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.

via MoneyPuck.com

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

Islanders place Andrew Ladd on waivers

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New York Islanders GM Lou Lamoriello announced that the team put forward Andrew Ladd on waivers on Thursday, and from the sound of things, it’s unclear if we’ll see Ladd in the NHL again.

That said, Ladd’s $5.5 million AAV doesn’t expire until after 2022-23(!) so it’s possible that this saga may not be over.

For now, the Islanders are putting Ladd on waivers with the plan of assigning him to the AHL. Ladd had been on a conditioning stint while on LTIR as he tries to recover from a torn ACL suffered in March, and Lamoriello said that the Islanders hadn’t seen enough from that conditioning stint to have him resume playing. Setting such a standard would always make sense, really, but especially so with the Islanders humming along with an impressive 13-3-1 record so far in 2019-20.

Ladd’s longer-term future is fuzzy, and Lamoriello didn’t want to speculate about his chances (or lack thereof?) to play in the NHL again.

Newsday’s Andrew Gross clarifies that Ladd won’t need to be taken off LTIR to make this happen, which is relevant considering the whole $5.5M thing.

Ladd’s signing ranks as one of the many cursed 2016 free agent contracts, joined by Milan Lucic, Kyle Okposo (the player he essentially replaced for the Islanders), David Backes, Loui Eriksson and more.

To be fair, Ladd had some utility if you looked beyond disappointing numbers for the money at times with the Islanders, but again, it’s hard to get too thrilled about such positives when the price tag was so steep. Still, he had some aptitude, particularly defensively, during his first two seasons for the Islanders, as illustrated by this Hockey Viz heat map:

Looking at Ladd’s contract structure at Cap Friendly, there’s the remote chance that the Islanders might be able to move that $5.5M cap hit (LTIR-bound or not) as the deal goes along. Ladd’s actual salary slips to $4M from 2020-21 through 2022-23, and it’s split up by a $3M signing bonus and $1M base salary each year. Maybe a team hoping to hit the cap floor might be willing to eat that cap hit to inflate their numbers for assets after the signing bonus is already paid, even if that would most realistically be able to happen heading into 2022-23? Perhaps the Islanders could bribe the Seattle expansion franchise to eat that deal, much like Vegas ended up doing with David Clarkson‘s contract?

Ultimately, those details are mostly the concerns of whoever is handling the Islanders’ cap situation in the future, and perhaps other teams hoping to squeeze every ounce of value out of an offseason.

Unfortunately, whether Ladd ever plays for the Islanders (or any other NHL team) again, it’s clear that the Islanders didn’t get much value from signing the former Winnipeg Jets captain.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Fabbri finding a home with new opportunity in Detroit

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This season for the Red Wings is about developing youth. There are over 10 players currently on the roster who are 24 years old or younger, so getting the kids up to speed to continue this transition phase is vital if the franchise is to become a playoff team again.

One of those kids is a recent addition to the team — thanks in part to Darren Pang — and a player who was in need of a new opportunity after a couple of tough seasons.

Robby Fabbri left the defending Stanley Cup champion Blues for the Red Wings earlier this month in a trade that sent Jacob De La Rose to St. Louis. He signed a one-year deal with St. Louis in July, but when it was clear he wouldn’t have a regular role in the lineup, he asked to move on. So far, the change has paid off as through three games, the 23-year-old winger has two goals and four points, including two primary assists on Detroit’s last two game-winning goals.

“He’s been great. He’s a playmaker,” said Red Wings forward Dylan Larkin. “He gets the puck and it’s going to someone with a purpose after he’s got it. Adding a guy like that who can make plays and does it a lot, and he’s a crafty guy, he’s been an energy guy for us and a huge addition.”

Entering the 2014 NHL Draft, the Red Wings were interested in Fabbri, who scored 45 goals and recorded 87 points in 58 games with the OHL’s Guelph Storm during his draft year. But when they were on the clock, general manager Ken Holland announced Larkin’s name at pick No. 15. Six spots later, Fabbri went to the Blues.

“He was always dangerous with the puck and he always had the puck on his stick,” Larkin said about playing against Fabbri in their younger days. “He was one of those guys where being from Detroit, he’s from Toronto, you knew who he was and you knew going into the game that it’s Robby Fabbri, he’s going to make plays and he’s going to be a star out there. It’s cool to have that and be in the same locker room with him now and come up through the same draft. We’re pretty familiar with each other through events and just knowing each other through time. I’m excited that he’s here and I think he’s excited that he’s here.”

Fabbri got off to an okay start with the Blues, scoring 29 times in his first 123 games, but two ACL injuries in the same knee derailed the next year-and-a-half of his career. By the time he returned last season, he showed he could still play, but it would remain a process before he’d 100% be back to his old self.

A new team, a new chance. It’s all working out so far as Fabbri continues in a positive direction.

