Jets’ season, lost in April, began spiraling downward months earlier

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To pin an exact date on the calendar where the Winnipeg Jets’ season started to head south is a bit of an exercise in futility. But here we are.

Did the downfall begin on Dec. 1, when Patrik Laine entered the final month of 2018 on the back of an 18-goal, record-setting November? He’d scored just nine goals in the remaining five months of the regular season.

Maybe it was Dec. 29, when Dustin Byfuglien would begin a stretch of 39 games in which he missed 34 due to two ankle injuries?

What about a stretch from Feb. 7 to Feb. 26 where the Jets lost twice to the Ottawa Senators, twice to the Colorado Avalanche and once each to the Montreal Canadiens, Arizona Coyotes and Minnesota Wild? A woeful string of seven losses in 10 games against some of the worst teams in the NHL at the time.

What about that fateful day on Feb. 24 where Vinnie Hinostroza caught Josh Morrissey with a hit as Morrissey was stretched out reaching for a puck? Morrissey would miss the next 20 games and wouldn’t appear in a game until Game 1 against the St. Louis Blues.

Feb. 26 brought with it the first of four games in the final month and change where the Jets surrendered a third-period lead that cost them two points. Minnesota, San Jose, the New York Islanders and Avalanche also preyed on Winnipeg’s sudden inability to hold third-period leads, something they did on 42 of 44 occasions a year earlier.

Maybe it wasn’t one specific date at all, but a collection of unfortunate happenings that, when cobbled together, began to weigh down the Jets until they couldn’t bear the load any longer.

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An initial investigation seems to show the wheels began loosening on this train around the holiday season.

Winnipeg’s expected goals differential began to sink right as the clock struck midnight on Jan. 1, which when looking back, is a pretty solid centerpiece in a tale of two teams.

By that point, Byfuglien had already begun his first extended stint on the shelf. Winnipeg’s defensive depth began to show some cracks, ones that were further uncovered when Morrissey’s injury struck.

Here’s some of the math:

Jets from opening night through Dec. 31
• 50.91 CF% (10th)
• 50.73 xGF% (14th)

Jets from Jan. 1 to the final day of the regular season
• 47.22 CF% (25th)
• 45.01 xGF% (30th)

It’s a dramatic change. But why?

Laine was on pace for 50 or so goals after his November outburst, but by the end of 2018, worries surrounding his scoring drought were growing. The Jets spent game after game trying, at first, to let Laine work through his issues. That didn’t work. They then tried to give him some new linemates. It worked on a couple of occasions with different pieces but in the end, it would always revert to Laine struggling to find interest when he couldn’t score at will.

General manager Kevin Cheveldayoff brought Kevin Hayes in at the trade deadline in an effort to aid in several areas.

First and foremost, Hayes was supposed to fit in as the team’s second line center, one who might play nice with Laine and jumpstart his stick back to life.

Hayes’ arrival also brought hope that he could be used to alleviate ice time being handed in droves to Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler. Hayes could play on the penalty kill and the power play, so the plan was he would help give some rest to Winnipeg’s topmost point producers and minute munchers on forward.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

That never really came to fruition. Hayes didn’t build chemistry with Laine. Scheifele and Wheeler still commanded big minutes because of their trustworthiness in all situations. And by the end, the wear and tear was evident.

Hayes wasn’t the savior that Paul Stastny had been a year earlier and Winnipeg suffered because of it.

Coaching decisions, too, made for some perplexing times in Winnipeg.

Paul Maurice refused to break up Scheifele and Wheeler in an effort to spread out the depth and scoring. He broke up Winnipeg’s top possession line, however, in an attempt to do what he wouldn’t do with his top-line duo.

With Byfuglien and Morrissey both inactive, Maurice didn’t try Sami Niku as an anchor on the power play.

When Morrissey returned for the playoffs, the decision was made to keep Dmitry Kulikov in over Nathan Beaulieu, a trade deadline deal that worked very well for the Jets as the former Buffalo Sabres product jumped right into the top pairing with Jacob Trouba and earned his keep.

Kulikov’s familiarity with Tyler Myers came first and Beaulieu sat. Maurice placed his trust in players that, according to the analytics, shouldn’t have been trusted in the situations they put in.

In many ways, this stubbornness to even move pieces around to see if they fit played a factor in the downfall. Giving Matt Hendricks games down the stretch made little sense unless you buy into the “heavy” game mantra that the Western Conference presents. But Hendricks was nowhere to be found in a “heavy” series against St. Louis, so why play him at all when a player like Jack Roslovic — who played in all five playoff games — could have benefitted with more ice-time down the stretch?

Holes in the team’s defensive structure could be a post in and of itself. Simply, the Jets weren’t the same defensive team from the year previous, falling 10 spots from the fifth fewest goals allowed to 15th.

