Mathematically, the Winnipeg Jets have “hope.” Realistically, eyes should be turning to the off-season and what needs to change.
Wednesday’s 3-1 loss to the Red Wings was Winnipeg’s third defeat in a row. It’s been a familiar refrain this season. Win a game, lose multiple. Win a few, lose that momentum by dropping one.
By mid-November the Jets were off a 9-3-3 start. Then there was the 10-3-1 start from the end of February to the end of March. But too many valuable points were dropped and those around them in the Western Conference playoff race moved ahead. Winnipeg is currently eight points behind the Stars for the second Wild Card spot with 11 games to play and their Friday opponent is the Avalanche. MoneyPuck’s model give them a 0.2% chance to make the playoffs.
Coaching for his job, interim head coach Dave Lowry is trying to keep heads up.
“There is belief,” Lowry said Thursday morning. “You still have to believe you have a chance. Until they say you’re officially eliminated you have a chance. We still have that belief. You can see it in just how the guys came in today. We had some jump and we had some life in practice.
“There was a lot of disappointment last night after the game. That shows that they care. I said that last night. There is a lot of care in that room and there is a lot of pride in that room. We know we’re going to have to do things and we’re going to have to be really good tomorrow.”
There’s been a coaching change, players sniping with the media, and the trade of Andrew Copp to deal with this season. It’s been frustrating year, one that can be traced back to the Second Round of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs where the Jets were swept by the Canadiens and had to deal with the Mark Scheifele suspension. This was supposed to be a year to take a step forward, but it’s become one where a refresh is needed.
Fixing the defense
One area that’s clearly in need of freshening up is the blue line. The Jets have given away the fifth-most high-danger scoring chances (725) and have the 10th-most scoring chances allowed (1,689) at 5-on-5, via Natural Stat Trick.
As HockeyViz’s data shows, opposing teams have made the front of the Jets’ net home:
“Defensively that’s an area obviously we have to get better at,” said defenseman Josh Morrissey. “I think it’s something that when we’ve played well here, it’s been a focus of ours. It kind of goes hand in hand with our success a lot of nights. That’s definitely an area we have to be better. We have to improve in a lot of areas and that’s one of them.”
Connor Hellebuyck has been the savior for the Jets on many nights, but he can’t do it alone. His 5-on-5 save percentage hasn’t changed much from last season (.925 to .922), but his goals saved above average has dropped from 0.93 to negative-2.28 this season.
Making it work
If defense is an area general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff is targeting, improvements will likely have to come via the way of good old hockey trades. The Jets have five regular defenseman signed through 2023-24 and Josh Morrissey, Nate Schmidt, and Neal Pionk tied up longer. Schmidt and Brendan Dillon have struggled, and you wonder if they are washed or if better coaching could squeeze some valuable juice out the final few seasons of their deals.
According to Cap Friendly, Cheveldayoff will have a little over $16 million in salary cap space at the moment, which includes next season’s $1 million bump in the cap ceiling. Pierre-Luc Dubois needs to be re-signed as a restricted free agent and we’ll see what they want to do with Paul Stastny, who can be unrestricted.
What can’t happen is the Jets wasting prime years for Hellebuyck, Morrissey, Dubois, Nikolaj Ehlers, Mark Scheifele, and Kyle Connor. Maybe someone in that group is moved this summer in order to facilitate improvement elsewhere. It won’t just be Cheveldayoff throwing money at free agents, which has never really been the GM’s modus operandi anyway.
Eventually, the Jets will need to take that next step. They’re in a very competitive division, but Cheveldayoff has been at the helm since the 2011 move from Atlanta and the franchise has won only four games beyond the First Round. Spring has delivered disappointment year after year, and this should be the one to finally spur effective change.
Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.