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.

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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

Trades: Oilers get Athanasiou from Red Wings; Ennis from Senators

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When Connor McDavid returned to the Edmonton Oilers’ lineup on Sunday night and opened the game between Sam Gagner and Alex Chiasson it was painfully obvious they needed to get another winger.

They ended up getting two on Monday when they acquired Andreas Athanasiou (and Ryan Kuffner) from the Detroit Red Wings in exchange for Gagner and two second-round draft picks.

Oilers general manager Ken Holland drafted Athanasiou during his time in Detroit, so there is that obvious connection here.

Just about an hour after that the trade the Oilers also acquired Tyler Ennis from the Ottawa Senators for a fifth-round draft pick.

The Athanasiou one is so intriguing because it seems like it has the potential to be a strong fit. He is one of the few players in the league that actually has the speed to keep up with McDavid, and could create one of the fastest forward duos in the league. After scoring 30 goals a year ago for the Red Wings, Athanasiou has 10 goals in 46 games this season. Now he might get an opportunity to play next to the best offensive player in the world.

He is a restricted free agent after this season.

The Oilers are three points out of first place in the Pacific Division, trailing only the Vegas Golden Knights. Edmonton still has two games in hand.

This is the second trade between the two teams in less than 12 hours after the Oilers also acquired Mike Green from the Red Wings on Sunday night.

Ennis, meanwhile, is an unrestricted free agent after this season. In 61 games for the Senators this season he has 14 goals and 19 assists.

MORE: PHT’s Trade deadline live blog

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.

Trade: Sabres get Wayne Simmonds from Devils

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Well, here is the most unexpected trade on deadline day (so far).

The Buffalo Sabres, who entered the day six points out of a playoff spot and with multiple teams ahead of them, sent a conditional fifth-round draft pick to the New Jersey Devils for veteran forward Wayne Simmonds.

That pick will become a fourth-round pick if the Sabres make the playoffs this season and Simmonds plays at least 10 games.

Simmonds is an unrestricted free agent after this season.

There is nothing wrong with the cost here for Simmonds. It’s probably about what his value should be in this market and given what he currently provides. Plus, a mid-round pick has very little chance of even turning into an NHL player, let alone an impactful one. But it’s still surprising to see a team in Buffalo’s position attempt to add something at the deadline.

Is it a last-minute effort for general manager Jason Botterill to try and do something to save his job? Or is it a team looking at what happened with St. Louis and Columbus a year ago and thinking, “hey, we can do that too!” If it’s the former, well, that’s understandable. The pressure is on to win in Buffalo and patience is running thin with everyone. If it’s the latter, that would simply be a gross misunderstanding of what happened with those teams (especially St. Louis).

The 31-year-old Simmonds has eight goals and 16 assists for the Devils this season. At his peak he was one of the best power forwards in the league and a true force as a net-front presence on the power play, but his production has rapidly fallen off the past two years.

Buffalo has played much better in February (7-3-1) but has only managed to gain four points in the standings during that stretch. They still have six points to make up and only 20 games to do it. They would not only need to maintain that similar level of play, but also get some help along the way.

MORE: PHT’s Trade deadline live blog

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.

Rangers sign Chris Kreider to 7-year contract extension

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Some massive news from the New York Rangers on Monday as team president John Davidson announced a seven-year contract extension for winger Chris Kreider, removing one of the biggest names from the trade market just hours before the deadline.

Kreider re-signing with the Rangers was always a possibility, but the longer it went on without a new deal (or talks of any kind) the less likely it seemed to be. But this was clearly something the two sides wanted and they were able to find a common ground on a new deal.

It is reportedly worth around $6.5 million per season.

It is a pricey contract for sure, and with Kreider already being 28 years old there is some real long-term risk down the line. But in the short-term Kreider remains a significant part of a Rangers’ core that has made significant progress over the past couple of months. They may not be able to do enough to get in the playoffs this season, but they are certainly on track to be a serious factor in that race next season.

Kreider is in the middle of a career year for the Rangers and has always been a lock for around 20 goals and 50 points while bringing a ton of speed to the top of the lineup.

The Boston Bruins, Colorado Avalanche, and St. Louis Blues were all thought to be potential suitors if he were to be traded.

More: NHL Trade Deadline Live Blog

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.

Rangers’ Shesterkin, Buchnevich injured in car accident

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Along with announcing a new contract extension for Chris Kreider on Monday, New York Rangers team president John Davidson said teammates Igor Shesterkin and Pavel Buchnevich were involved in a car accident in Brooklyn on Sunday night.

According to Davidson, Shesterkin was driving when a vehicle did a U-turn in front of them resulting in the collision.

Fortunately both players were wearing seatbelts at the time of the accident.

Buchnevich was “quite shaken up” according to Davidson, but will only be out of the lineup on a day-to-day basis.

Shesterkin has a non-displaced rib fracture and will be re-evaluated in two weeks.

Shesterkin has emerged as the Rangers’ starting goalie in recent weeks and has a 9-1-0 record with a .940 save percentage since his re-call. His performance has been one of the biggest factors in the Rangers’ recent hot streak that has seen them climb back to within striking distance of a playoff spot this season.

The Rangers are currently carrying three goaltenders, while Alexander Georgiev and Henrik Lundqvist will take over the goaltending duties in Shesterkin’s absence.

More: NHL Trade Deadline Live Blog

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.