WINNIPEG -- In many ways, it feels like these Winnipeg Jets are quickly approaching the proverbial fork in the road.
The problem is that it’s unclear where the GPS, or the map if you prefer old-school technology, is leading this group. Not to mention which path they’re ultimately going to choose and end up traversing down.
With Thursday’s 5-2 loss to the Nashville Predators, the Jets find themselves with a record of 17-13-6.
— Ken Wiebe (@WiebesWorld) January 21, 2022
An optimist might suggest those 40 points the Jets have already banked puts them in a decent spot.
After all, they’ll wake up seventh when it comes to points percentage in the Western Conference, even if they remain 10th in points and technically below the playoff line.
The Jets are fifth in the Central Division and the teams they are chasing have put substantial distance between them.
As a point of reference, the fourth-place Predators are a whopping 13 points up (though the Jets hold six games in hand) and the first-place Colorado Avalanche are 17 points clear (and the Jets have two games in hand).
If the season somehow ended today, even though we fully realize that it doesn’t, that .556 points percentage would be enough to get the Jets in as the first wild card.
It would also result in a first-round matchup with the Vegas Golden Knights, who lead the Pacific Division.
Thanks to nine postponed games, most of which have been shoehorned into the month of February, the Jets are playing catch-up when it comes to the schedule.
All to say that those valuable games in hand aren’t worth much if they don’t result in more points.
So, with roughly two months to go before the NHL trade deadline, things remain incredibly blurry when it comes to the approach Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff might take.
After addressing the shortcomings of the blue line during the off-season with the addition of Nate Schmidt and Brenden Dillon via trades for draft picks, the Jets had high hopes and heightened expectations.
This was going to be the year they moved squarely from bubble team back into contender status.
Well, things haven’t exactly gone according to plan on that front -- at least not yet.
Much to the chagrin of players, coaching staff and management, the Jets seem to be stuck in the mushy middle.
On some nights, they look like they hang with a top-tier team.
On others, they’ve fallen short.
This isn’t just about the lopsided 7-1 defeats to the Avalanche and Minnesota Wild either. Over the course of 82 games, there are going to be nights when things fall apart and the score spirals out of control.
The Jets haven’t made a habit of that. The no-shows remain the exception, not the rule.
One thing that’s plagued the Jets this season has been inconsistency.
There have been glimpses of improvement on that front since Dave Lowry took over as interim head coach on Dec. 17, but it remains a work in progress.
The Jets have a pretty good idea of how they want to play and what they need to do in order to achieve success.
Now they just need to ensure that style of game is on display with a bit more regularity.
The contrast on Thursday between the first (when the Jets were outscored 3-0, and outplayed) and third period (when Winnipeg scored in the opening minute and controlled the flow of play until an empty-net goal from Tanner Jeannot restored the three-goal cushion and put the game on ice) reinforces the need for further improvement.
“You've got to know what your strengths are as a team and I think we're still learning what our identity is that way,” said Jets defenceman Josh Morrissey. “It's periods like that (the third period) that we have to build on and try to replicate and look at as something that we can have as our calling card and hang our hat on.”
This is a proud group and the Jets do have certain elements that you often find on a winning team.
Goalie Connor Hellebuyck has been the foundation of this group for a long time and that isn’t going to change anytime soon.
He’s started 30 of 36 games so far this season and while his raw numbers don’t have him currently in the Vezina Trophy discussion, his importance to the Jets is undeniable.
“Our goalie is the reason we win a lot of hockey games,” Lowry said following Thursday’s game, answering a question about whether he considered replacing Hellebuyck with Mikhail Berdin on a night he turned aside 18 of 22 shots he faced.
Hellebuyck probably wanted the Ryan Johansen goal (the one that made it 3-0) back, but the bigger reason the question had been percolating was because many folks are wondering if he’s going to start the two remaining games on this road trip - on Saturday afternoon against the Boston Bruins and Sunday afternoon against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Hellebuyck is well-established as being a workhorse who thrives on getting into a rhythm, but when you consider how much he’s played already - coupled with a February stretch that includes seven games in 11 days (including two back-to-backs), Lowry is going to need to find a window to get his backup a start sooner rather than later.
That task got a bit more difficult when Eric Comrie ended up in Covid-19 protocol last Thursday and he hasn’t been back on the ice with his teammates since.
It’s important to remember the spread out nature of the schedule of late has allowed Hellebuyck not to be overworked yet. But there’s far too many games left in a short amount of time to run the risk of fatigue setting in before the calendar even flips to March.
The Jets defence corps has clearly improved, yet the situation is somewhat complicated based on having prospects in the system that are knocking on the door and eager to become NHL regulars.
Part of the appeal to bringing in both Schmidt and Dillon was that they represented more than just a Band-Aid solution, since they had term on their respective contracts.
But with Dylan Samberg and Declan Chisholm recently making their NHL debuts and Ville Heinola waiting in the wings, suddenly having the six regular members of the defence corps with multiple years on their contracts leaves things a little crowded.
If the Jets continue to tread water, Cheveldayoff could be left in a bit of a quandary when it comes to potentially accelerating the timeline of when to integrate one or even two of those young blue-liners.
That also means deciding which veteran to move on from, a process that isn’t easy with the Jets at the salary cap ceiling and into LTIR relief.
Up front, the Jets core group is firmly established and mostly locked up long-term. Andrew Copp and Paul Stastny are pending UFAs and Pierre-Luc Dubois, who scored his 17th goal on Thursday, is the high-profile RFA who will be looking for a significant raise.
With Jets captain Blake Wheeler set to possibly return this weekend, the team was inching closer to full health. Although, the loss of Nikolaj Ehlers to a right knee injury represents a significant blow.
If Ehlers spends multiple weeks on the shelf -- and that’s certainly the most likely outcome -- it’s only going to ratchet up the pressure on a forward group that’s already been a bit too top heavy to provide some timely secondary scoring.
There are depth pieces that will welcome the additional ice time and responsibility, but it’s time for those guys to deliver.
Otherwise, the Jets are going to be left with some difficult decisions when it comes to personnel.
This isn’t to suggest the Jets should immediately punt on this season or consider holding a fire sale, it simply reiterates how important this next stretch of games is when it comes to finalizing a strategy for the trade deadline.