“We’re hoping we can get Robby back up to the speed he was when he first came into the league and he had lots of success,” said Red Wings head coach Jeff Blashill after the trade. “I talked to Ken Hitchcock and (Blues head coach) Craig Berube. There’s a belief there’s more in him. There’s opportunity. … [W]e have opportunity here, a clean slate and now he’s got to grab it. We need more scoring, he can potentially provide that, so I look forward to watching him play.”

For Fabbri, putting his injuries in the rearview will help him move forward with his new opportunity and help him be a consistent offensive presence on a Red Wings team hoping to begin a consistent move in the right direction.

“When you’ve been hurt with the massive injuries he’s been hurt with sometimes you can get a little bit cautious, so it takes a little bit of time to get away from that,” said Blashill. “I’m hoping he can play as hard as he has in the past and he can give [us] scoring depth.”

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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.

Book excerpt from Eddie Olczyk: Beating the Odds in Hockey and in Life

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The NHL on NBC’s Eddie Olczyk was diagnosed with Stage 3 colon cancer in Aug. 2017 and after a long journey was deemed cancer-free seven months later. Since beating cancer, the former player and current analyst has been dedicated to be an advocate for those fighting the disease and their families.

Olczyk was recently named the NHL Hockey Fights Cancer Ambassador for the 2019-20 season and his new book “Eddie Olczyk: Beating the Odds in Hockey and in Life” tells the story of his fight.

***

On February 21, at precisely 9:02 am, I was unhooked from my final chemo treatment. What a relief! It was incredible to be finally done — epic. I was done after six months. I had a bunch of family and friends call and congratulate me and I received so many texts from the hockey and horse racing worlds with exclamation points. Diana brought me a bouquet of helium balloons shaped like horses and dogs with the words You Did It. She almost flew away because of all the balloons. 

After that last round of chemo, I got rid of anything that reminded me of what I had gone through during those treatments—clothes, pillows, blankets. Anything that reeked of chemo, I disposed of. That felt really good. The week before I went to the mall and went on a shopping spree. I was about to embark on the rest of my life and the rest of my career. 

It was around this time that Illinois congressman Mike Quigley spoke on the House floor and addressed my situation. He had a Blackhawks jersey with my name and number brought in for display and talked about my battle and what I had been doing to raise awareness about the need for earlier screenings and continued research to find a cure. He described me as a native son of Chicago who has exemplified the heart, grit, and the character of the city we both call home. 

“Like many others who have faced cancer, he was concerned that he was letting people down and he began to question his mortality, but as he went through treatment and reflected on this ordeal Eddie started to recognize that it was okay to be scared,” Congressman Quigley said. “He knows it’s important to emphasize that there’s nothing wrong with people getting colonoscopies at an earlier age. He knows that if he can help just one individual get a checkup sooner, he will feel like his battle with cancer was worth it. To Eddie and to all fighting cancer, stay strong and know we’re with you.” 

I was very grateful for him doing that. What an honor.

On March 8 I had the scan and the next day while traveling with the team to Boston, I asked Dr. Michael Terry, the Blackhawks team physician, if he had any update. He had been part of my illness from the start; I call him the captain of my doctors. 

He had access to the scan on his iPhone. He looked at me and said, “Edzo, from what I can see, it looks really clean.” 

I gave him a huge hug because I’d just dodged a huge bullet. After getting emotional, I took a couple of deep breaths. I wanted to yell something like what most hockey players do after they score a goal, but I was just overcome thinking about so much—my family, my kids, my friends. I just couldn’t wait to tell Diana that it looked good, but we still had to wait to hear from Dr. Mulcahy. 

It was a relief and a half that it was all gone. Thank God. I was so thankful for the physicians and the team that I had and the support I had. It’s always going to be with me, but I felt okay. We had come a long way since that first meeting with Dr. Mulcahy. Yes, it was absolute hell for six months. Going through the chemo was the most difficult part because there was a chance, God forbid, I’d have to continue with more treatment. 

I endured a lot and tackled it straight on and felt like I had conquered it. Now I had to recover and rid myself of all this medicine and tell my story to encourage people to go in for checkups and get colonoscopies. This is why we tried to be so open and outgoing without being overbearing. If you don’t feel good or you get to the age of 45, you’ve got to get checked, whether you have a history of cancer in your family or not. 

I called Diana after we deplaned and told her the news and we subsequently gave the heads-up to the kids. 

Four days later, at 5:07 pm, Dr. Mulcahy called and told me I was cancer-free. Diana was there with me and we didn’t do anything special other than maybe hug a little tighter when I got back home. It was like, “We did it. Let’s get as far away from this as we can.” 

On March 22, just before the start of the second period of a game at the United Center between the Hawks and the Vancouver Canucks, I went back on the air with Pat Foley to update people on my condition. He told the audience that because of what I had gone through, he had gotten a colonoscopy, as had Troy Murray and a bunch of Pat’s friends. He said my ability to go public with what I had gone through was tremendously inspirational and also heroic, because anybody who has gone through chemotherapy knows how devastating a situation that can be. 

