WINNIPEG - So, about the Winnipeg Jets' inability to produce offence without two-thirds of the top line.
After being limited to four goals through two games, those whispers only got louder after the Jets lost captain Blake Wheeler (on Monday) and alternate captain Mark Scheifele (on Thursday) to the NHL’s Covid-19 protocol.
But after showing signs of life in a 6-5 overtime loss to the Minnesota Wild on Tuesday, the Jets changed the tune of this narrative completely, wrapping up a two-game homestand with victories over the Anaheim Ducks (5-1) and Nashville Predators (6-4).
Scoring 16 times in three games is always good for confidence.
Saturday’s victory included the largest offensive eruption of the young season and featured another stirring performance from Pierre-Luc Dubois (who had a goal and an assist and is up to six points in five games) and Kyle Connor (who moved into a tie for the league league in goals with his sixth and added an assist to give him nine points).
On a night where the offensive contributions were plentiful and well spread out, it was the first NHL goal for Kristian Vesalainen that was drawing a lot of the attention - and for good reason.
Going into the campaign, there was a lot of chatter about who was going to replace Mason Appleton on the third line with Adam Lowry (who recorded his first of the season on a beautiful backhand deke just 1:27 after the Predators opened the scoring).
Despite the vocal backing of Jets head coach Paul Maurice, who suggested the leash was going to be long for Vesalainen, let’s just say the Finnish forward had left the door ajar in this open competition.
There was a flash here and there, like on Thursday, when Vesalainen was able to unleash his patented shot against Ducks goalie John Gibson.
That heavy shot and quick release is part of what makes Vesalainen so appealing, since it should pair nicely with his size.
And while Vesalainen has been having difficulty getting that shot off at the NHL level through most of the 22 NHL games he’s played, his willingness to go to the front of the net was a critical piece to delivering that magical moment on Saturday night.
Vesalainen parked himself in the slot and showed his soft hands - with a side order of hand-eye coordination - to redirect home a point shot from Nate Schmidt with 10.7 seconds to go in the second period, restoring some order for a Jets team that allowed the Predators to hang around.
Maurice had 2020 first-rounder Cole Perfetti with Lowry and Stastny for a good chunk of the first two games before he was a healthy scratch and then subsequently reassigned to the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League to further his development.
That opened the door back up for Vesalainen and he’s taking the necessary steps toward trying to cement his status.
“I mean, it took a lot of weight from my shoulders. That was a long time coming so it was really nice,” said Vesalainen, who recognizes the opportunity for him to enhance his role. “Whenever you get a chance like that you have to improve your game. And obviously, you have to be better on the puck and I think I've showed that a little bit more but I can do better, too. But yeah, obviously it's a great chance for me so I have to take it, that's for sure.”
While Vesalainen’s quotes may have been a tad understated and were certainly brief, you can learn a lot about what teammates think about a young player by how they react in moments like this one.
“I think the best part is we got back in the locker room and he’s like ‘Hey man, great shot.’ I’m like I don’t know if it could have come in any slower,” said Schmidt, who chipped in three assists and is up to six points in five games this season. “That’s just a testament for a player that’s come in and gets to a place where he’s a shooter. He’s got a great shot, so for that to be a first goal it just shows, hey, go in there, go to that area, that’s where you score goals in this league. The look on his face was pretty special. Everyone remembers their first goal. I’m interested actually to know where he’s going to put that puck.”
Veteran Paul Stastny was actually taken aback when he heard Vesalainen hadn’t scored earlier in his tenure.
"I didn't realize that until they said it,” said Stastny, who scored his first two goals of the season. “Yeah, that's a world of a difference. Having that first career goal, obviously that's awesome for him, but he was great and he had some chances last game. I mean, that goal he scored was probably his worst chance. He could have probably had four or five goals, and just to see the relief, that smile and all of sudden -- people don't realize when it's not going your way and all you do is try even harder and tense up even more, and sometimes it makes it even worse -- and once you get that first goal, once you get that first point, whatever, it just relaxes you a little and all of a sudden your true self comes out and that's kind of what we saw.”
Maurice rewarded Vesalainen’s strong play by having him on the ice late in the game to protect the lead.
“You know what, his game has been really good and we kind of felt that he’s trying to be a really conscientious player and keep in mind I’ve been playing a position he really hasn’t played before, right wing, so he’s trying to do a lot of the good things but we think there’s offence there,” said Maurice. “He’s got a fantastic shot. I know it was a tip. And then young players come in and they’re conscientious and a guy like (Vesalainen) doesn’t want to make any mistakes but this guy’s a scorer and he’s got fantastic hands and really hopeful there’s some confidence there that will grow. He’s a big man, skates well, he can really shoot the puck. We just think that he can get into positions to shoot it more, and then get to net front more and he’s starting to show it so we want to make sure… and I wasn’t picking favourites or happy for him and trying to throw him a bone or anything. I thought he was the right guy to be on the ice.”
One of the biggest areas of concern for the Jets continues to be the penalty kill, which allowed two more goals in four opportunities - and had another wiped off the board at least momentarily thanks to a successful coach’s challenge for offside.
Of course it’s early and it’s been well documented that the Jets are incorporating new pieces into those penalty-killing units, but a 10-for-22 efficiency rate is something that needs some serious improvement.
"I think the last couple of games we've been a little more aggressive, there was more flow to it defensively and, like I said, they happened late in the power play or it was weird bounces that we've got to clean up those little mistakes,” said Stastny. “That sometimes happens. When it rains it pours, and obviously that can be frustrating. But there's going to come a time when we don't let in a goal for six, seven, eight games and it all evens out like that. But this early in the season this tends to happen where you're unbelievable or you're very bad. You just have to fine-tune some things.”
Other than the leaky penalty kill and some failed clearing attempts - including the one that ended up in the back of the net just 75 seconds into the contest - the Jets have plenty of things to build on as they head out on a three-game road trip through California in a much better spot than they were in when they returned home.
That process of building an identity doesn’t happen overnight, but there are some building blocks emerging.
“Our group, when you look at our body of work through five games now, you’ve seen a couple different looks to it,” said Schmidt. “You can see that we can play a heavy game, we can play an up and down game, and we can be solid defensively as well. That there are things in our game, when you look at the first three versus the last two, you can pick a lot of things that you like about it.
“And now you have to understand that when you go back on the road, you’re not going to have the hometown fans jacking you up again. You feel that type of road pulse, and when you see that road pulse knowing what you’re going to get from your group. You have to bring a lot of energy from your room. It’s a big trip for us. This is a trip that sets you in the right direction as a group. And then when you come back home from this, hopefully we’re sitting here in seven days, and be coming back home with a head of steam.”