At what point is it not enough simply to have a hockey team in your town? That’s a question that many in Winnipeg might be asking right about now. This is the fourth season since the team’s move, and man, was the excitement high back in 2011 when they Jets were reborn. I know. I was there. It was magical, and everyone in town from the CEOs to the ice cream vendors was charged up. Then the team did what it had done in Atlanta—it played like a marginal, poorly managed group, which was essentially what it was.
But time would heal that, right? Not exactly, at least not yet. This year, the team has a few standout names. Evander Kane, Andrew Ladd, TJ Galiardi, Blake Wheeler, Zach Bogosian. These are guys who you recognize, if not names that would draw you in to buy a ticket if they were on the upcoming visitor’s roster.
Mark Scheifele, I have maintained since the first, was a poor use of a first-round, seventh-overall draft pick (2011). His first more or less full season was last year, when he played 63 games and potted 34 points. Ho hum, though there were guys this past summer who got three- and four-million dollar contracts with an average of a point every other game.
But the Jets finished 7th in the Central Division last year, with their only consolation being that in the West’s wildcard race, they at least beat out three other Canadian teams, the Canucks, Flames, and Oilers. But still, no playoff berth. That means that the Jets, in some form or other as playing in Winnipeg, haven’t been in the hunt for the Stanley Cup since their final season in Winnipeg in the form of the old franchise. That run ended in the first round, 4-2 to the Red Wings.
So what’s to say that this year’s team won’t pick up the rope and pull it hard, propelling themselves into the race for the Cup once more?
Well, goaltending for one. Their keepers are Ondrej Pavelec and Michael Hutchinson. The former you likely remember. He’s been with the Thrashers-Jets since the start of his career in 2005, when he was drafted by Atlanta. Early on, he bounced between the AHL Chicago Wolves and the big club, but he played the most games of his career the first year back in the ‘Peg. That was 68, and he barely squeaked a winning record, at 29-28-9. The next highest number, 57 last year, he recorded a 22-26-7 record. In his career, he’s lost more than won, and he has a career GAA of nearly 3, at 2.96. His career save percentage is down around ninety percent, at .906. Seeing a problem?
OK, so why not go to the backup? OK, but that guy, a 3rd-round draftee of the Bruins in 2008, has played three games. Ever. He’s won two of them, at least. But how deep is that guy going to take you in the playoffs? Well, nowhere unless you get there, and the Jets have to figure out a way to do that.
One idea? Pull Peter Budaj back from the minors, where he was relegated in early October, just before the season started.
Their first big shakeup came last year when they fired their coach and hired Paul Maurice just after New Year’s. He now has a four-year extension. For what? The hiring move will perhaps pay off bigger this year than last, but the one thing that’s odd about this organization has nothing to do with the coach. It’s the players that the Jets have packed their roster with. Even a quick scan of their transaction list shows a ton of players on one-year deals, including Julian Broulliette, a defenseman, Matt Halischuk, Michel Frolik, Keaton Ellerby, Ben Chiarot, Carl Klingberg, and Adam Pardy, the latter to a one-year extension. What’s with the cast-off crew?
Further, having signed all of those players, what’d they do with them? Of the seven, just three were on the Winnipeg roster on Sunday when they were in town for the Kings, and one of those, Frolik, was a scratch versus the Kings, the night before Thanksgiving. Canadian, that is.
The Jets stormed out of the gate, starting their season on the road 6-2 versus Arizona. But then the dumped a 3-0 loss to San Jose. Against the Kings, they held their own in some statistical categories including faceoffs (55%), but they were hardly able to keep pace as far as scoring chances or mastery with the puck were concerned. Just to cite a couple of examples, in the first period, Frolik got the puck in the slot but had no help and shot into Martin Jones’s pads. Scheifele made a nice give-and-go pass and went to the net, but he let Stoll get his stick under Scheifele’s and the Jets player couldn’t get a shot away. The puck later came to the net and Wheeler was there, but he couldn’t get a stick on it. Later he and Scheifele went to the net together, Wheeler held the puck, but Scheifele was blocked out by the defense.
