Dustin Byfuglien

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Paul Maurice and the Jets could really use a win right now

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This was always going to be a challenging season for the Winnipeg Jets.

After a surprising run to the Western Conference Final during the 2017-18 season, they regressed last season and opened this season with a makeshift defense due to offseason departures and the still unsettled situation regarding Dustin Byfuglien. At times, and especially recently, the defense has looked has looked exactly like the patchwork unit that it is. They get bombarded on the shot chart, and had it not been for some superhuman play from starting goaltender Connor Hellebuyck over the first couple of months their playoff chances for this season might already be in the toilet.

But they’re not.

They are still — for now — very much in the Western Conference Wild Card race, and with a win on Wednesday night against the Columbus Blue Jackets could enter the All-Star break and bye week just a single point back of a playoff spot. Considering the state of the defense and the way the team has actually played at times, that would be a decent conclusion to the first half of the season.

It would also probably be a big win for coach Paul Maurice, whose seat seems to get warmer with each and every loss. And the losses have been piling up recently. After losing in Carolina on Tuesday night, 4-1, the Jets have lost five of their past six and are just 6-11-2 in their past 19 games.

On Tuesday, it was another tough start that saw the Jets give up three early goals and have to play from behind again. When asked about another slow start, Maurice was defiant in saying there was no slow start (using an expletive in the process) and instead defended his team’s effort and the way they played. It was a little surprising given how rough this recent stretch has been, especially the past three games when they’ve been outscored by a 16-4 margin. Listening to him talk about the team’s effort and how they “played their asses off,” it almost sounded like a coach that is resigned to his team being undermanned at a major position (defense) and that things are just unraveling. It was basically: They did everything they could, and this is all they had.

Given the current situation and the recent slide, it’s enough to wonder if Thursday’s game against Columbus is approaching must-win territory. It is believed that Maurice’s contract expires at the end of this season, and as Ted Wyman of the Winnipeg Sun pointed out after Tuesday’s game, it’s really hard to see the Jets giving him another contract extension after two straight years of declining results.

If there were ever a time for a team to consider a change, wouldn’t this be it? A coach in the final year of his contract, for a struggling team that seems to have hit its ceiling with that coach, while the team itself is still flirting with a playoff spot. Not to mention the fact that after Wednesday they have a week-and-a-half and an opportunity to hit the reset button coming out of the break.

Whether or not that would make a difference is certainly up for debate. There is probably not a coach or prospective coach in the league that can turn this defense as constructed into a contender, and no matter who is behind the bench is going to have to rely on the forwards being able to outscore their opponents and hope for Hellebuyck to return to his Vezina/MVP level from the first couple of months.

It just seems like the Jets and their coach are at a crossroads for this season, and maybe beyond.

It is difficult — and maybe even silly — to put so much emphasis on one regular season game in the middle of January, but Thursday’s game against Columbus seems like it has the potential to dramatically shift things one way or another for the Jets.

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.

Dual-role players? Defensemen as wingers show it can be done

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Brendan Smith caught his breath for a few seconds on the bench before New York Rangers coach David Quinn called his name again.

Smith had just skated a shift as a defenseman and was needed at forward, too. The natural defenseman hopped over the boards and got back on the ice at a different position.

”The more I do it, I get more comfortable,” he said.

Smith is one of a couple of throwback-style players bouncing between forward and defense this season. He and Florida’s Mark Pysyk are the latest to follow the lead of Hall of Famers Red Kelly and Mark Howe and present-day Brent Burns and Dustin Byfuglien, and their experience could open the door for more multiposition players in a sport that usually defines being a center, wing or defenseman very specifically.

”It’s definitely different,” Pysyk said. ”I think guys at this level probably could make the switch given enough time to get comfortable with their new position because everybody skates well.”

Kordell Stewart earned the nickname ”Slash” by playing quarterback and wide receiver in the NFL and slugger/pitcher Shohei Otani can star for the Los Angeles Angels in multiple ways in baseball. But specialization in hockey starts early as it does in other sports – forwards, defensemen and goalies all tend to be identified as such at a young age.

Smith as recently as Thursday shifted from his regular wing position back to defense to fill amid injuries, and the same night, Pysyk – back for another stint at forward – scored his third goal of the season. For one game in November, (almost) lifelong defenseman Tyler Lewington played a few shifts up front for the salary-cap strapped Washington Capitals when they could only dress 11 forwards.

