WINNIPEG -- Postponements are up, attendance is down to zero, the taxi squad is back and the interim head coach is 1-1.
There is certainly a lot to unpack as it relates to the Winnipeg Jets, so we’ll try to tackle all of these issues (and more) in the December edition of the mailbag.
First things first, COVID-19 and the fourth wave of the pandemic continues to have an impact on this season, with forwards Andrew Copp and Kristian Vesalainen landing in the NHL’s COVID-19 protocol just before the holiday break.
How much game action those two will actually miss remains very much up in the air as the Jets are now up to seven postponed games -- the two before the break against the Dallas Stars and Nashville Predators -- as well as four home games after the break -- against the Minnesota Wild twice, Chicago Blackhawks and Seattle Kraken -- and one road game against the Flames.
With the NHL no longer sending players to the Olympics, make-up dates will be found.
After the NHL's decision on Monday to postpone several games in Canadian cities due to crowd attendance restrictions, the next game for the Jets is Jan. 2 in Vegas against the Golden Knights -- at least for now.
The next home date for the Jets as of right now is Jan. 15 against the Ottawa Senators.
The situation is fluid, but playing games in empty buildings isn’t a viable long-term solution, so some patience is going to be required as the NHL and the NHLPA continue to navigate these waters as best they can.
One of the solutions, at least for the short term, is the return of the taxi squad -- some COVID-19 insurance so teams no longer have to play shorthanded because of the spread of the virus.
So far, the Jets have adopted a flexible approach to filling two of the six spots available to them. They reassigned forward Mikey Eyssimont from the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League to the taxi squad and, briefly, defenceman Ville Heinola (more on him later) as well.
Heinola's stint with the squad was short-lived, this time at least. He attended only a few practices, filling in while Neal Pionk navigated travel issues related to getting a Covid test, before being returned to the AHL.
The Jets only have 11 healthy forwards on the active roster right now, with Evgeny Svechnikov expected to miss another week or so with a knee injury, so it will be interesting to see if Eyssimont jumps into the lineup to make his Jets debut -- or if Dave Lowry rolls with 11 forwards and seven D-men.
With a 5-2 loss to the Washington Capitals (that included two empty-net goals against) and a 4-2 win over the St. Louis Blues, it’s tough to draw too many conclusions from the first two games of the Lowry era, but let’s start there as we dig into the mailbag.
Should we expect anything different from HC Dave Lowry or just more of the same? -- Matt Robinson
While a complete overhaul to the systems or style is not expected, Lowry is going to look to put his stamp on the group.
It’s important to remember that while he’s kept a close eye on the franchise for roughly a decade, he was only added to the coaching staff of Paul Maurice in November of 2020 and was only behind the Jets bench as an assistant for 56 games during the truncated season, eight more in the playoffs and the first 28 of the current season.
All to say that while Lowry has a great deal of respect for Maurice and the opportunity he had to work on his staff, he was only around for the equivalent of just over one season and can represent the fresh voice that Maurice himself felt was needed.
Lowry will have his own ideas in the search for optimal line combinations and defence pairings.
Usage is an area that’s created plenty of discussion and debate over the years and while it’s important to note the sample size of two games is incredibly small, the narrowing of the gap in ice time between Mark Scheifele and Pierre-Luc Dubois is going to be an area that garners plenty of attention moving forward.
The same goes for Nikolaj Ehlers and where he’s most commonly used.
During the past two games, Ehlers has connected well with Scheifele and Paul Stastny and that line figures to get a longer look here, with Dubois back playing with Kyle Connor -- a duo that’s also enjoyed plenty of success this season.
The other thing that stood out during the past two games was Lowry going back to more of a hard match, with a designated checking line after reuniting Adam Lowry and Copp.
That plan is on hold with Copp out of the lineup temporarily, but figures to be a more common theme during the final 52 games of the regular season.
The additional time between games means that coach Lowry is essentially going to have an opportunity to implement some of the ideas he’d like to see.
Look for some tweaks to defensive-zone coverage, an emphasis on improving special teams and for the Jets to play more of an up-tempo game -- which was a point of emphasis since training camp but has yielded mixed results to date.
The Jets fully understand that one of the other areas they’ll need to improve on as the season moves along is the ability to get to the net more -- and not be as reliant on scoring off the rush.
What does Dave Lowry need to do to keep the head coaching job? Closely miss the playoffs? Make the playoffs? Win a round? -- Dan St. Joseph
This is an interesting one, especially when you consider the expectations coming into the season for this group.
It’s fair to say the Jets have underperformed to this point and being three points below the playoff line in the Western Conference standings is not where the organization expected to be.
What’s a reasonable expectation for the Jets under Lowry?
A playoff spot remains within striking distance and obtaining one is probably a prerequisite for having the interim title removed.
The Jets have won three rounds in the 10 prior seasons since the franchise relocated from Atlanta, so advancing past the opening round may not be a requirement, given the circumstances
Obviously, it’s a results-based business and those will play a vital role, but the decision will also be about how the Jets play under Lowry and how the group responds to his leadership and coaching style.
It’s the equivalent of a 52-game tryout and Lowry is going to do everything in his power to put himself in the best position to keep the job.
