WINNIPEG - Looking good on paper doesn’t mean (expletive).
When Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler uttered those words during training camp, he wasn’t really looking to temper the expectations that were clearly on the rise, yet he was offering a not-so-subtle reminder that nothing comes easy.
That winning the offseason didn’t necessarily mean the Jets would be running away with the Central Division when the real games began.
As it turns out, Wheeler’s proclamation was more than just a headline grabber. It’s proven to be a premonition of the first half of the NHL season.
Thanks to a 3-1 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers, the Jets passed the midway point with a disappointing record of 18-17-7.
Instead of challenging the Colorado Avalanche for supremacy or even being involved in the three-way chase for second place with the Nashville Predators, Minnesota Wild or St. Louis Blues, the Jets are stuck in sixth behind the Dallas Stars.
Worse yet, the Jets seem to be suffering through a bit of an identity crisis.
Currently, they don’t defend well enough as a group, they’re not scoring enough and they’re not getting enough saves.
Despite a marked improvement when shorthanded since Dave Lowry took over as interim head coach on Dec. 17, the Jets have the 28th penalty-killing unit in the NHL. While the power play is in the middle of the pack, it’s safe to say special teams can be better during the second half as well.
The other troubling issue for the Jets is that they’ve become too easy to play against and no, this isn’t to suggest the team needs to try and run opposing teams out of the building or should start fighting more often.
This is a team with enough skill to be dangerous offensively, they’ve got enough awareness to clamp down defensively provided the commitment level is there and they’ve got a Vezina-winning goalie who has made a habit of being the backbone of this group.
So, while the situation is obviously critical, the Jets have enough runway to make things interesting - provided they can come back from the NHL All-Star break and get on a roll.
“As a group, we shouldn’t be overconfident. Obviously, in our position, we should be desperate,” Lowry told reporters in Philadelphia on Tuesday. “We should understand that these points are critical. If we want to get ourselves back in a race, we’re going to have to make sure that we perform every night.
“Consistency is going to have to be the No. 1 priority. We’re going to have to prepare ourselves to compete and be diligent in how we have to play.”
Lowry is right.
Finding the requisite level of consistency has to be the Jets’ number one priority, but that search has been ongoing for some time now and it’s something that has plagued the team since a 9-3-3 start had them briefly on top of the Central Division standings.
Just when you think this group might be down and out, they dig into the details, stick to their structure and find a way to get the job done.
But on the flip side, when you think this group is showing signs of turning things around and might be ready to turn the corner, they’ve come up short.
Look no further than last weekend, when the Jets played a near-perfect road game and earned a tidy 4-1 victory over the St. Louis Blues, only to lose two days later to a Flyers club that had dropped 13 of the previous 14 games.
That’s not exactly a pathway to getting back into the playoff race.
One step forward and one step back simply isn’t going to get it done.
The Jets are either going to need to rattle off a lengthy winning streak or put together a bunch of stretches where they pile up points in eight of 10 game blocks.
That’s the reality of the situation for the Jets, who are going to have to leapfrog five teams in order to squeeze into the second wild card berth in the Western Conference.
When the Jets return to action on Tuesday against the red-hot Wild, winners of six consecutive games going into the break, it will open a stretch of 40 games to be played over 81 days.
There won’t be much time to come up for air, though there is ample opportunity for the Jets to determine how this season will be defined.
“It’s a time where we can reflect a little bit on the first half of the year, if you will, and look at where we need to be and everyone looks at themselves, individually, how we can be all better,” Jets defenceman and alternate captain Josh Morrissey told reporters in Philadelphia. “We want to come back refreshed, feeling good and knowing the schedule ahead, it’s going to take our whole room.
“So it is what it is, but we need to come back rested and looking forward, looking at an opportunity we have to get points, to win games. We’re going to play a lot of games against lots of the teams that are in front of us, fighting with us. That’s a real opportunity. Hopefully, we come back with that positive mindset and believe in ourselves, our group, and go after it.”
Team record: 18-17-7, 43 points, sixth in the Central Division, 13th in the Western Conference (12th in points percentage), 22nd in the NHL (20th in points percentage)
Goals per game: 2.83 (20th)
Goals against per game: 2.95 (15th)
Power play efficiency: 20.6% (14th)
Penalty killing efficiency: 74.0% (28th)
Best surprise: Pierre-Luc Dubois
When you consider the hype surrounding his acquisition and the pieces involved to bring him in, it seems odd to place Dubois in this category. But for all of the ink spilled on the struggles Dubois endured last season after his arrival in the blockbuster deal from the Columbus Blue Jackets, his ability to rebound is worth noting.
Dubois has provided the powerful, two-way play that was expected of him and his offensive production has risen significantly, with 18 goals (including a team-leading eight on the power play) and 32 points in 42 games. The scary thing is that he’s still only 23 years old and he’s found tremendous chemistry with Kyle Connor, who is the Jets’ lone representative at the NHL All-Star weekend.
Biggest disappointment: Overall performance
Far too often, when things go poorly for a team, the blame game often leads to a series of hearty debates and ultimately lands on finger pointing. It’s natural to dissect each and every individual when the goal is to search for answers and solutions, but given the Jets plight, it’s obvious that the first-half struggles cannot be pinned on a single individual or even a couple of players.
There are plenty of guys on the roster that are underperforming and if some of the prominent figures don’t get things going quickly, the spotlight is surely going to shine brighter. However, for the time being this is a collective issue.
The Jets need more secondary scoring but they also need more primary production as well. Yes, they need more saves from the goaltenders, but they also need a whole lot more from the group playing in front of them as well. Will the Jets find a way to stand up and be counted or will they fade into the sunset?
Biggest question: How will the Jets approach the NHL trade deadline?
The Jets are already a long-shot to qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs, so what will that mean in terms of the strategy employed by Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff during the weeks leading up to the NHL trade deadline on Mar. 21?
If the Jets don’t go on a remarkable run, the expectation is that pending unrestricted free agents like Andrew Copp and Paul Stastny would generate plenty of interest. Given the price points ($3.64 million AAV for Copp and $3.75 million AAV for Stastny), both of those players can fit within the budget of a contending team. Especially if the Jets consider retaining some salary to help raise the value of the return coming back in a potential deal.
Under normal circumstances, had the Jets met the lofty expectations, both Stastny and Copp would have likely been kept as self rentals. Although the Jets could be looking to replenish a bit of draft capital in any trade, they’ll also be looking for players with team control that can contribute, not just prospects or draft picks.
The bigger question for Cheveldayoff and the Jets will revolve around how the performance in the second half dictates what he plans to do in terms of reshaping this roster (and specifically, the core group) for next season and beyond. Given where the Jets are at in their competitive cycle and the pieces they’ve got under contract, the organization isn’t about to pivot into rebuilding mode. The results of the second half will also go a long way toward determining whether or not Lowry will have the interim label removed or if the Jets will undergo a more exhaustive search during the offseason.