”There’s a lot more to a forward’s game than I thought before,” said Lewington, 25, who hadn’t played forward since he was 10. ”It’s something that’s not easy.”

This kind of thing was more common in the 1920s and ’30s, Kelly played his first 12-plus seasons in Detroit as a defenseman and next eight-plus in Toronto as a forward, winning the Stanley Cup eight times – four at each position. Howe played his first three World Hockey Association seasons as a left winger alongside dad Gordie and brother Marty before switching to defense full-time.

Before video was more prevalent, Howe used to watch game replays late at night to figure out how to hone his game on the blue line. He made the Hall of Fame primarily for his time as a defenseman. Before and after his transition, he noticed differences like fewer scoring chances in practice as a defenseman – and more idle time on the bench as a forward biding his time for the next shift.

Now pro scouting director with the Detroit Red Wings, Howe called Smith the perfect example of a player who can adjust to the variations of playing forward and defense.

”(As a defenseman) it’s more of a game of you go when you can, but you have to be responsible defensively. You have to learn to read and when to jump up in the play,” Howe said. ”As a forward, you’re learning at key points of the game: ‘When do you try to make a play? When is it a smart play to dump the puck in the corner? When you definitely not want to turn a puck over?’ And with both (positions), you take different chances.”

While Pysyk hadn’t played defense since he was 6 or 7 until earlier this season, Quinn knew from recruiting Smith to Boston University that this dual role was possible. Quinn asked Smith last season to try it, and it worked so well that it has stuck, with Smith also killing penalties as a defenseman.

”You’ve got a guy who obviously plays forward 5-on-5 but he’s been one of our better (penalty) killing defensemen,” Quinn said. ”It gives you a little bit of flexibility on your roster, which is always nice game in and game out.”

Three-time Stanley Cup-winning coach Joel Quenneville trusts Pysyk the same way. He won the Cup in 2010 with Chicago moving Byfuglien back and forth and using the combination of his big frame, hard shot and smooth skating as an advantage.

”That versatility was a great asset to have in playoff series,” Quenneville recalled. ”Sometimes you could put him on a forward line to create space, I’d like to say, on power play (as a) net-front presence, but then you’ve got a big shot at the point. You could multitask with him in the course of the games.”

The same was possible for Burns when he played forward and defense with Minnesota earlier in his career. He became a full-time defenseman before a 2011 trade to San Jose and won the Norris Trophy as the best player at that position in 2017.

Quenneville likes having a defenseman at forward at times because they tend think of the game more conservatively.

”They usually have that mindset of being above the puck, so they keep themselves in the play, and defensively they have that responsibility,” Quenneville said. ”You get to handle the puck a little bit more, but I think they’re always in that position where offensively they’re complementing the guys they’re playing with, being either the safety guy or the extra guy that’s always going to be in the right spots.”

Pysyk, who’d prefer to play defense but can do both, is still getting used to the idea that he is not always the last guy back.

”It’s weird seeing a pass go past you and then chasing it from the other end,” he said.

Smith, who is in his 10th NHL season, is more comfortable on defense but thinks he could be a ”slash” player if need be.

”The biggest adjustment would be to change your mindset of defensive to offensive and knowing where to be at the right time because there’s so many moving parts,” Smith said. ”The hardest part is making sure that you can mentally prepare yourself for it.”

Vegas Golden Knights forward Reilly Smith sees his brother playing two different positions and knows he – and many others – wouldn’t be able to handle it.

”I can’t skate backward, can’t stop anyone,” Reilly Smith said. ”It takes a lot of versatility to be able to do that.”

Five most underrated stars heading into 2020

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Like in all sports, the NHL has some players that are both overrated and underrated. Players might fall into either category because of where they play, which players they play with or their personalities both during interviews and on social media.

Today, we don’t want to focus on calling out players for being overrated, so we’ll stick to pointing out who some of the less appreciated superstars are across the league. Keep in mind, these players may be appreciated in their own market, but they could stand to get a little more attention league-wide.

Jonathan Huberdeau – LW – Florida Panthers

Only now is Huberdeau starting to grab major headlines across the league. The 26-year-old probably had one of the quietest 90-plus point seasons you’ll ever see last year (he had 92 in 82 games), and he’s on pace to smash that number at the midway point of this season.

