WINNIPEG - You won’t find a Help Wanted sign on the door to Dave Lowry’s office, but there is definitely a vacancy for a top-six forward that needs to be filled.
Injuries to the trio of Nikolaj Ehlers (knee), Andrew Copp (suspected head injury) and Cole Perfetti (suspected shoulder issue) leave the Winnipeg Jets looking for a right-winger to skate alongside Pierre-Luc Dubois and Kyle Connor.
This is only a temporary posting, but this position is up for grabs and right now, there’s no clear front-runner for the job.
For a player like Kristian Vesalainen, Evgeny Svechnikov, Adam Brooks, Jansen Harkins or Kristian Reichel, it’s a prime opportunity to earn a little more trust and to carve out a bigger piece of the ice-time pie. At practice on Sunday, Brooks was seen skating on Dubois' line as he joins the club after getting claimed off waivers from the Toronto Maple Leafs.
But the results were mixed on Saturday afternoon as the Jets fell mostly flat in a 4-2 loss to the Edmonton Oilers.
Vesalainen had a strong showing on Thursday night and got the first crack at leaving an impression against the Oilers, but he wasn’t able to make much of an impact, finishing with only one shot on goal (and three shot attempts) in 15:27 of ice time.
Searching for a spark, Lowry promoted Svechnikov from the fourth line during the third period.
Svechnikov had a steady start to the game, creating a quality chance for himself and getting involved physically.
A bump for Svechnikov made sense, since he’d enjoyed some success with Connor and Dubois in the early stages of the season.
Svechnikov’s time with the group was limited though after he was called for interference after a check on Derek Ryan that came a beat late.
Svechnikov apparently expressed some frustration to the men in stripes before heading to the box and was dinged with unsportsmanlike conduct to make it a double minor.
When you’re auditioning for a spot up the lineup, this was not an action or outcome that was going to sit well with the Jets coaching staff.
“I don’t like seeing penalties after the whistle that I really believe we have control on them. I don’t like penalties that hurt the team,” said Lowry. “It would have been appreciated if (the referee) had given him a 10-minute (misconduct) instead of the extra two because then I wouldn’t have had to ride the (penalty) killers.”
A day earlier, Lowry was asked about Svechnikov drawing back into the lineup because of Perfetti’s injury and he gave a response that was as telling as the number of times he’s been a health scratch of late.
“All we’re looking for is, you know, I want consistency in play,” said Lowry. “Guys have to have an understanding that there are certain expectations. I don’t expect him to go out and be an offensive catalyst and score a goal every shift. What I’m looking for is, I’m looking for him to be a reliable player, manage the puck, manage the game and complement the guys that he’s playing with.”
Svechnikov (2015) and Vesalainen (2017) were drafted in the first round and both have offensive tools - including heavy shots with a quick release - but neither player has been able to have those qualities translate to consistent results so far, at least when it comes
It’s true that neither guy has had a long run on a scoring line, but they need to find some additional consistency in their respective games in order to get longer looks in those spots.
With Ehlers skating every other day and not close to returning to work with the group, with Perfetti on the shelf for the foreseeable future and with Copp’s status uncertain despite officially being listed as day-to-day, one of the in-house candidates is going to need to take advantage of this glorious opportunity.
What is Lowry looking for from this list of applicants?
“I want the guys that can play the game and understand the need to play with those guys,” said Lowry. “Those guys are skilled guys. Somebody has to get in and get pucks to them. Someone has to get in on the forecheck, someone has to get to the net."
Shifting the focus to the Jets defence, Josh Morrissey had another excellent outing in a losing cause.
Morrissey logged nearly 26 minutes of ice time, chipped in an assist and his defensive-zone play was rock solid
After the Jets fell behind, Morrissey activated offensively and was noticeable for all the right reasons - using his skating ability and edgework to get up the ice and his shot to rattle a slapshot off the crossbar.
Morrissey’s ability to generate offence without raising his risk profile has been something to behold.
“I like his decision-making,” said Lowry. “The biggest thing is, if you want to be a driver offensively, especially on the back end, you have to be intelligent. You can’t just be a reckless player going up the ice every shift. I really find that he’s reading the play, he’s reading the opportunity. A lot of the time, you don’t want your D going up and making the numbers even. You want them to create the odd-man. He’s done a very good job of recognizing that, using his speed and getting up the ice.
“We want to activate our D. All of these guys have the exact same green light, but like I said, the intelligence factor has to be there. You can’t be up the ice every shift with no opportunity for a scoring chance or to create odd-man rushes. It has to be a read. We'd like to see them keep it as an intelligent read.”
Morrissey, who has six goals and 21 points in 46 games this season, has been making intelligent reads all season long, his situational awareness on point.
“I think it's just the score of the game dictates a lot,” said Morrissey. “You're up a goal, your risk profile probably drops depending on the time of game. You still want to play for offence and not just sit back but certainly, you're down 3-0, you've got to try to create some offence. I think you answered it right there, really. If you pinch a little bit more, jump in the rush a little bit more, try to extend the play a little bit more. For me, it just becomes more aggressive but, like I said, it's just depending on the score of the game and what's needed.”
It’s easy to decipher where things broke down for the Jets in this game as they fell behind 3-0 to an Oilers team that improved to 5-0 under interim head coach Jay Woodcroft and showcased the enhanced commitment to defensive play.
“There are a couple of stylistic changes, especially on the defensive side of the puck. They’re a little more risk-averse,” said Jets centre Adam Lowry. “Sometimes you’d be known to get them caught up ice and get some odd-man rushes, where they were reloading a little better. I think they were a little more responsible defensively. You even saw it where a couple of their big guns were staying in the zone. They weren’t necessarily flying, trying to open it up, especially when they got the lead. So I think it was just kind of maybe a little more attention to detail on that side of the puck.”
The Jets did not demonstrate that same attention to detail on the defensive side of the puck and it cost them dearly.
Sure, the Jets got on the board on a shorthanded breakaway goal by Lowry and made things interesting with a power-play goal from Connor, but the game was not as close as the score might indicate when you consider how lopsided things were at even strength.
Another major issue for the Jets was an inability to generate even a single shot on goal during a 90-second two-man advantage that began just under six minutes into the first period.
The puck movement wasn’t crisp enough and there were no easy tap-ins available.
While the Jets seemed to sag after the back end of the power play expired, the Oilers found their legs and then dictated play for the better part of the next 40 minutes.
The Jets are now 4-2-1 coming out of the NHL All-Star break and they’ve got a daunting schedule ahead of them as a four-game road trip begins on Monday.
After falling to the Oilers to slip to 22-19-8 on the season — and seven points back of the Los Angeles Kings for the final Western Conference playoff spot — the Jets' next three games are against the Calgary Flames, Dallas Stars and Colorado Avalanche.
For all of the strides they made recently, they’ll need to be razor-sharp over this next stretch in order to avoid tumbling down the standings.