This leads to the question of if Maurice’s job is in jeopardy. While the Jets couldn’t put it together in Round 1, they’ve won nearly 100 games over the past two seasons under Maurice’s watch with a young, inexperienced team. The gut feeling, then, is no, he’s likely to stick around next season. Assuming that’s the case, however, the pressure and expectation will only be greater and his leash may get much shorter.

And it will be harder for the Jets to succeed next year with their pending cap crunch.

Winnipeg’s Stanley Cup window may have been widest this year. Coming off a trip to the Western Conference Final and with many of the same pieces still in place (and still only making a pittance of what they’ll start to see next year), the Jets had perhaps the widest range of talent they could have before the likes of Laine and Kyle Connor get paid this summer.

The window is by no means closed but there’s a big chunk of salary coming next year to those two prominent players. Wheeler’s big extension kicks in, too, and they may lose Trouba if they can’t hash out an extension, meaning a top pairing defenseman is also lost. And it all means they’ll have to make do with some of their youth pieces that have been marinating in the system.

The talk around Winnipeg last summer was one of locking up several pieces to take another stab at the Cup. This summer is that much more massive for Cheveldayoff and Co., who need to figure out how to improve the current lineup while paying a couple of their brightest young stars handsomely and dealing with the pending cap crunch because of it.

Gone is the hype train of that conference final run. Questions of leadership, on-ice structure (both offensively and defensively), killer instinct and coaching will take its place.

It should be noted that it sure seemed troubling when the Jets brought Hendricks back into the fold in a late deal on trade deadline day. His leadership qualities are what was lauded by Cheveldayoff. But why did the team need an injection of Hendricks’ tangibles in the first place? Why couldn’t the current core of veterans sort out issues?

That’s a crucial question moving forward.

Was there a division in the room? And if so, why wasn’t it squared away at the moment the leak was spotted?

Blame can be pointed in myriad directions, ultimately.

There will be no repeat of a summer filled with the fuzzy feelings of a team seemingly on the cusp of greatness. Only more stories like this one, autopsies of a failed season.

Another couple of questions added to a pile that is in need of answers this offseason.

And to tie this back in with dates, there’s only one that’s certifiably certain: April 20.

It’s the final etching on Winnipeg’s tombstone for the 2018-19 season, wherein their final hours, they produced one of their poorest, if not altogether worst, efforts of the season when only the opposite would do.

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

‘Wild’ NHL playoffs move into next stage with final 16 teams

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Derek Stepan gave some words of advice to his Arizona Coyotes teammates not used to the bright lights of playoff hockey.

”It’s the best time of the year to be playing,” he said.

The time of year is different than usual, but the NHL’s Stanley Cup playoffs haven’t lost any of their luster or penchant for surprises.

After a qualifying round full of upsets, overtime heroics and comebacks, the traditional first round that starts Tuesday with 16 teams left is primed to feature even more entertainment and unpredictability.

”It’s wild,” said Barry Trotz, whose New York Islanders will next face the Washington Capitals he coached to the title in 2018.

”It’s made for TV, really. We didn’t know what was going to happen. We knew that there was going to be some strange things happen in this strange, unusual time and format. But it’s captivating.”

The Chicago Blackhawks that ranked 23rd out of 31 teams in the regular season are still playing, along with the Montreal Canadiens, who were 24th and not given much hope of moving on.

Chicago has a tough task against the Western Conference No. 1 seed Vegas, and Carey Price‘s Canadiens face the Philadelphia Flyers that earned top billing in the East by going 3-0 against Boston, Tampa Bay and Washington.

”It was a tall task to get that No. 1 seed and we did it,” Flyers defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere said. ”We came in here and have been strictly business. I think for us to go out there and get three big wins in a row and get that No. 1 seed is huge for us.”

In a very 2020 turn of events, the Bruins that won the Presidents’ Trophy as the top regular-season team went winless since the restart and now must take on the Carolina Hurricanes that swept their way to this point. It’s a rematch of the 2019 East final but with Carolina looking more prepared for this showdown.

”They swept us last year, which definitely is going to be good opportunity for us to kind of give back what they gave us last year,” Hurricanes forward Nino Niederreiter said.

The Hurricanes, Islanders and Golden Knights look scary, the Lightning could be without top players Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman for at least the start of their series, and the Bruins and Blues that met in last year’s Cup Final haven’t recaptured the dominance they showed until the season was halted in March and combined to go 0-6.

”It doesn’t matter what seed you’re in because you’ve got to beat every team anyways if you want to advance,” Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask said. ”It’s over now and start real hockey.”

Half of the remaining field has been playing real hockey for more than a week now. After knocking off the Nashville Predators, captain Oliver Ekman-Larsson said the Coyotes are ”up for the challenge” of taking on the Colorado Avalanche. The Canucks and Flames should also be feeling good after emotional series victories, though Vancouver must face an angry St. Louis bunch that blew leads in all three games.

”We’re not playing aggressive enough in my opinion,” Blues coach Craig Berube said. ”Getting the real thing going here will be important, for sure.”

