two things are clicking, the Jets still lean heavily on above-average to world class goaltending.
The Jets' strength is in their offensive weaponry, as right-winger Mason Appleton became the eighth forward on the roster to hit double digits in goals on Saturday night, snapping a 17-game drought.
Right now, though, goals have been tough to come by — especially since dynamic winger Nikolaj Ehlers left the lineup with a suspected shoulder injury six games ago.
Kyle Connor, who leads the Jets with 22 goals, hasn’t scored in seven games and he’s only recorded eight shots on goal during that block of time.
Even with Wednesday’s four-goal outburst against the Calgary Flames, the Jets have been limited to 16 goals during the past nine games and that average of 1.78 goals per game is well below the 3.02 goals per game they’ve averaged through 53 games (which is good for 12th in the NHL).
When a team that’s supposed to be a high-octane bunch is struggling to find the back of the net, the pressure mounts.
Instead of leaning on those offensive instincts, second-guessing can creep in and, rather than looking to shoot when an opportunity presents itself, the search for the perfect play can yield unflattering results.
Since goals are tougher to come by when the stakes get higher, the true test for a team revolves around whether they can find a way to generate enough offence to win without it coming at the expense of cheating on the defensive side.
Right now, that balancing act has proven to be challenging for the Jets.
Yes, the Jets have found a way to remain committed to not allowing a high number of scoring chances off the rush since a lopsided 6-1 loss to the Edmonton Oilers on April 26.
Yet the puck management and defensive-zone coverage issues that have plagued them during this skid remain and until those self-inflicted wounds become less frequent, the margin for error is going to remain razor thin.
The message being delivered is that the Jets can’t expect to get into a track meet in the playoffs and try to win a bunch of games 5-4 or 6-5 — even if a Smythe Division reunion could be looming.
The Jets need to fully embrace the mindset of playing the type of games that can result in 2-1 or 3-2 victories.
That’s the only way they have any chance to gain any momentum at this stage of the proceedings.
“Well, we’ve got to get that defensive game right. We have absolutely no chance of beating the two teams that we will face (without that),” said head coach Paul Maurice. “We’re working hard on not giving things up off the rush. We’ve made a real good improvement in that. I’m not expecting our offensive game to light up and explode. It’s a function of what we’ve got here.
“We’ve got world-class goaltending and guys who can skate up front and get pucks to the net. We’ve got to make sure we eliminate what we hand to the other team.”
The playoffs are indeed a new season but this recent rough patch has come at an inopportune time for the Jets.
Instead of getting on a serious roll, the Jets are limping toward the finish line.
Sure, they’ve done a good job of putting on a brave face publicly, but must now cram for a post-season exam against either the Oilers or Toronto Maple Leafs in the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
“It’s trying to get all aspects of our game as polished as possible in preparation for the playoffs. Either of the teams that it looks like we’ll be playing here have really elite offensive abilities and some really amazing, talented offensive players,” said Jets defenceman Josh Morrissey. “Getting our defensive structure in order (is a top priority). Just trying to get everything in order and firing on all cylinders.”
Neither matchup looks like a favourable one for the Jets right now, with the Oilers winning six consecutive head-to-head matchups and taking the season series 7-2.
Although the Jets did manage to go 3-4-2 against the Maple Leafs with one more game to come in the regular season finale on May 14, Toronto recently swept Winnipeg in convincing fashion to create some serious separation in the standings.
So where does that leave the Jets?
The only way out of this hole is to dig in and do the hard work that is required. It won’t be easy and there’s no guarantee that’s going to be enough to get the job done.
The Jets have something to prove when the post-season arrives and they’re tired of the growing narrative that this group doesn’t have what it takes to avoid another early exit.
The only way to eliminate those growing concerns is to deliver results. Otherwise, bigger-picture questions about the direction the organization should be taking moving forward are quickly going to dominate the discussion.
“We've got to find a way to end the season on a good note and roll into the playoffs,” said Appleton. “We're a pretty unwavering group. We played hockey for, what, two or so months without losing back-to-back games. And then we lose seven in a row. That puts you down a little bit but, like I said, we're a confident bunch.
“We're in a playoff spot. We don't love our game right now. We loved how we played in Calgary — obviously we didn't give them anything and we scored goals... I would say we're in a fine spot, obviously, but there's better hockey to be played in front of us.”