Jets at midseason: Winnipeg looking good heading into game vs. Penguins

Jets defenceman Josh Morrissey discusses all the factors that have allowed his breakout offensive season, says their new system has allowed dmen to jump in the play more, and that they as a team really are never concerned about generating offence.

BUFFALO – Well-positioned, with plenty of room for growth.

That seems to be the overriding feeling when it comes to the current state of the Winnipeg Jets, who have won six of seven games after opening the second half with a victory over the Buffalo Sabres on Thursday.

There was an air of uncertainty coming into the season.

With a new coach in Rick Bowness behind the bench, there was optimism a talented group that underachieved last season might take a few steps forward – but it was impossible to know how big an impact a new voice might have.

It didn’t take long to see Bowness’ message has resonated, and while the past two games were a reminder that the defensive side of the game remains a work in progress, the strides taken have put the Jets among the contenders in the Western Conference.

“They found a way to get back to the roots of the game and do what you need to do to grind out wins. Because that’s what we’re going to have to do on a nightly basis here,” said Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff. “On the heels of giving up seven (goals) and 11 (total goals) in the last two (before Buffalo), you’ve got to get back to playing a game that’s going to be successful to win on a regular basis here. That’s our focus.

“You don’t know what’s around the corner from a health perspective on a game-to-game basis. It’s about being prepared. There are schedule challenges, all these different things we’re going to have, as are other teams. How you handle them in the second half of the season ultimately determines where things fall.”

After taking the job, Bowness made a series of calls to players, identifying areas that needed improvement and then went to work on looking for solutions – which has been a constant theme since his arrival and one that will continue throughout the final 41 games and beyond, provided the Jets qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs.

“Good teams, you have to be resilient. You have to find different ways to win and you have to have different guys contribute,” said Bowness. “There were a lot of challenges, clearly, with the team. Get them on the same page, get them away from the distractions that were around the team in terms of the culture; we’ve had to fix that, first and foremost. You’re not going to fix the X and Os on the ice until you fix the culture. The culture wasn’t nearly as bad as perceived, that was a help, but there were a lot of things we had to do on the ice in terms of tightening things up.

“You miss the playoffs when you try to win every game 5-4; you miss the playoffs in this league. I thought we were making good strides for a while, then the injuries hit and the schedule hit. We lost a little bit of the way we were playing. We’re going to get it back now that the line-up is back. We’re happy where we are, knowing we’re going to keep getting better.”

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One of the points of emphasis for the Jets was getting more offence from the blue-line, and they’ve measured up well in that category.

The Jets already have 25 goals from the defence corps, which is just one behind the total they produced last season and are on pace for the 40-plus Bowness had projected on the first day of training camp.

“I like what our D have done. (Bowness) asked us, he challenged us at the beginning of the year to be a bigger part of our offence,” said Jets defenceman Nate Schmidt. “Our (forwards) have done a really good job at covering for us to give us that confidence to go and do it. You see what happens when you give the D that type of range to go. Our guys have done a much better job this year of just making ourselves available and not just floating up the ice.”

The Jets recently survived a stretch where they had seven regulars out of the lineup with injuries, but they were determined not to let that derail their season.

Instead, their star players provided a number of sensational performances and some depth players filled in admirably when given enhanced opportunity.

“I thought we weathered the storm with the injuries really well,” said Jets forward Sam Gagner. “We’ve had a good first half of the season. We like where we’re at, but, at the same time, I think there is still room for growth. We feel that in here. We’re confident we’re going to get to another level. We just need to keep pushing forward and keep building.”

Key Statistics

Record: 27-14-1 (2nd in the Central Division)

Goals for: 3.36 per game (ninth in the NHL)

Goals against: 2.67 per game (5th in the NHL)

Power play: 23.4 per cent (12th in the NHL)

Penalty kill: 83.2 per cent (fifth in the NHL)

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Best surprise: Josh Morrissey

The Jets’ top defenceman recalibrated last season and provided plenty of solid play at both ends of the ice, but the arrival of Bowness has helped unlock the offensive side of Morrissey’s game to levels not seen since he was starring in the Western Hockey League with the Prince Albert Raiders and Kelowna Rockets. The 2013 first-rounder was named to appear in his first NHL All-Star Game last week and already set career highs for goals (eight), assists (39) and points (47). He led his team in scoring for much of the first half and hasn’t let his defensive game slide either, routinely taking on the toughest matchups. He’s worked his way into the Norris Trophy discussion, just as Bowness encouraged him to do during an offseason conversation.

Biggest disappointment: Neal Pionk

The Jets blue-liner has managed to contribute offensively, already setting a career-high with his seventh goal on Tuesday against the Detroit Red Wings and he’s collected 19 points in 42 games. But it’s his defensive zone play that needs improvement. Pionk is a competitive player, but opponents have generated a lot of shots and scoring chances when he’s been on the ice. Pionk played much of last season with a broken foot and there have been signs he might be playing through an ailment this season as well – since his mobility has been an issue on some nights. No matter what role his health has played thus far, Pionk will be looking to elevate his all-around game during the second half.

Biggest question for the second half: Who will augment the roster?

The Jets essentially haven’t played with a full roster since the second game of the season, but they could be down to just two injured players – winger Mason Appleton (wrist) and defenceman Logan Stanley (lower body) – by the end of the week once Saku Maenalanen is ready to return. So, there should be plenty of time to figure out what kind of additions the Jets would like to make before the March 3 trade deadline. As long as the Jets are able to remain in the race and keep pushing forward, Cheveldayoff is expected to bolster the roster by making multiple moves. The expectation is that a forward or two will be targeted, but that doesn’t rule out a depth move on the back end.

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