Jets struggling to fight way out of slump

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There’s a big difference between being a team in first place and being a first-place team.

The Winnipeg Jets are a team in first place these days (in that regard, the standings don’t lie). But they are nowhere close to being a team worthy of their spot in the standings (and this is where the standings are misleading).

You can call what the Jets are going through a slump if you’d like. You can refer to it as a blip on the radar screen or team facing a bit of adversity. There’s some truth ruffling around in there. The season is long. But Winnipeg’s problems run deeper than the adjectives being used to describe their recent stretch.

And that’s when you see that the slump might actually be a trend, and not one that started last week with a pair of losses to the Ottawa Senators and now a pair of defeats to the Colorado Avalanche (including an atrocity-on-ice in a 7-1 loss on Wednesday night).

The slide begins further back, let’s say around Christmas — when the Jets lost both Dustin Byfuglien and Nikolaj Ehlers to injury and seemingly stopped playing the same way they used to. And while they’ve have found wins since then — including a couple of emphatic ones along the way against Tampa Bay and Vegas — a slow drip has worked itself into a concerning leak.

The Jets are a good case study when it comes to relying too heavily on an unsustainably-good power play and great goaltending while not playing well enough five-on-five to cover off the two if one or both wells run dry.

The Money Puck chart above shows how far Winnipeg’s expected goal differential has dipped. It’s severe. Their expected goals-for has also been on a moonwalk backward since around the same time, which makes sense given how far that differential as fallen.

The numbers shouldn’t come as a surprise. Anyone who’s watched the Jets regularly can see a team that’s a shade of their former selves.

  • They’re slow.
  • They appear uninterested.
  • They lack urgency and can’t match the intensity of their opponents
  • Their power play has fallen off the face of the earth.
  • Swiss cheese would be jealous of how many holes they’ve developed in their defense.
  • Patrik Laine left his game in November.
  • Discipline has gone out the window
  • Paul Maurice’s stubbornness has led to sub-optimal lines being trotted out game after game with predictable results.

Both wells have certainly run dry.

So how can a team sitting in first place, in what’s thought of as the toughest division in hockey, have so many issues? Like a bad infection, it’s had time to develop.

The Jets have slid seven spots from the eighth-best possession team last season to 15th this year. Their high-danger shots-for has gone from seventh to 22nd. Their goals-for/60 has plummeted from third to 14th.

In essence, the team has regressed. And without the benefit of that elite power play recently, Winnipeg hasn’t been able to outscore the issues they’re experiencing five-on-five.

If not for the excellent play of their goaltenders this year, they’d be in worse shape.

Connor Hellebuyck had a slow start to the season, but the Jets managed to outscore some of his woes. Laurent Brossoit has been a godsend as a backup, and they haven’t really needed to outscore anything with him in net because he barely gives up goals and has one of the best goals saved above average (GSAA) numbers in the entire NHL.

Hellebuyck has regained some of that form that saw him become a Vezina runner-up last season, but even his recent stellar play couldn’t help when seven flew past him on Wednesday night. Hellebuyck, quite frankly, was the only reason why that number wasn’t doubled.

“We were f—ing awful,” Jets forward Adam Lowry said in a candid meeting with reporters in Denver following the game. (The entire scrum is well worth the watch).

Jets captain Blake Wheeler said his team gave up, the first he’s seen such an occurrence during his time in Winnipeg — even through the seasons where they had nothing to play for.

There wasn’t much else to be said following Wednesday’s display. Both were raw. And both were true.

Fixing what is ailing the Jets is a question with no answer at the moment, but it has to begin with trying to find optimal placement for some of its pieces.

Laine’s slump is by no means the reason why the Jets are where they are. He’s far from the biggest issue with the team. But getting him going again is part of the solution, and finding suitable linemates to do so is a must.

Maurice brought the blender out on Wednesday but it was no use in a game as terrible as the one the Jets played.