With Blake Wheeler out for a long time, if Cole Perfetti impresses in WJC, is there any chance he could see some time with the Jets once he returns? -- @gojetsgo_17
Under the new leadership of Dave Lowry, do guys like Ville Heinola and Cole Perfetti get a shot in the new year? -- Dan Johnson
The timetable for a possible return for the Jets captain remains a bit cloudy and the only reference point that has been given so far is that with him being placed on LTIR, he will miss a minimum of 10 games or 24 days.
So let’s consider Wheeler to be out indefinitely.
Perfetti got off to a fantastic start at the 2022 World Junior Hockey Championship, chipping in three assists in Canada’s first win and he figures to be one of the key cogs in the pursuit of a gold medal.
What that means for Perfetti coming out of the event remains to be seen.
With Wheeler still expected to miss some additional time, there could be an opportunity for Perfetti to get a look but generally speaking, players are given several days off after competing in a high-pressure environment like the world juniors before returning to their club teams.
A lot will depend on the health of the Jets and how many players -- if any -- are in COVID protocol after the world juniors wraps up.
My expectation is that Perfetti will suit up in additional games with the Jets this season, but doing enough to become a regular is unlikely -- though not impossible.
As for Heinola, a coaching change only improves his position if the current staff believes he’s a better option than one of the six regulars in the lineup and there’s been no indication to this point that that is the case.
Heinola remains one of the brightest prospects in the system, but barring an injury, the most likely scenario is that he spends the bulk of this season in the AHL with the Moose.
The best way for Heinola to force his way into the discussion is by dominating in the minors (when the games resume) and being ready for whenever the opportunity arises for him.
My expectation is that Heinola will get some games with the Jets, but that like Perfetti, he’s unlikely to become an NHL regular before next season.
What is your prediction for the Jets' top nine (line combos) once everyone is healthy and barring injury, what is the likelihood the standard top six would start game No. 1 of the playoffs if the Jets make it? -- Craig Zamzow
The return of David Gustafsson (lower body) after being limited to only five shifts in his Jets season debut should allow the Jets to become more of a four-line team once again and it’s integral for Lowry to find minutes for that unit.
As mentioned earlier, Lowry used his checking line in more of a head-to-head role on home ice, but it’s too early to determine if he’ll try to employ the same strategy on the road when he doesn’t have the last change.
A more balanced attack is something that will be investigated, but having an identity line is something that can help the Jets.
As far as how the pieces fit, it’s tough to know how long it’s going to take for Wheeler and Svechnikov to fully get back up to speed after missing time, but this is my best guess for how things could look up front, based on the current composition of the Jets roster.
It’s also important to remember that the Jets have a number of options to explore, numerous players comfortable moving around the depth chart and that things should become clearer over time (yes, right now the crystal ball remains a bit cloudy):
What do you think that the Jets will do at the trade deadline if they are in a secure playoff spot at the time? -- Kim Mathew
This is a question that has been posed virtually every month since the season started and it remains a mostly complicated issue for the Jets.
Because they’re well into LTIR again, any deal is basically going to be a money in, money out type of situation, which puts some limits on the types of players the Jets could pursue.
It’s also important to remember the Jets have three unrestricted free agents on the roster right now, Copp and Stastny up front and Nathan Beaulieu, who is the seventh D-man.
Unless the Jets fall out of contention, it’s likely the Jets view the players on expiring deals the way they did during the 2017-18 season - as self-rentals, not as assets they move to replenish draft picks or look at futures.
With that in mind, one could see the Jets looking to add some potential forward depth and one player who makes a lot of sense would be Seattle Kraken winger Mason Appleton, who checks a lot of boxes and would not likely cost a premium to acquire.
The Jets lost Appleton in the expansion draft and while it looked like a good opportunity to expand his role with a new organization, it’s been a relatively non-descript season for him.
After posting career highs of 12 goals and 25 points in 56 games with the Jets last season, Appleton has two goals and six points in 19 games with the Kraken while averaging just over 14 minutes per game of ice time.
Appleton’s role could be enhanced after former Jets winger Brandon Tanev was lost for the season with a torn ACL, but there have been reports that Seattle might be willing to move him.
Appleton is cost-efficient since he carries a $900,000 cap hit and will be a restricted free agent at the end of the deal.
He also has history playing alongside Lowry and would only strengthen the identity of the checking line, plus he could easily be added to the penalty kill -- a task he had for a chunk of last season.
Appleton would bring a nice blend of skill and feistiness to a forward group that is looking for some additional secondary scoring from within.
If the Jets choose to look elsewhere, they would be looking for similar qualities and most likely someone with a similar cap hit.
Would you say the Jets would be in the running for getting Kraken defenceman Mark Giordano? -- Sam Ritter
Experienced blue-liners are always going to be of interest to teams, but given the Jets already have a surplus of left-handed shooting D-men and have a number of prospects hoping to get a look as early as next season, trading assets for someone on an expiring contract like Giordano seems highly unlikely.
Having said that, provided he’s not going to sign an extension with the Kraken, Giordano could easily end up being on the move to a contender prior to the deadline.