WINNIPEG — First, he waited patiently. Then Ville Heinola went out and played a patient, yet extremely effective game.
There’s little doubt that the Winnipeg Jets defenceman has dealt with some frustration this season, being limited to nine NHL games and another 32 with the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League.
Such is life on the periphery of a roster, pushing to become a regular while occasionally needing to wait for an opportunity to present itself.
Well, what can’t be argued is that Heinola took advantage of this most recent opportunity on Sunday against the Arizona Coyotes, sliding back in alongside Nate Schmidt on the Jets’ third pairing and immediately looking comfortable.
Never mind the pass to Paul Stastny that started the rush on the first of two goals in the game for Mark Scheifele, Heinola left his fingerprints all over the place - from clean exits to defending with confidence and aggression, which is exactly what he needs to do in order to succeed at this level.
Heinola even used his skate to prevent what looked to be a sure Coyotes goal, finishing the evening with 19 shifts for 15:28 of ice time, one shot on goal, three shot attempts, a hit and three blocked shots.
“Simple. Used his feet, made the great first pass,” said Jets interim head coach Dave Lowry. “He sees the game real well at the offensive blue line and was able to keep some plays alive. He got pucks through and he helped create some offence.”
Perhaps the most impressive thing is that Heinola hadn’t suited up in an NHL game since Feb. 14 against the Chicago Blackhawks and it had been two weeks since he played for the Moose as well.
Yes, staying ready for when your name is called is part of the job description, but that doesn’t make it any easier to do.
“He was nervous the first time he came into our lineup three months ago,” said Lowry. “He’s been through it, he understands that when he goes in, he’s just going to have to play his game and he’s going to have to be himself. I really thought he equated himself very well.”
At a time when the Jets are still searching for optimal pairings, Heinola earned another look on Wednesday against the Buffalo Sabres and the things he does well could also be useful on Thursday against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Whether the Jets opt for some sort of rotation or simply give Heinola a bit more runway to win the job outright remains to be seen but he’s clearly an option at Lowry’s disposal and that’s a testament to the work the 21-year-old Finn has put in over the course of these past two seasons when game action hasn't been as frequent as he would like.
On to your questions for the March mailbag.
Kevin Long asks: What are your thoughts on Mark Scheifele and his future with the Jets? I think he is a great player but there seems to be more talk about his flaws lately than I’ve heard in his past.
Scheifele has been the clear and undisputed top centre for the Jets for most of this past decade and with that comes a combination of both praise and scrutiny. When a player is leaned on as much as Scheifele is in terms of ice time allotted, that simply comes with the territory. The praise has outweighed the scrutiny for a number of years and rightfully so, given the level of production. But Scheifele himself has openly discussed wanting to be among the very best players in the NHL and, to reach those heights, that requires a two-way commitment and that hasn’t always been there.
Despite an up-and-down first half, Scheifele has come back from the NHL All-Star break refreshed and has done an excellent job of raising his engagement level (often at both ends of the ice) and his impressive level of production has him back on track. It’s not a coincidence that the Jets just put together a 10-4-1 stretch that has kept them in the playoff race in the Western Conference.
It’s natural to wonder what the future might hold, but right now the combination of Scheifele and Pierre-Luc Dubois is providing the one-two punch Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff envisioned when he made the bold move to send Patrik Laine and Jack Roslovic to the Columbus Blue Jackets just over 14 months ago. How the Jets — and Scheifele — perform during the final 15 games of the regular season and potentially into the post-season will ultimately determine what level of changes the Jets consider once the off-season arrives.
The Jets also need to get Dubois signed to a long-term extension before they contemplate making another blockbuster deal.
Mike Pitura asks: I've been looking at the stats on Kyle Connor. With only four minutes in penalties so far and his point production, what are your thoughts on him being a candidate for the Lady Byng?
I’m glad that you asked. The Lady Byng is one of those awards that can be tough to vote on, since keeping the penalty minutes low can sometimes be deceiving or be more related to playing on the perimeter or not getting involved in the guts of the play. Those are not factors for Connor, who plays an important role and is active on the forecheck, even if he’s not a guy who is going to run over his opponent very often.
When you consider the quality of competition he goes up against nightly, and given Connor’s level of performance, I think he’s a great candidate for the most gentlemanly player award. Definitely would be among my Top-3 selections right now.