Laine needs a driver at the moment, so moving a guy like Mathieu Perreault to his opposite wing would be a good start (it’s shown well in a limited fashion in the past). Perhaps putting Andrew Copp in between those two should be explored as well.

Putting Copp back with Lowry and Brandon Tanev would be another option. That line was elite last season in terms of possession and the Jets sorely need some sustained offensive zone time five-on-five.

The return of Ehlers will eventually help, but his timetable is still murky.

Maurice’s biggest task is sorting it out now, something he’s acknowledged but has struggled to find the proper diagnosis.

“We are concerned,” Maurice said last weekend following their second loss to the Senators in a week.

Asked to elaborate on those concerns, Maurice mentioned pretty much everything.

“Just our game,” he said. “There’s not a lot going for us. We’re struggling in all pieces of it. It’s how we generate our offense, how we defend, our special teams. Probably not our goaltending, our goaltending has been good.”

After Wednesday’s game, Maurice had far fewer words, spending just 40 seconds with reporters.

The man with 1,500-plus NHL games as a bench boss needs to figure out how to extract the same formidable Winnipeg Jets that were considered a Stanley Cup contender not long ago.

The last two weeks — and really, the past couple of months — have brought that into question.

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Pageau earns DoPS hearing after boarding Canucks’ Sautner

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Jean-Gabriel Pageau only received a minor for boarding Vancouver Canucks defenseman Ashton Sautner Thursday night, but the Ottawa Senators forward could be punished again following his discipline hearing with the NHL Department of Player Safety.

The DoPS will be speaking with Pageau after his second period hit on Sautner. The Canucks blue liner left the game for a bit before returning to finish Vancouver’s 7-4 win over the Senators.

Pageau, who took a big, unpenalized hit from Jake Virtanen earlier in the game, will likely be sitting for one or two games here. He eyes Sautner as he’s going to retrieve the puck along the boards and the Canucks defenseman does not peek behind him to see Pageau coming, nor does he change any part of his body before the Senators forward drills him between the numbers.

Given Sautner’s position on the ice and the fact he didn’t know he was about to be hit from behind, Pageau does not try to minimize contact or avoid his check. That’s a textbook suspension.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Karlsson, Panarin, Bobrovsky can close strong and cash in

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Many NHL teams have plenty to play for down the final stretch of the regular season, trying to get in the playoffs or to improve their positioning, before 16 teams compete for the Stanley Cup.

Some players have a lot at stake, too.

Erik Karlsson, Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky are a few of the potential free agents in the league with a chance to close strong and cash in by re-signing with their teams or on the open market.

The top trio of stars and some other standouts with a lot to gain financially when the season is finished, if not sooner:

KARLSSON

The San Jose Sharks acquired the two-time Norris Trophy-winning defenseman from Ottawa before the season started, hoping they would have him for more than a year. To keep Karlsson off the market as an unrestricted free agent, San Jose may have to at least match the eight-year, $88 million deal the Los Angeles Kings gave defenseman Drew Doughty to stay last summer.

PANARIN

Dynamic scorers like the Russian winger rarely are available in free agency and a team that wants to spend a lot of money over many years may be able to land an 80-point scorer. Panarin has already said he wants to see if there are better options in the summer than staying with the Columbus Blue Jackets, who are simply hoping he helps them win at least a postseason series for the first time.

BOBROVSKY

Big-time goaltenders, like the two-time Vezina Trophy winner, usually stay with their teams and off the market. Like his teammate and fellow countryman, the 30-year-old Bobrovsky will probably want to make the most of his opportunity to make as much money as he can with his next deal while being at or near the prime or his career.

Matt Duchene

It was a good time for the center, and his bank account, to have one of the best years of his career. He’s averaging more than a point per game this season, starting with Ottawa, before being dealt to Columbus . If Panarin and Bobrovsky appear to be leaving in free agency after the season, the Blue Jackets may give the 28-year-old Duchene a lot to stay before the market opens.

