WINNIPEG — The heavy lifting is around the corner, but what kind of conclusions can be drawn about the Winnipeg Jets as they hit the quarter mark of this compressed NHL season?
To be frank, the jury is most definitely still out.
Thanks to another final-minute communication breakdown resulting in a buzzer-beater for the Ottawa Senators in the 2-1 loss for the Jets on Saturday afternoon, Winnipeg was left to wonder what might have been had the game made it to three-on-three overtime.
It was the second time this season the Jets allowed a goal in the final 10 seconds of regulation (once with 8.2 seconds to go and another with just 0.7 seconds left on the clock) and the third time they’ve lost a game during the final two minutes (that one other coming earlier this week when the Calgary Flames scored a power-play marker with 1:42 to go).
Blown leads are going to happen over the course of the season, but learning from those moments and getting better at protecting leads is a foundational piece for teams that win consistently.
“Any team can score in any given moment. You can’t give them those chances,” Jets centre Mark Scheifele said. “You can’t lose that focus. You can’t lose that thought in your head that the game is not over until the buzzer rings.”
Is it too early to suggest the Jets’ inability to close games out is already becoming a trend?
“In those three games, if we’d had the lead or it was tight and the other team took it to us, then you can say that there’s something to that,” Jets head coach Paul Maurice said. “With three of them in this short period of time, you’re not happy about it, but there’s not a specific event that’s taken place.”
Because it wasn’t a recurring theme — like a missed assignment in the slot — that’s occurred on multiple occasions, Maurice was adamant in his response.
On the flip side, the Jets have already scored twice with the goalie out in favour of the extra attacker, winning once in overtime and dropping the other game in a shootout.
Things like that generally have a way of coming out in the wash, and this small sample size backs that theory up.
The Jets’ top priority coming into this season was tightening up as a five-man unit defensively and cutting down on the number of high-danger chances allowed.
That remains a work in progress, though there has been some incremental growth in terms of not leaning quite as heavily on the goaltenders to cover up a number of those D-zone mistakes.
The other thing to consider is that the Jets have played the Senators and Calgary Flames five times each in the first quarter, while playing the division-leading Toronto Maple Leafs just once (and not seeing the Montreal Canadiens at all).
Teams can only play who is on the schedule, but it’s fair to say things should come into clearer focus during this next 14-game block — which includes three games against the Maple Leafs, three against the Canadiens and four against the Vancouver Canucks.
WHERE THE JETS ARE RELATIVE TO EXPECTATION
The Jets were one of the teams in the North Division that had a wide variation when it came to predictions and projections, though many observers had them on the outside looking in when it came to the four playoff teams.
For the record, I had the Jets finishing fourth in the North. To this point, the Jets are third in points percentage, so they’re slightly ahead of the game when it comes to expectations, relatively speaking.
TOP-SIX FORWARDS GRADE: B
Before we dig too deep into this, let’s not forget the Jets had either Patrik Laine or Pierre-Luc Dubois (the player Laine was traded for) in the lineup for only three games in the first quarter of the season due to injury and/or quarantine rules.
That fact simply can’t be ignored.
Mark Scheifele remains among the leading scorers in the NHL with 18 points, Nikolaj Ehlers has continued to progress and is producing at an outstanding rate (team-leading nine goals and 16 points) and Kyle Connor has scored four of his seven goals on the power play.
Andrew Copp got bumped into the top-six role after Laine was hurt, and he’s taken full advantage of the opportunity to earn some additional ice time, racking up 12 points.
Jets captain Blake Wheeler looks like he’s been battling through an injury, but he was skating better on Saturday than he had in several weeks and was double-shifted on occasion.
He’s also found a way to chip in offensively (12 points), even if something seemed off and things have been challenging at five-on-five.
BOTTOM-SIX FORWARDS GRADE: B
This one is a bit misleading, because the third line — which has primarily been Adam Lowry, Mason Appleton and Mathieu Perreault — would receive an A for their efforts.
Lowry has rebounded nicely from an injury-plagued season (chipping in four goals and nine points), Appleton has taken the next step offensively (eight points, the same number he had in 46 games last season), while Perreault has been sipping from the fountain of youth — seemingly refreshed after the extra time to get healthy and back to creating chaos on the forecheck.
The fourth line has been a bit of a revolving door — some of which is related to injury — and there haven’t been enough games where the Jets have done anything other than tread water with that group on the ice.
Once Dubois is back to full health (he missed Saturday’s game with a lower-body injury and is officially listed as day-to-day), Paul Stastny is likely to move back to left wing on the Lowry line, which will bolster the depth and create a trickle-down effect as Perreault moves to the fourth line.
The pending return of Jansen Harkins (who has been limited to nine games by a lower-body injury) should help provide a boost for the fourth line, too.
The big decision for Maurice during the coming weeks will revolve around whether he finds more opportunities for the likes of Kristian Vesalainen and David Gustafsson, or if he leans on Nate Thompson (once he’s healthy) and Trevor Lewis.
DEFENCE GRADE: C
It’s been a mixed bag for the defence corps so far, with nine blue-liners already suiting up in at least one game.
The most stable pairing has been Neal Pionk with Derek Forbort, and they’ve handled the shutdown role in the bulk of the games.
Despite being removed from the top power-play unit, Pionk still leads Jets blue-liners in points (10, including eight at even strength) and he’s added a more physical element to his game.
Forbort has proven to be an excellent addition on a low-cost free-agent deal, helping the penalty kill, capably handling the boost in ice time and providing some unexpected offence (one goal, six points).
The play of Josh Morrissey has been a bit uneven so far, but he figures to benefit from having a more regular partner and getting back onto his natural side.
A reunion with Dylan DeMelo is one option that could ultimately help both players get back to peak performance.
Tucker Poolman has played two games after recovering from COVID-19, and he’s starting to find his way — while the play of Logan Stanley through 13 games has made it difficult for the coaching staff to take him out of the lineup once the Jets return to the more traditional deployment of 12 forwards and six defencemen.
GOALTENDING GRADE: B
Connor Hellebuyck remains the backbone of this hockey club, and after a couple of hiccups in the early stages of the season (which included several soft goals against), the reigning Vezina Trophy winner has returned to form.
Hellebuyck has been locked in of late, providing the type of goaltending the Jets have come to expect.
“He’s just been big and square in the net,” Maurice said.
Another important development for the Jets has been the play of backup Laurent Brossoit, who has posted a .918 save percentage through three starts.
With 17 games for the Jets in March, Brossoit is going to be a bit busier, allowing Hellebuyck to find the perfect balance between staying fresh and remaining sharp.
A BIG QUESTION FOR THE SECOND QUARTER
What type of impact will Pierre-Luc Dubois have?
After going three full weeks without playing a full game, and being off the ice completely for 14 full days, Dubois got into two games over three days before hitting what appears to be a minor speed bump (the undisclosed lower-body injury).
There were some glimpses of the type of impact Dubois could have on his new team during those first two games (his speed, passing ability and power were all on display), even if he’s yet to record a shot on goal.
As Dubois works to get into more of a rhythm with a busy schedule on the horizon, his impact should be felt at both ends of the rink and will help create plenty of matchup challenges for the Jets’ opponents.
With Maurice reuniting Scheifele with Connor and Wheeler on Saturday, Dubois might soon find himself between Ehlers and Copp on what could be a highly-effective and dynamic line.
The internal competition among forwards for ice time should also push the entire group to raise their collective compete level.