While we’re on the topic of NHL awards, if the Jets are able to make a run here and qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs, perhaps Connor is a guy who should be considered to be on the periphery of the race for the Hart Trophy as well. He’s pushing for 50 goals, already has set career-bests for goals, assists and points, he’s become a valued penalty killer and his level of consistency has made him the clear-cut MVP of the Jets this season.
There are a number of quality candidates who deserve to be ahead of Connor right now, but he’s probably a Top-10 choice. Let’s see where that goes here as well.
Twitter user @doctorb22 asks: I love Connor Hellebuyck and fully expect him to bounce back next season. However it’s clear his puck handling skills are lacking. What efforts have gone into improving those skills, and has he ever been told to play the puck less frequently? It always feels like a disaster waiting to happen.
Before we dive into the puckhandling, a quick note/thought about Hellebuyck’s season, which has been a topic of debate throughout.
Yes, the raw and more traditional numbers (2.94 goals-against average .911 save percentage), Hellebuyck is 10th in the NHL in goals saved above expected, according to the stats site Money Puck, which tells you the Jets still give up far too many quality chances defensively and still covers up many of his team’s deficiencies — even when he’s not playing at a super elite level.
As for the adventures when it comes to playing the puck, they’ve been less frequent of late and he’s actually made quite a few smart and crisp plays with the puck on his stick below the goal line. Is there still ample room for improvement? Absolutely.
Hellebuyck can often be seen prior to practice working with Jets goalie coach Wade Flaherty on his puckhandling, but given the compressed nature of the schedule, there hasn’t been much practice time available here during the second half of the season. No doubt there have been some costly mistakes, some related to crazy bounces and others related to decision-making or execution. But, for the most part, goalies don’t get told to strictly stay in the crease because being able to handle the puck effectively or even knock dumped-in pucks down or leaving them in position for the defencemen is part of the job.
Hellebuyck takes pride in all facets of his game and you can bet he’ll continue to work at that part of his game to try and make it less of a concern moving forward.
Rick Fritschy asks: Is Adam Lowry the logical choice to trade this off season? Value has picked up and Jets have two built-in replacements in David Gustafsson and now Morgan Barron. One of the top 5 salaried D also goes. Use the cap room to get a RHD like John Klingberg and a smart add at forward.
I don’t see Adam Lowry going anywhere this off-season and what you’ve seen from him during the second half is precisely why the Jets signed him to a five-year extension in the first place.
Having versatile players like Gustafsson and Barron, acquired in the trade with the New York Rangers, is essential to being able to try and fill the void left by the departure of Andrew Copp, not as backfill for a potential move involving Lowry — who provides a physical element that very few Jets forwards bring to the table.
For a team that’s had difficulty finding secondary scoring for a good chunk of this season, moving a guy that has produced double-digits in goals in five of his seven NHL seasons, is on the top penalty killing unit and is part of the leadership group would fall under the highly unlikely category for me.
As for the defence, it’s been written in this space on several occasions that the Jets are going to need to move out at least one of the veteran D-men and possibly two in order to make room for the group of prospects that is already pushing right now.
I don’t see Klingberg as a fit. Yes, he could help the power play and bolster the right side, but he’s looking for long-term security at a big AAV and the Jets are already looking to shed salary on the back end, so I don’t see them making a splash there in free agency. I would imagine that the majority of any leftover money after the Dubois extension would be used to add another middle-six forward.
Rick Lavallee asks: I want to know why there seems to be such a disdain for Logan Stanley. I'm not saying he's Zdeno Chara, but from what I have witnessed, the kid bears a great deal of the brunt of criticism, and I'm not sure it is anywhere near warranted. He has made some mistakes, to be sure, but he also has bailed out his partner (most often Nate Schmidt) on quite a few occasions. I can't understand the vitriol. There is a lot of good there.
The social media reaction to Logan Stanley since he was chosen 18th overall by the Jets has been an interesting study to say the least, but Twitter is not often a place to find perspective.
Many people who had never watched him play a single shift were quick to suggest he would never make it and that the pick was a reach. Jets director of amateur scouting Mark Hillier clearly laid out that Stanley was more of a project and that his progression would take time and, even though he didn’t mention a specific timeline, it’s fair to say his arrival as an NHL regular was close to what they had projected internally — perhaps even bumped up by half a season due to injury and unexpected opportunity.