Jeff Skinner

The center has a shot to surpass the 63 points he has reached twice before the team he plays for, the Buffalo Sabres, are relegated to watching the postseason for an eighth straight season. The Sabres want to re-sign Skinner, but he might be willing to take a seven-year deal – instead of the eight he can get to stay – and join a Stanley Cup contender.

Jake Gardiner

He has been out for nearly a month with a back injury, but barring it lingering into the playoffs to cast doubt on his long-term health, one of the best defensemen available will be paid well to stay in Toronto or to go play for another team.

Wayne Simmonds

The winger has not produced much offensively with Nashville, which acquired him from Philadelphia, and yet he will have a chance to make a lasting impression when it matters most in the playoffs. Simmonds has a rare combination of scoring ability, toughness and durability.

RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS

There is an excellent group of players eligible to be restricted free agents, including: forwards Mikko Rantanen, William Karlsson, Brayden Point, Mitch Marner, Sebastian Aho and Matthew Tkachuk along with defensemen Jacob Trouba and Zach Werenski. Teams, though, rarely extend offer sheets to other franchise’s restricted free agents as Philadelphia did in 2012 with a $110 million, 14-year deal for Shea Weber, only to have the Predators match it.

Push for the Playoffs: Blue Jackets’ need to take advantage of favorable schedule

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Push for the Playoffs will run every morning through the end of the 2018-19 NHL season. We’ll highlight the current playoff picture in both conferences, take a look at what the first-round matchups might look like, see who’s leading the race for the best odds in the draft lottery and more.

The Carolina Hurricanes are beginning to strengthen their hold on an Eastern Conference playoff spot. That pretty much heats things up for both the Columbus Blue Jackets and Montreal Canadiens. Montreal’s only salvation is a wild card place, while the Blue Jackets (and Hurricanes) still have a shot at grabbing one of the Metropolitan Division’s three seeds.

The Blue Jackets started off their four-game road trip with losses to the Boston Bruins and Calgary Flames. They head to Edmonton tonight and Vancouver on Sunday in two games where heading home with four points in the bag could go a long way. Of their final nine games, only three come against teams currently in a playoff position. Then there’s March 28 when they host the Canadiens, which could be big boost for either team’s postseason dreams.

“We’ve had a tough schedule, but if you want to make the playoffs and you want to do damage in the playoffs, those are the teams you have to beat,” said defenseman Scott Harrington. “It’s great to prepare us for what’s potentially upcoming and where we want to be.”

Columbus’ biggest issue of late has been their inability to score. They’ve averaged only 2.2 goals per game in their last 12 games. Their big trade deadline acquisitions are still warming up. Matt Duchene has two goals in this last four games after going goalless in this first eight games with the Blue Jackets. Meanwhile, Ryan Dzingel has just one since being dealt from Ottawa.

Given GM Jarmo Kekalainen’s moves at the deadline, there’s pressure on the entire organization to make the playoffs. Columbus is 5-6-1 since the deadline, and while they may have the NHL’s eighth-easiest schedule remaining, those opponents cannot be overlooked.

“We’re not getting the results, which is frustrating, but the process is there,” said Duchene. “The second you deviate from the process is when you start to fail and deserve to fail. We’ll keep going and we’ll stay with it and take it one day at a time.”

IF THE PLAYOFFS STARTED TODAY
Lightning vs. Blue Jackets
Capitals vs. Hurricanes
Islanders vs. Penguins
Bruins vs. Maple Leafs

Flames vs. Coyotes
Jets vs. Stars
Sharks vs. Golden Knights
Predators vs. Blues

TODAY’S GAMES WITH PLAYOFF CONTENDERS
Coyotes at Panthers, 7 p.m. ET
Bruins at Devils, 7 p.m. ET
Lightning at Hurricanes, 7 p.m. ET
Islanders at Canadiens, 7:30 p.m. ET
Red Wings at Blues, 8 p.m. ET
Penguins at Predators, 8 p.m. ET
Flyers at Blackhawks, 8:30 p.m. ET
Avalanche at Stars, 8:30 p.m. ET
Senators at Flames, 9 p.m. ET
Blue Jackets at Oilers, 9 p.m. ET
Jets at Golden Knights, 10 p.m. ET
Sharks at Kings, 10:30 p.m. ET

