WINNIPEG -- Two of the line combinations were basically borne out of necessity, but they clicked immediately and yielded some impressive results.
And while using 11 forwards and seven defencemen has never been the preferred use of the roster, these days Winnipeg Jets head coach Paul Maurice has no choice, so he’s trying to make use of what he has at his disposal.
Maurice is focusing on some of the unexpected benefits as his group heads out for a three-game California road trip that opens on Tuesday night against the Anaheim Ducks.
Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler remain in the NHL’s COVID-19 protocol and there is no timetable for their return.
Neither player was eligible to travel with the Jets for the trip and it is not yet known if either will connect with the team before they return home to face the Dallas Stars on Nov. 2.
“Nothing new. You can’t have a timetable until you hit certain goals,” said Maurice. “Then, there’s always the consideration of them flying back across the border and things of that nature.”
The only way the Jets would be able to roll with four full forward lines would be to subject a defenceman to the waiver wire and recall someone else to play on the fourth line.
So until further notice, the status quo remains.
That means using Nathan Beaulieu on the penalty kill and sprinkling in a few shifts a period at even strength, while rotating a number of forwards through the fourth line with Dominic Toninato and Riley Nash.
“There are ways for us to deal with a situation when a player goes down. What we’re getting comfortable with, we may have to play short for a game and that’s happened a whole bunch of times in the NHL over the last year,” said Maurice. “Getting maybe 11 forwards, in some ways, keeps some of these guys in a little better rhythm in a game. It might be part of why we’ve put some pucks behind the goalie. We’ve had a pretty good offensive outburst here in our last three games with that 11-and-7 idea.”
In the bigger picture, Maurice believes that the loss of Wheeler and Scheifele has created an opportunity for complementary pieces like Jansen Harkins, Kristian Vesalainen and Evgeny Svechnikov to play an enhanced role -- which is something that could be prove valuable when an inevitable injury bug shows up later in the season.
An explosive start to the season for Kyle Connor (six goals, nine points) and Pierre-Luc Dubois (four goals, six points) has helped pace an offensive attack that includes 16 goals scored during the past three games.
But another important development for the Jets has been the increased offensive output delivered by the defence corps.
After finishing last season at or near the bottom of goals scored and points produced by defencemen, the blue-line brigade has already chipped in 18 points through five games -- an impressive number when you consider the Jets have generated 20 goals.
“Yeah, it’s been great to get some offence from the back-end,” said Jets defenceman Josh Morrissey, who has two power-play goals and three points. “Looking at the guys we have there, everybody can move. Everybody can get involved offensively. I think it’s a style more as a whole team that we’re trying to play and get our d-men up in the rush.
"It often starts with good breakout plays and little small plays that transition into offensive zone time and rush chances. And then getting our d-men up there to join in. It’s been nice to have that. With the group we have there, that’s something that we’ll continue to get better at and continue to hopefully provide for the team.”
Maurice believes that part of the production from the back end begins with spending less time chasing the opposition in the defensive zone, along with having the ability to keep more plays alive at the offensive blue line.
“An area that we struggled with last year and really the last two, is how we handled dumped pucks in our own end -- and it’s still a work in progress for us,” said Maurice. “But, we think we’re in a far better position to break pucks out, which ties to everything. It keeps your goals-against down, it keeps your zone time down, it keeps the wear and tear on your D down.
“But it also puts your forwards in a position to play in the end that you want to play. So with those guys' ability to move the puck, we should see signs and benefits in all three zones really.”
Newcomer Nate Schmidt is leading the blue-line brigade with six assists, with three of those coming in Saturday’s 6-4 win over the Nashville Predators.
He’s had several point shots tipped in by teammates that made their way to the front of the net and he’s also made a habit of supplying some impressive no-look passes as well, especially with the man-advantage.
“I was very fortunate to learn from probably one of the best power-play guys I’ve seen in Mike Green. He was a guy early on in my career in Washington who was THE power-play quarterback when I first came up,” said Schmidt. “He’s about 10 times better than I could ever be. But you learn a lot from him.
"He was a guy who was incredibly good at selling a shot and making sure it still looks like he’s going to attempt to make a play anywhere on the ice. And then right after, you get to watch John Carlson. Two guys who are pretty special about how they do things.
“When you come into the league, you just try to soak up as much as you can. You learn a lot from guys, and you get lucky, too, to be around really good players.”
These days, Schmidt is one of those really good players and he’s taken some important strides with his new team.
“He had a tough year in (Vancouver), but boy they went through an awful lot of tough things so I don’t think you can watch that hockey and say it describes him,” said Maurice. “We’ve known about Nate (dating) back to Washington days, he could get up the ice so well. I’ve liked his defensive part of the game, maybe the most. He and (Morrissey) have played really well. The offensive part is there. And he has that personality, there’s some confidence that comes with it.”