It’s all best-of-seven until the Stanley Cup is handed out in late September or early October, though the prospect of playing in quarantined bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton could change the psychological dynamic of the playoffs.

”It’s one of those years it’s easier once you’re down to say, ‘Well, I do miss my kids, it’s not our year,”’ Boston coach Bruce Cassidy said. ”You can sort of have that in the back of your mind and certainly some players are going to go through it, and that’s why I feel that maybe some series will be closed out quicker than previous years.”

Only one qualifying round series went to a deciding Game 5: Columbus-Toronto, which also featured two shutouts and each team erasing a 3-0 deficit and winning in overtime. Over nine days, 44 games showed why the league and NHL Players’ Association worked hard to resume the season, and that was just the start of summer hockey madness.

”I’m sure it’ll continue,” Flames coach Geoff Ward said. ”Everybody’s healthy and there’s been extreme parity, but all the teams are playing extremely, extremely hard and that makes for whoever you play a very tough out and a very tough opponent. And I think as these playoffs go on, you’re just going to see more of the same.”

NHL Draft Lottery: No. 1 pick to be awarded Monday night

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The No. 1 pick in the 2020 NHL Draft will be announced Monday night during Phase 2 of the NHL Draft Lottery (6 p.m. ET, NBCSN; livestream)

All eight teams that were eliminated in the Stanley Cup Qualifying Round are eligible and each have a 12.5% chance of winning the No. 1 pick. Rimouski forward Alexis Lafreniere is expected to be chosen with the first overall selection.

Phase 1 of the draft lottery was held in June and won by a team involved in the NHL’s Return to Play. That means that one of the Rangers, Predators, Panthers, Wild, Penguins, Jets, Oilers, or Maple Leafs will pick first when the draft is held Oct. 9-10, 2020.

According to the NHL, since the 1995 draft, no team has held the No. 1 pick finishing better than 26th in the standings.

Here’s a look at the order of the first 15 picks:

ROUND 1 ORDER
1. Placeholder team
2. Los Angeles Kings
3. Ottawa Senators (via San Jose)
4. Detroit Red Wings
5. Ottawa Senators
6. Anaheim Ducks
7. New Jersey Devils
8. Buffalo Sabres
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9. Placeholder team
10. Placeholder team
11. Placeholder team
12. Placeholder team
13. Placeholder team
14. Placeholder team
15. Placeholder team

The seven losing teams from the First Round who do not win the No. 1 pick will fill out spots 9-15 by reverse order of their regular season points percentages. The remaining 16 Round 1 draft picks will be determined by the results of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

WHAT: 2020 NHL Draft Lottery – Phase 2
WHEN: Monday, August 10, 6 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the draft lottery stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

The prospects

Lafreniere will be the No. 1 pick. That’s been settled. After that? It could go a lot of different ways. Quinton Byfield (Sudbury – C- OHL), Tim Stutzle (Adler Mannheim – C/LW – DEL), Lucas Raymond (Frolunda – LW/C – SHL), Jamie Drysdale (Erie – D – OHL), Marco Rossi (Ottawa – C – OHL), Cole Perfetti (Saginaw – C – OHL), Jake Sanderson (D – USNTDP) are among the top prospects expected to be selected early.

Check out Ryan Wagman’s midseason mock draft to further educate yourself on these players.

MORE:
Top NHL Draft Lottery memories

Hockey Hall of Fame postpones 2020 induction

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The Hockey Hall of Fame has postponed its 2020 induction because of the pandemic. The ceremony was to have taken place Nov. 16 in Toronto.

The 2020 class was announced in June and featured forward Jarome Iginla, winger Marian Hossa, defensemen Kevin Lowe and Doug Wilson, Canadian women’s goaltender Kim St. Pierre and longtime general manager Ken Holland.

The Hall said Monday it will discuss rescheduling plans on Oct. 29. Chairman Lanny McDonald said the most likely scenario is to have the ceremony in November 2021, either by waiving the 2021 election or combining the 2020 and 2021 classes. He said a virtual induction ceremony was ruled out.

NHL reports second straight week of zero positive COVID-19 tests

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For the second week in a row the NHL has announced that it had zero positive COVID-19 tests during the Phase 4 portion of its return to play.

The league resumed the 2019-20 season and playoffs in late July with 24 teams playing within two hub cities (Toronto and Edmonton).

Since the participating teams entered their respective bubbles on July 25 they have reported zero positive tests during that time.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The league announced on Monday that it conducted 7,245 tests between August 2 and August 8. Previously the league reported 43 positive tests during the Phase 2 portion of the return (small group workouts at team facilities) and two positive tests during the first week of Phase 3 (return to training camp). But since then the league has reported zero positive tests through the remainder of training camps and, to this point, during the return to play in the hub cities.

The NHL just completed the Qualifying Round and Round-Robin portion of its return to play and will begin the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs on Tuesday afternoon in Toronto and Edmonton.

MORE:
• Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.