PLAYOFF PERCENTAGES (via Hockey Reference)
Lightning — Clinched
Bruins — 100 percent
Maple Leafs — 100 percent
Capitals — 100 percent
Islanders — 99.2 percent
Penguins — 97.0 percent
Hurricanes — 95.8 percent
Blue Jackets — 72.7 percent
Canadiens — 33.6 percent
Flyers — 1.3 percent
Panthers — 0.4 percent
Sabres — Out
Rangers — Out
Devils — Eliminated
Red Wings — Eliminated
Senators — Eliminated

PLAYOFF PERCENTAGES (via Hockey Reference)
Flames — Clinched
Sharks — Clinched
Jets — 100 percent
Predators — 100 percent
Golden Knights — 100 percent
Blues — 99.7 percent
Stars — 95.5 percent
Coyotes — 54.2 percent
Avalanche — 23.6 percent
Wild — 15 percent
Blackhawks — 10.4 percent
Canucks — 1.3 percent
Oilers — 0.3 percent
Ducks — Out
Kings — Eliminated

JACK OR KAAPO? THE DRAFT LOTTERY PICTURE
Senators — 18.5 percent*
Kings — 13.5 percent
Red Wings — 11.5 percent
Devils — 9.5 percent
Ducks — 8.5 percent
Rangers — 7.5 percent
Sabres — 6.5 percent
Oilers — 6 percent
Canucks — 5 percent
Blackhawks — 3.5 percent
Wild — 3 percent
Panthers — 2.5 percent
Avalanche — 2 percent
Flyers — 1.5 percent
Canadiens — 1 percent
(*COL owns OTT’s 2019 first-round pick)

ART ROSS RACE
Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning — 119 points
Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers — 105 points
Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks — 101 points
Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins — 93 points
Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames — 92 points

ROCKET RICHARD RACE
Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals — 48 goals
Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers — 43 goals
Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks — 41 goals
John Tavares, Toronto Maple Leafs — 41 goals
Brayden Point, Tampa Bay Lightning — 38 goals
Alex DeBrincat, Chicago Blackhawks — 38 goals
Cam Atkinson, Columbus Blue Jackets — 38 goals

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

PHT Morning Skate: Story behind 2020 Winter Classic logo; Hobey Baker nominees

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• The story behind the 2020 Winter Classic logo. [NHL.com]

• Chris Drury has been named general manager of the 2019 U.S. National Team. Drury is currently an assistant GM with the New York Rangers. [USA Hockey]

• The Maple Leafs’ problems could be bigger than their last four games. [Yahoo]

• Adam Fox, Quinn Hughes and Cale Makar are among the 10 nominees for the 2019 Hobey Baker Award. [Hobey Baker]

• What would today’s NHL look like if the salary cap didn’t exist? [USA Today]

• This is a prime opportunity for the Winnipeg Jets to take control of the Central Division. [Sportsnet]

• The story of Brady Keeper is one you’ll want to read today. [TSN]

• The Vegas Golden Knights’ top line is stepping up at the right time. [Sin Bin Vegas]

• Philadelphia Flyers forward Justin Bailey has reached out to a Buffalo-area youth hockey player who was subjected to racial slurs and taunts during a game in January. [NHL.com]

• As they chase a playoff spot, the Chicago Blackhawks find themselves scoreboard watching. [NBC Chicago]

Erik Cernak has emerged as an impactful member of the Tampa Bay Lightning blue line. [Raw Charge]

• There’s no slowing down the Calgary Flames, even after clinching a playoff spot. [Calgary Herald]

• Should the Rangers shut down some of their top players with the playoffs out of the picture? [Blueshirt Banter]

• Ryan Donato has made the most of his new opportunity with the Minnesota Wild. [The Hockey News]

• Finally, Mason is back with round two of his adventures on ice:

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.