CHICAGO — It’s natural to wonder if some players on the periphery of the Winnipeg Jets roster might have been hearing footsteps, either consciously or subconsciously.
Even if they aren’t interested in making any public declarations on the matter, with Morgan Barron coming out of the infirmary on Sunday after the wrist injury that required surgery was fully healed, it’s safe to say the internal competition among the forward group is about to ramp up.
With Nikolaj Ehlers (sports hernia) and Mason Appleton (wrist) still out long-term, the full effect won’t likely be felt for more than a month or so, but for the players either vying for a bump in ice time — and/or battling to stay in the lineup — it’s on.
And a good chunk of those players made an important contribution as the Jets delivered a decisive 7-2 defeat to the Chicago Blackhawks at the United Center.
Never mind the Blackhawks have now dropped seven consecutive games and are reeling after an encouraging start, that’s not an issue the Jets need to worry about.
Their focus was solely on finishing off a three-game road trip against Central Division opponents on a positive note and that’s precisely what they did — thanks in part to an impressive contribution from a bottom-six that needed to increase its contributions when it comes to complementary scoring.
Whether it was Saku Maenalanen scoring twice (including a rocket over the glove of Petr Mrazek), Jansen Harkins scoring for the second time in as many games while showing well in his promotion to the third line with Adam Lowry or Morgan Barron and Dominic Toninato chipping in an assist on the fourth unit as they returned to the lineup, the examples of role players trying to leave an imprint were everywhere you turned.
Those stretched beyond the scoresheet, as waiver-claim Axel Jonsson-Fjallby provided some energy on a line with Pierre-Luc Dubois (two goals) and Kyle Connor (one goal, three points). Mikey Eyssimont did the same, rounding out the Lowry line and earning a promotion to the second power play unit, since veteran forward Sam Gagner was a healthy scratch for the first time this season as centre David Gustafsson sat out with a minor upper-body injury.
“Every line scored. That’s nice to see,” said Jets head coach Rick Bowness. “We need some goals from that bottom six, and we’ve been getting them.”
There have been plenty of times this season when the Jets have been too reliant on the top forwards and the high-end contributions from defenceman Josh Morrissey, who chipped in another three assists as he increased his team-leading point total to 23 in 20 games.
On this night, the Jets racked up a number of checkmarks on the to-do list, getting an even-strength goal from each of the four lines (including two from the fourth line) and adding a pair on the power-play (including an absolute rocket of a one-timer from Connor, who scored for the sixth time in the past six games to reach eight for the season).
“If you want to be a successful team in this league, the only way to do it through the whole 82-game season is like that, when everybody contributes,” said Dubois, who is up to 10 goals to sit one behind Scheifele or the team lead. “Some nights, some lines might contribute more offensively or defensively. For it to be sustainable, that’s how it’s going to have to look this year. You’re going to need a lot of pieces to get going. You look at teams and they get injuries and that’s the end of their season.
“We’ve had a lot of injuries already this year, important injuries, and we keep winning games. That’s important because these are valuable points at the end of the year. You look at the best teams every year. Oftentimes, the top lines, they want to cancel each other out. Every year in the playoffs, you always see the unsung heroes who make the difference in the playoffs. It’s not just a switch you turn on come playoff time.”
Just like lopsided losses have been few and far between, blowout wins are fleeting but can certainly provide a boost of confidence, especially with the red-hot Colorado Avalanche (7-2 in their past nine games) coming to town to open a four-game homestand on Tuesday night.
The Jets reached the quarter point of the season with a record of 13-6-1, which is tied for the best start in 2.0 franchise history.
Although the Jets are just one point behind the Dallas Stars in the chase for top spot in the Central, they’re actually leading the division in points percentage because of those two games in hand.
A quick note of caution for context, the Jets also hit that mark last season, backed by a 9-3-3 start. But, this seems more likely to be sustainable — thanks in part to a commitment to the defensive structure that was lacking a year ago.
“I think it’s good. Defensively, it’s more about not being so set in a spot,” said Connor, asked for his thoughts on the improvements made to the defensive structure, which was a top priority going into training camp. “If you see a loose puck in the corner, go. Trust your teammates more and be more aggressive. And that allows us to play quicker. When you play quicker, you get the puck more.
“But if there’s a loose puck, and I’ve got to go down in that corner to get the puck, I know my centreman’s taking my D man. So it’s playing quicker. That’s an adjustment that we didn’t really do much last year.”
Which brings us back to those players trying to cement their spots on Bowness’ lineup card.
For guys to avoid being the next person sent down to the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League — or being subjected to waivers like Harkins, Toninato, Eyssimont and Jonsson-Fjallby all have already this season — finding consistency while doing what you do best will be paramount.
“Our depth is really key. You need that if you’re going to have long runs,” said Connor, who is up to 20 points in 20 games after what he viewed as a slow start by his lofty standards. “You’re going to have injuries. Every team goes through it. We obviously lost (Ehlers), who’s a huge part of our team. A couple other guys here and there, (like Appleton).
“It’s just kind of been the mentality all year. You’ve got to be ready. You’ll get your chance. Bones talks about everybody looking the same without the puck. I think that’s kind of been the focus for guys coming up, too. They can look around the room and see everybody playing that way.”
Playing that way has resulted in some early success and it won’t take long to see if the Jets are able to build on that as they begin the push to the midway point of what has already been an entertaining and somewhat surprising start to the season.