Jets Still Flying High Without Connor

by | Dec 24, 2023

Jets Still Flying High Without Connor

by | Dec 24, 2023

When a team star and leader goes down in professional sports, either that organization crumbles or they find a way to find some intestinal fortitude with a “next man up” mindset.  All you have to do is look at the NFL with the New York Jets.  Oh, the summer headlines talked about how Aaron Rodgers would lead the Gang Green to the Super Bowl and then Rodgers goes down four plays into the first game of the season with a torn Achilles tendon.  Cue the clown cars as the Jets have turned into three-ring circus this season and will miss the NFL playoffs yet again.  

For the NHL namesake Jets, there is a very different scenario brewing in Winnipeg.  The loss of Kyle Connor to an MCL sprain from anywhere from six to eight weeks means the loss of some serious offensive firepower until the All-Star break or even later.  Some teams crumble with the loss of their star power; the Winnipeg Jets simply have found a formula to the “next man up” question.  Rick Bowness may be a lot of things to people but right now he seems to be putting together a winning combination in Winnipeg as the Jets keeping moving up and down from third to first place in the Central Division.  The one certainty right now is the undeniable fact that the Jets are finding a way, somehow, to just keep winning. 

Where have you been, Gabriel Vilardi?

There’s a great line in the boxing movie Cinderella Man where Paul Giamatti’s character looks at Russell Crowe and says “where have you been, Jimmy Braddock?” as an ode to Braddock’s real-life comeback career in the Depression Era.  The same line could be just as easily used when talking about Gabriel Vilardi.  Vilardi certainly isn’t a rookie so you won’t hear his name mentioned with the likes of a Connor Bedard or Adam Fantilli or Bobby Brink but Vilardi’s move to Winnipeg might as well be sort of a career comeback with the Jets.

What exactly as Gabriel Vilardi done in Winnipeg since his arrival in Manitoba?  Well, for starters, he did sit out the early part of the season due to an MCL sprain, the same kind of injury that Kyle Connor currently is nursing off the ice for the conceivable future.  Without much fanfare, Vilardi has 13 points in 13 games including a goal and two assists against the Detroit Red Wings on December 20th in a 5-2 Jets’ victory at home.  In case you aren’t quite sure who Gabriel Vilardi is, he’s one of the players who came over from the Los Angeles Kings in the Pierre-Luc Dubois trade.  Oh, and what has PLD done for the Kings so far this season?  The comparison falls in favor of the Jets since Dubois has a total of 12 points for the season while Vilardi has 13 total points in just the last 13 games he’s played since coming off of the IR.

Gabriel Vilardi has found his comfort zone alongside the Jets’ first line with Mark Scheifele and Nikolaj Ehlers and the result has been simply transformational as Vilardi has five goals in the last five games with five additional primary assists in as many games.  The Winnipeg Jets look to be at least on paper as the winners in the Pierre-Luc Dubois trade given the fact that Gabriel Vilardi wasn’t much more than an afterthought in that trade between the Kings and the Jets and now Vilardi is simply one of the hottest offensive players in the NHL.  Again, where have you been, Gabriel Vilardi? 

The Jets are having engine problems on special teams.

Special teams in hockey are, well, truly special in the sense that great units can help teams win games and poor units are the bane of NHL divisional cellar dwellers.  At least that’s the consensus belief but when it comes to the Winnipeg Jets, the opposite is the truth. You would expect a team that ranks 24th in the NHL on the power play (16.7%) and 26th on the penalty kill (74.5%) would be a bottom feeder in the overall standings.  Well, that is simply not the case with the Winnipeg Jets.  Despite their lack of success on special teams, the Jets look to be unstoppable in standard five on five play and when at full strength, they outshot the Red Wings 40-25 on December 20th at home.  It remains to be seen, however, if the Jets can sustain their playoff hopes well into April with weak special teams play and this may well become the Jets’ proverbial Achilles heel down the 2023-24 season stretch.

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