It wasn’t too long ago that teammate Aleksander Barkov would’ve been at the top of this list, but he’s received enough national love that he’s appropriately considered to be one of the premiere two-way centers in the game. Now, it’s Huberdeau’s turn to get some love.

The Panthers forward currently has 17 goals and 55 points in 40 games, which puts him on pace to score 113 points this season. That’s a big number. Will he hit it? Time will tell, but he’s off to an amazing start. As of right now, only five players have more points than Huberdeau. They are: Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Nathan MacKinnon, David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand. That’s it.

In his case, the reason he’s so underrated is probably because of the market he plays in. No disrespect to Florida, but a lot of their players will fly under the radar because it’s not a traditional hockey market.

Mark Scheifele – C – Winnipeg Jets

In terms of their home hockey markets, Huberdeau and Scheifele couldn’t be in more different situations. We’ve touched on Florida already, but Winnipeg is just the opposite. The fans in Winnipeg are loud, passionate and plentiful. Scheifele is likely rated appropriately in Winnipeg, but he seems to fly under-the-radar compared to some of his teammates.

For instance, when you think of the Jets, the first current player that pops into your mind in probably Patrik Laine. They also have Blake Wheeler, Kyle Connor and Nikolaj Ehlers. In previous seasons, they’ve also had Jacob Trouba and Dustin Byfuglien. So it’s easy to see why Scheifele might not get as much attention as he deserves.

The 26-year-old has been a point-per-game player in each of the last three seasons. This year, he’s on pace to have the best offensive season of his career. He’s already accumulated 19 goals and 46 points in just 41 games. If you project those numbers over 82 contests, you get 38 goals and 92 points. Not too shabby.

Jake Guentzel – LW – Pittsburgh Penguins

Again, this is a situation where the people in Pittsburgh probably realize how good Guentzel has been this season, but there’s still a lot of fans out there that think he’s only a product of Sidney Crosby‘s success.

Before suffering a shoulder injury earlier this week that ended his regular season, Guentzel was lighting it up for the Pens. It took the 25-year-old just 39 games to hit the 20-goal mark and he was also on pace to have the first 90-plus point season of his career. Oh, by the way, he put up a lot of those numbers while Crosby was injured.

How many people realized that he had 40 goals last year? He was on pace to surpass that number, too.

Playing with Crosby has helped pump up other players’ numbers in the past, so it’s easy to understand why some would be skeptical about Guentzel’s abilities without him. The reality is that he’s morphed into a very important player for his team and hopefully he’s able to make a full recovery from his surgery in four-to-six months.

This is a classic case of being underrated because of the superstars around you.

Teuvo Teravainen – C – Carolina Hurricanes

Teravainen is on this list because of the market he’s in. The Hurricanes hit a grand slam when they acquired him from the Chicago Blackhawks along with Bryan Bickell. In exchange, all they gave up was second and third-round draft picks.

Since joining the ‘Canes, Teravainen has seen his point totals increase every year and he’s on pace to do that again in 2020. He went from having 42 points in year one to 64 points, 76 points and he’s picked up 40 points in his first 40 contests. His advanced numbers are even more impressive. When he’s on the ice, his team controls 59.94 percent of the shot attempts, 55.51 percent of the expected goals for and 55.05 percent of the high-danger scoring chances.

Understandably, Sebastian Aho and Andrei Svechnikov will grab more of the headlines because of their scoring ability, but Teravainen is a huge part of Carolina’s success. He’s also averaging a career-high 19:22 of ice time this year.

He has four years remaining on a contract that will pay him $5.4 million per season. That’s a bargain.

Max Pacioretty – LW – Vegas Golden Knights

Pacioretty had some terrific seasons in Montreal despite never playing with an elite center. The 31-year-old managed to put up seasons of 33, 39, 37, 30 and 35 goals while with the Habs, but his last two seasons haven’t lived up to expectations. Now, in his second year with Vegas, he appears to have found his groove.

Now, he’s playing with the best linemates he’s ever had (Paul Stastny and Mark Stone) and his numbers are starting to reflect that he’s comfortable in his second year with the Golden Knights. Pacioretty has picked up 18 goals and 43 points in his first 44 games. That puts him on pace for a career-high 81 points.

