WINNIPEG - When it comes to the predicament the Winnipeg Jets find themselves in, there is no way around it – their actions are not matching up with their words.
Over the past week, the Jets have been saying all the right things, fully realizing that the status quo isn’t going to be good enough.
Connor Hellebuyck admitted he was feeling a bit of pressure, pointing out that it’s tough to make up ground and chase down teams with the midway point of the season approaching.
Brenden Dillon talked about not being satisfied with keeping things close, that wins were ultimately what was required.
Kyle Connor said showing a sense of desperation would be beneficial.
Paul Stastny provided his usual dose of truth serum, suggesting the Jets were not committed enough to the finer details of the defensive structure – leaving the defencemen and the goalie on an island at times – and that’s why they’ve been giving up too many goals lately.
With that as a backdrop, one would have expected the Jets to deliver a performance for the ages Thursday night against Vancouver, knowing they were tied in the standings with the Canucks.
Instead, the Jets were unable to generate much of a pushback and were throttled 5-1 as they dropped a season-high sixth consecutive game to fall to 17-16-7 on the season.
With just two games left to play before the NHL All-Star break – including a Saturday matinee against a St. Louis Blues squad that is 16 points ahead of them – the Jets are reeling as they continue to search for answers.
Jets captain Blake Wheeler was asked if Thursday’s loss felt like a season low.
“You’re looking for a headline,” said Wheeler, before carefully taking a deep breath and biting his tongue.
When a follow-up was posed about whether it was fair to characterize the Jets as a fragile group, Wheeler bristled at the suggestion.
“I would say that this team has dealt with the most adversity of any team I've played on in 14 years. So, I would actually completely say the opposite about this group,” Wheeler said. “Yeah, wins and losses aren't going our way right now, but we've dealt with a lot ... a lot. So, we can go through a list and those would be labelled excuses, and I'm not in a real big hurry to start using excuses. But 'fragile' is not a word I would use to describe this group. We've had to deal with a lot this year.”
It’s true. The Jets have dealt with an unexpected coaching change and a rash of injuries, along with the COVID-19 crisis that most teams are also going through.
In Thursday’s game, Johnny Kovacevic made his NHL debut and became the 11th defenceman to suit up for the Jets this season.
That’s an extremely high number, especially when you consider how many games have been played.
But as various players have pointed out, no opponent is going to feel sorry for the Jets or take it easy on them because they’re not at full strength.
That means the answers for this rough patch need to come from within.
The Jets have some fairly recent history when it comes to lengthy losing streaks – enduring a seven-game skid near the end of last season before getting things turned around and sweeping the Edmonton Oilers in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Where the Jets had been showing signs of turning things around last April and into early May before finally finding the win column, right now the path forward is not nearly as clear when you’re looking at what it’s going to take to stop this downward spiral.
One thing you won’t find the Jets doing is taking their frustrations out on one another or looking at someone to pin the blame on.
The only way out of this mess is to push through it and it’s going to take the whole group, not one person trying to put the team on his back and drag the rest along for the ride.
“We are not pointing fingers at any individuals. This is a collaborative team effort,” said Jets interim head coach Dave Lowry, asked if his team was getting enough from Hellebuyck. “This is a group that is going to continue to stick together; they are going to continue to work together. We are going to win hockey games here and we are going to do it by not pointing fingers.”
Although times are incredibly tough for the Jets, a public challenge of Hellebuyck from the podium (or behind closed doors, for that matter) isn’t something you would expect from either the head coach or from his teammates.
Hellebuyck has earned the benefit of the doubt and remains the backbone of this Jets team.
He’s been the most valuable player for several years and he remains the most important individual when it comes to enjoying team success.
There is no doubt the team needs to be much better in front of him, but there is also no question Hellebuyck will be looking to elevate his game over the next several days, weeks and months.
He’s going to consistently need to be the best goalie on the ice, no matter who the Jets are facing – whether it’s a Vezina candidate such as Andrei Vasilevskiy or a journeyman such as Spencer Martin looking for his first NHL victory – and ultimately recording it on Thursday by making 33 saves.
Since posting a 33-save shutout against the Detroit Red Wings, Hellebuyck has given up 23 goals and has watched his goals-against average rise to 2.93 and his save percentage dip to .909.
Hellebuyck has allowed more goals (98) than anyone in the NHL this season (Phillip Grubauer of the Seattle Kraken has given up 95 in two fewer starts and is second), though some of that obviously has to do with his heavy workload – which hit 13 consecutive starts on Thursday and gives him 34 starts in 40 games this season.
The puck-handling gaffes have received ample attention of late, but the biggest issue is that Hellebuyck hasn’t been other-worldly when it comes to keeping the puck out of the net.
In past seasons, Hellebuyck has played the role of the human eraser, making numerous saves – many of the highlight-reel variety – to cover up many of the Jets’ defensive deficiencies.
Some of those challenges in the D-zone for the five-man unit remain, and it’s clear Hellebuyck can’t just throw on the Superman cape and do it alone.
He needs help for this Jets team to start living up to its potential.
Yes, the Jets have 42 games left in the regular season to try to clean up this mess.
They’ll continue to look for solutions, but they can’t afford to let this slide fester either, as the season is approaching a tipping point.
The affable Nate Schmidt captured the mood eloquently earlier this week when asked about life in the murky middle, where the Jets currently reside.
“It can certainly be done,” said Schmidt. “There’s a logjam there. The good part is that we have a lot of games coming up, and usually when you get into a rhythm and these games start coming on, you can find that you can start to rattle off some games, and when you look at where we are, you’re not in and you have to string together games.
“It’s really what it comes down to – you can’t go 1-1 anymore.”
The Jets can’t afford to go through any more stretches of 0-4-2, either.
Rattling off a significant winning streak – or several – is a must.
And the Jets can’t do that without putting one in the bank first.
“I don’t think it’s frustration. It’s disappointment,” said Lowry. “We’ve got a group here where we know how to win. We’re not the first team that has faced this kind of situation. We’ll work for our bounces, we’ll work for our breaks, and win a hockey game.”