And the LA team had more chances than that, including two that they scored on. They were collapsed into the Winnipeg net all night, in fact, recording mostly quality, close-in shots.
One game is not enough of a sample size to determine systemic problems, I suppose, but if it is any indication, then there are a number of things wrong with the Jets’ game. Here’s a quick enumeration.
They are too focused on what’s happening now, and not enough on where the puck is going to be a second or two from now. This is apparent, for example, when they send four guys to the boards, then those four only slowly unfurl back into the play when the Kings free the puck up and send it toward the front of the net.
They don’t seem big enough to finish plays that go to the opposition’s net. They get there, and they can get the puck there, but as in the examples cited above, they are too easy to eliminate once they’re there, too simple to contain with just a backchecker’s stick.
They need a backup goalie who can win a few, and Hutchinson may not be that guy. Now, his confidence will not be helped by his coach’s lack of confidence in him. He let in three goals on 13 shots and was yanked with 1:01 gone in period two. His fault? No. Most of the chances saw the Kings collapsed down in front of the net. OK, the third goal was a bit of a softie, with Tanner Pearson putting one long side and seeing it trickle between the goalie’s arm and body. But then again, Pearson’s smart enough to notice that the goalie is a southpaw, and so to shoot long side was to catch him in that awkward place where goalies can’t always close down.
But what’s the team thinking seeing their starter yanked that early? It’s game three, and it’s not like the guy got a lot of help. Neither did his successor, who was scored on once in the nine shots he faced in period two. But again, the Jets were just not able to box out the Kings. Pearson went straight to the net after the puck was turned over at the Kings’ blueline. His shot was stopped, but Jeff Carter was following in, and he had no trouble putting the puck over Pavelec. No wonder—he was barely checked. It was Carter’s hundredth point as a King, for anyone keeping track.
After the game, IH gathered a few impressions from the players wearing the Jets on their chests, and their coach.
Blake Wheeler said, “There was a lot of action, but we couldn’t get one by him. We were playing from behind, but we were really never out of it.”
Hmm. So he thinks that the Jets were nearly as good as the Kings. True, the shots in the game ended up being just one up for the Kings, 31-30, but the Winnipeg team didn’t have the close chances that the Kings did, mainly because they couldn’t get close enough with more than one man very often. And even when they got a guy in close, the Kings had no real trouble containing whoever it was.
Bryan Little said, “The score was similar to yesterday [against San Jose], but we came out a lot better.” I’m not sure we saw the same first period, but let’s go on. “We just made a couple of big mistakes, and a team like that is going to make you pay for it. If we’d buried a couple of chances it could be 2-2 or 2-1 but it’s 3-0. We played better than the score tonight.” Actually, the Kings are the kind of team that makes you pay. But so does any good NHL team. And when they do, they don’t just roll over and let you back in it. When you’re down, you’re generally out in these circumstances. “They make you pay for everything you do.” Those, too, are Little’s words.
Mathieu Perreault said, “We got behind the 8-ball right away the last two games, and we couldn’t get it back. We missed a couple of chances and got behind the 8-ball, and we can’t find a way back.” It was nowhere near that simple.
Their coach, Paul Maurice, commented, “I thought we were better at the start here tonight than we were in San Jose. I thought the compete level was higher and that the chances were even, but it was a harder fought game through fifty minutes anyway. They were just better at parts of the game than we were. They came up the puck, got the puck in deep, didn’t turn them over at the line quite as often. They were a little better around the net.”
In short, the Kings were better in every way than the Jets, and if you multiply this by, say, forty or so games which you lose over the course of a season, you’re looking at another non-playoff season.
The Jets are 1-2, as are the Kings. The Jets have been on a tough road trip, further, to start the year. “We’ve got room to improve, but we knew that before the trip started, and we’ll keep working on it,” Maurice finished.
He’s right. The Jets aren’t good enough in any aspect of the game to think that they could beat the odds and unseat one of the obvious top eight in the West come game 82. He commented on one young player, summing up with this: “A little bit like our team. There’s more there.” More, but maybe not quite enough, but then again, that’s why they play the games, isn’t it?