As his tenure with the Canadiens came to a close, it was clear that wearing the “C” in hockey-mad Montreal was weighing on him. The fresh start in Vegas has done wonders for his career.

Whether you realized it or not, he was one of the best goal scorers of the last decade.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

PHT Morning Skate: Winter Classic prep; Binnington the real deal

Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• A trip to the 2018 Red River Shootout secured the Cotton Bowl’s place as an NHL Winter Classic location. [NHL.com]

• Could a Winter Classic win be the spark that helps the Predators? [Tennessean]

• “Winter Classic will include jugglers, a sword swallower, a fire breather and a rodeo show, plus special appearances by Troy Aikman and Ricky Williams” Dallas Morning News]

• Why Jordan Binnington is no fluke and is the real deal. [St. Louis Gametime]

• Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff on the latest in the Dustin Byfuglien situation. [Illegal Curve]

• J.G. Pageau and Zack Kassian are two players who are trade deadline candidates but who also could help their teams make a second half playoff push. [TSN]

• The Sharks are facing a brutal January schedule as they look to make a second-half push. [NBC Sports Bay Area]

Thomas Greiss has been struggling in December. [Islanders Insight]

• Sheldon Keefe is instilling a balanced offensive and defensive approach with the Maple Leafs. [Sporting News]

• “Concussions dominated the 2010s, but the NHL is still fighting its demons” [The Score]

• A look at the worst draft busts of the past decade. [The Hockey News]

• Claude Julien believes winning hockey for the Canadiens means getting back to boring hockey. [Montreal Gazette]

• Finally, here’s the time-lapse video of how the NHL made a hockey rink inside Cotton Bowl Stadium:

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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.

Jets’ Hellebuyck continues November to remember with shutout

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A more casual hockey fan might take a look at the standings, see the Winnipeg Jets placed comfortably in the Western Conference playoff picture, and assume that it’s business as usual.

Yet, after a bruising offseason that cost Winnipeg the likes of Dustin Byfuglien (barring a surprising turnaround), Jacob Trouba, and Tyler Myers, the Jets aren’t nearly the balanced contender they were even as things got a little wonky toward the latter half of 2018-19.

On paper, one could picture the Jets channeling the back-to-back Cup-winning Penguins, or maybe the Maple Leafs during their most run-and-gun nights, and just try to outscore their problems. While that might happen here and there in 2019-20, the truth is that they’ve leaned heavily on Connor Hellebuyck.

And so far, he’s more than withstood the challenge.

Consider how much the Jets were depending upon Hellebuyck by this metric even before Friday’s 24-save shutout in a 3-0 win against the Anaheim Ducks:

As of this writing, Hellebuyck is tied for the league lead in wins (13 on a 13-7-1 record) while sporting a strong overall save percentage of .933.

The numbers become even more impressive as you dig deeper. Goals Saved Against Average aims to measure how a goalie would perform compared to their peers, and Hellebuyck shines even brighter there, leading the category at both even-strength (12.71) and all strengths (16.31), according to Natural Stat Trick.

Suspect goal support kept Hellebuyck at a .500 record in October despite strong play, but he’s turned it up a notch in November, recording eight of the Jets’ 10 wins (with Laurent Brossoit getting the other two victories this month by way of 4-3 wins).

Considering the explosive months from Oilers stars Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, along with plenty of others including Brad Marchand, Hellebuyck’s play might get lost in the shuffle a bit, but it should not.

If nothing else, there’s some local buzz for Hellebuyck’s MVP-like performance, as Blake Wheeler pointed out to the Winnipeg Sun’s Scott Billeck.

Now, it’s fair to wonder how long Hellebuyck can maintain a pace anywhere close to that torrid November. Even so, it’s worth realizing that this strong work is coming at a key time. The Jets played six of their last seven games on the road, and will wrap things up with one more away game when they face the Kings in Los Angeles on Saturday. They’ve won all but one game during that swing so far, excelling where they could have crumbled, and Hellebuyck has easily been the main reason for those triumphs.

This isn’t exactly how everyone expected the Jets to succeed if they managed to do so this season (again, I figured they might just win a lot of goal-soaked slugfests), so credit Hellebuyck with quite the run.

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.