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