Part of the issue in assessing where Stanley is at is related to other D-men from his draft class not only jumping in quicker but also making a massive impact — like Samuel Girard is doing with the Colorado Avalanche (despite being chosen 47th overall by the Nashville Predators). There is still a raw element when it comes to Stanley’s game and he’s still working to become a finished product.
Despite being willing to play a physical game and drop the gloves, he's still learning to use his size to his advantage, and is not as naturally mean as some people suspect he should be. When he’s on his game, Stanley is moving his feet and making smart reads. When he plays a cautious or tentative game, that’s when he gets in trouble. Stanley needs to be assertive to be at his best.
One thing he’s done is quickly grow into an effective penalty killer, using his reach and ability to clear the puck to his advantage. This season, there is little doubt that some regression slipped into Stanley’s game, but that doesn’t mean that he’s already reached his ceiling and can’t improve.
Complicating matters somewhat is that some members of the Jets fan base believe that Stanley is preventing Heinola from being in the lineup, so the vitriol increases. For me, moving forward, there is room for both of those players to be in the top-6. Stanley knows there is work to be done and he’s not taking his spot on the blue line for granted.
“There’s going to be guys coming up trying to take your job every year, just like I did when I was coming up,” Stanley said recently. “Definitely just control what you can control and you’ve got to work as hard as you can every day because there are good players coming up and Ville is a good player. He’s going to play for the Jets for a long time. I think it’s just working on my game and trying to improve every day.”
Dan St. Joseph asks: Are fans ever going to get more information about why Paul Maurice resigned the way he did so abruptly in season?
In the words of Paul Maurice, there was nothing sinister to the decision. Maurice was not in danger of being abruptly fired when he stepped to the podium and announced his resignation. Yes, the Jets were going through a rough patch and the seat may have been getting warmer but a firing wasn’t imminent. As Maurice pointed out, he felt the Jets needed a new voice since they were not responding the same way to him as they had in the past.
It’s apparent there was an element of burn-out involved for Maurice, who has been working in the NHL for nearly three full decades (he first became an assistant with the Hartford Whalers in 1995 and was named head coach 12 games later after Paul Holmgren was fired). This is part of what Maurice said during his availability on the morning of Dec. 17, which explains a big part of the decision he made.
“The second piece to this is kind of personal-professional. Going back to the bubble, I didn’t enjoy it. And that’s the very first time in my career where I can say I didn’t enjoy coming to the rink, and I thought that maybe it was all that was going on,” said Maurice. “And then I got fired up; Chevy did it again, he got those two D, and you get fired up. And if you lose some of that passion for the game, that love for the game, you can still be good, but you can’t be as good as you should be or could be, and that’s how I feel I am.
"So this is where I'm at today. I think the day I got hired here was a really, really good day for the Winnipeg Jets, and it was a really, really good day for me, and I feel exactly the same way today. This is a good day, this is a good team. They’ve got a great fanbase. They love their players and their team, and I’m cheering for these guys, like, I love these guys. I know that it’s time and that’s a good thing for the Jets, and it’s also a really, really good thing for me.”
There is little doubt that the timing of the decision would have caught many players by surprise and that some would have been disappointed. Maurice had invested in the players and the players had invested in him. There is little doubt in my mind that after decompressing and getting re-energized that Maurice is going to coach again in the NHL. He’s passionate about team building and he still wants to win a Stanley Cup.
Brent (Bubba) Bernas asks: Will Chaz Lucius sign and if so, will he see AHL time?
The Jets' 2021 first-rounder is having an excellent season with the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers, who have advanced to the NCAA Frozen Four with a victory over Western Michigan. Lucius, 18, has nine goals and 19 points in 24 games as a freshman and when I went to see him play against the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks in late November, he played a solid game.
Gophers head coach Bob Motzko provided plenty of praise and noted it was only a matter of time before Lucius was going to be making an even bigger contribution, noting the number of games he missed when dealing with a knee injury the previous season when he was with the U.S. National Development Team.
Unfortunately for Lucius, he hasn’t played since Feb. 12, suffering a lower-body injury that will keep him out for the remainder of the season.
The expectation is that Lucius is going to go back to the University of Minnesota for his sophomore season, especially since his younger brother, Cruz, is committed to joining the Golden Gophers this fall. Could there be a discussion about Chaz turning pro at the end of next season? It’s certainly within the realm of possibility.