Happily, I told everyone I was cancer-free. I reiterated as I had throughout my battle that it was a team effort, including the doctors, the entire Hawks organization, the National Hockey League, the people I worked with on TV, my family, my wife, my children, and my friends. If it wasn’t for my family, there was no way I could have gone through this. We all beat this. And I said I had done enough crying to last me a lifetime. 

Pat was so pumped. “You beat cancer, baby!” he exclaimed. 

Now that I was publicly revealing I was cancer-free, I wanted to reinforce to people who were battling cancer or knew someone going through it that they are not weak individuals. My message for them was to stay strong, believe they are tough, and believe they will beat it. I ended the interview by saying if I could inspire one person to stay away from this by going for a colonoscopy, then I guess it was well worth it. It tests your will to live. 

I did a bunch of interviews afterward, just as I had done since I went public with my cancer battle, so it was kind of like going full circle. It wasn’t easy but it’s a lot less stressful when you’re telling them the happy ending of the story. Sharing that news was such a relief. 

I subsequently underwent the hernia surgery in which they put an 8″x10″ piece of mesh in my stomach to seal it up and fix it. In a way, it also felt like the final touch on my long journey.

This excerpt from Eddie Olczyk: Beating the Odds in Hockey and in Life by Eddie Olczyk with Perry Lefko is printed with the permission of Triumph Books.  For more information and to order a copy, please visit www.triumphbooks.com/EddieOlczyk.

Bolt from the blueline: Avs rookie Makar off to flying start

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DENVER — Cale Makar is on the move these days – into his own place and into hallowed hockey territory. He’s just getting settled in, too.

The Colorado Avalanche rookie became only the fourth defenseman in NHL history to record 18 points through his first 18 career regular-season games. His teammates maintain that’s due to his ability to see the ice with a veteran’s vision and rarely making the same mistake twice.

His own appraisal is much more subdued.

”I still feel like a rookie,” said Makar, who moved out of teammate Matt Calvert‘s house this year to achieve another level of independence. ”I still have lots to learn.”

Those are precisely the words fellow defenseman Ian Cole wants to hear from the 21-year-old who was drafted with the fourth overall pick in 2017 and received his first taste of NHL action last spring in the playoffs.

”But what’s he going to say? ‘Man, am I good!”’ Cole cracked.

The numbers and early accolades do tend to suggest that, though. Makar was named the third star by the league for the week ending Nov. 10.

On Tuesday night, he scored his fifth goal of the season in a 4-0 win at Winnipeg. It was a game in which goaltender Adam Werner stepped in after starter Pavel Francouz was hurt after 31 seconds. All Werner did was turn in a 40-save shutout in his unexpected NHL debut.

It could be another injury for the Avalanche to weather in what’s already been a banged-up season. They’re currently without captain Gabriel Landeskog, forward Mikko Rantanen, goaltender Philipp Grubauer, forward Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and defenseman Nikita Zadorov.

”It’s tough,” said Makar, who has 13 assists this season. ”At the end of the day, we have so much depth.”

Makar has given Colorado a big scoring boost.

A notable stat: The last rookie defenseman with more points than Makar through their first 18 regular-season games was Hall of Famer Larry Murphy, who had 19 for Los Angeles in 1980-81. The two other NHL blueliners with more points through 18 games were Hall of Famers Hap Day (21 points with the Toronto St. Patricks in 1924-25) and Harry Cameron (20 with the Toronto Arenas in 1917-18), according to research from NHL Stats.

Another noteworthy stat: Makar’s nine assists in October set an Avalanche record for a rookie defenseman in a month.

And another: His five straight games with at least a point to kick off the season matched the Avalanche record (since 1995-96) for the longest stretch to begin a career.

”He’s a guy that’s just so naturally talented,” Cole said. ”His maturity level is well beyond his years. He’s very analytical in the sense that when he sees something, we can talk through something and you can almost see him learning. He can catalog that.

”If I’m right in that assessment, he’s going to be very, very good very quickly and for a very long time.”

Last April, Makar signed an entry contract with Colorado after his Frozen Four run with UMass came to an end (he won the Hobey Baker Award as the nation’s top NCAA hockey player).

His first contest in an Avs sweater was Game 3 against the Western Conference’s top seed, Calgary. He made an immediate impact by becoming the first defenseman in league history to score a goal while making his NHL debut in the playoffs. Makar ended up with one goal and five assists in the postseason.

That jumpstarted his career. But it doesn’t lessen his learning curve, he maintained, through his first regular season.

”It’s just adjusting – whether it’s to the lifestyle or just the game schedule. Everything is different here,” said Makar, whose new place is within walking distance of most of his teammates. ”You have a lot more free time. It’s filling those times with useful stuff that’s going to help you. … It’s your job to worry about this.”

A little bit ago, Avalanche coach Jared Bednar sat down with his young defenseman after not seeing quite the same version of Makar he saw in the playoffs. They went over a few things – using his skating to work his way out of tough situations inside the ”D” zone and taking off if he sees openings in the neutral zone.

No need to tell him twice.

”He’s really implemented it in his game, and really bounced back in a hurry,” Bednar said. ”I feel really comfortable with where his game’s at.”