Jets struggling to fight way out of slump

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There’s a big difference between being a team in first place and being a first-place team.

The Winnipeg Jets are a team in first place these days (in that regard, the standings don’t lie). But they are nowhere close to being a team worthy of their spot in the standings (and this is where the standings are misleading).

You can call what the Jets are going through a slump if you’d like. You can refer to it as a blip on the radar screen or team facing a bit of adversity. There’s some truth ruffling around in there. The season is long. But Winnipeg’s problems run deeper than the adjectives being used to describe their recent stretch.

And that’s when you see that the slump might actually be a trend, and not one that started last week with a pair of losses to the Ottawa Senators and now a pair of defeats to the Colorado Avalanche (including an atrocity-on-ice in a 7-1 loss on Wednesday night).

The slide begins further back, let’s say around Christmas — when the Jets lost both Dustin Byfuglien and Nikolaj Ehlers to injury and seemingly stopped playing the same way they used to. And while they’ve have found wins since then — including a couple of emphatic ones along the way against Tampa Bay and Vegas — a slow drip has worked itself into a concerning leak.

The Jets are a good case study when it comes to relying too heavily on an unsustainably-good power play and great goaltending while not playing well enough five-on-five to cover off the two if one or both wells run dry.

The Money Puck chart above shows how far Winnipeg’s expected goal differential has dipped. It’s severe. Their expected goals-for has also been on a moonwalk backward since around the same time, which makes sense given how far that differential as fallen.

The numbers shouldn’t come as a surprise. Anyone who’s watched the Jets regularly can see a team that’s a shade of their former selves.

  • They’re slow.
  • They appear uninterested.
  • They lack urgency and can’t match the intensity of their opponents
  • Their power play has fallen off the face of the earth.
  • Swiss cheese would be jealous of how many holes they’ve developed in their defense.
  • Patrik Laine left his game in November.
  • Discipline has gone out the window
  • Paul Maurice’s stubbornness has led to sub-optimal lines being trotted out game after game with predictable results.

Both wells have certainly run dry.

So how can a team sitting in first place, in what’s thought of as the toughest division in hockey, have so many issues? Like a bad infection, it’s had time to develop.

The Jets have slid seven spots from the eighth-best possession team last season to 15th this year. Their high-danger shots-for has gone from seventh to 22nd. Their goals-for/60 has plummeted from third to 14th.

In essence, the team has regressed. And without the benefit of that elite power play recently, Winnipeg hasn’t been able to outscore the issues they’re experiencing five-on-five.

If not for the excellent play of their goaltenders this year, they’d be in worse shape.

Connor Hellebuyck had a slow start to the season, but the Jets managed to outscore some of his woes. Laurent Brossoit has been a godsend as a backup, and they haven’t really needed to outscore anything with him in net because he barely gives up goals and has one of the best goals saved above average (GSAA) numbers in the entire NHL.

Hellebuyck has regained some of that form that saw him become a Vezina runner-up last season, but even his recent stellar play couldn’t help when seven flew past him on Wednesday night. Hellebuyck, quite frankly, was the only reason why that number wasn’t doubled.

“We were f—ing awful,” Jets forward Adam Lowry said in a candid meeting with reporters in Denver following the game. (The entire scrum is well worth the watch).

Jets captain Blake Wheeler said his team gave up, the first he’s seen such an occurrence during his time in Winnipeg — even through the seasons where they had nothing to play for.

There wasn’t much else to be said following Wednesday’s display. Both were raw. And both were true.

Fixing what is ailing the Jets is a question with no answer at the moment, but it has to begin with trying to find optimal placement for some of its pieces.

Laine’s slump is by no means the reason why the Jets are where they are. He’s far from the biggest issue with the team. But getting him going again is part of the solution, and finding suitable linemates to do so is a must.

Maurice brought the blender out on Wednesday but it was no use in a game as terrible as the one the Jets played.

Laine needs a driver at the moment, so moving a guy like Mathieu Perreault to his opposite wing would be a good start (it’s shown well in a limited fashion in the past). Perhaps putting Andrew Copp in between those two should be explored as well.

Putting Copp back with Lowry and Brandon Tanev would be another option. That line was elite last season in terms of possession and the Jets sorely need some sustained offensive zone time five-on-five.

The return of Ehlers will eventually help, but his timetable is still murky.

Maurice’s biggest task is sorting it out now, something he’s acknowledged but has struggled to find the proper diagnosis.

“We are concerned,” Maurice said last weekend following their second loss to the Senators in a week.

Asked to elaborate on those concerns, Maurice mentioned pretty much everything.

“Just our game,” he said. “There’s not a lot going for us. We’re struggling in all pieces of it. It’s how we generate our offense, how we defend, our special teams. Probably not our goaltending, our goaltending has been good.”

After Wednesday’s game, Maurice had far fewer words, spending just 40 seconds with reporters.

The man with 1,500-plus NHL games as a bench boss needs to figure out how to extract the same formidable Winnipeg Jets that were considered a Stanley Cup contender not long ago.

The last two weeks — and really, the past couple of months — have brought that into question.

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

Laine’s cold streak isn’t only warning sign for Jets

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Search Patrik Laine‘s name and you’ll see a lot of pessimism lately, and that makes sense.

After all, the Finnish winger is ice-cold, to the point that you can slice and dice his numbers in a wide variety of unflattering ways, at least if you make sure to skate past the whole “18 goals in November” thing.

The takes really hit a boiling point after possibly Laine’s lowest point as an NHL player. While the Winnipeg Jets managed a 4-3 shootout win against the Boston Bruins on Tuesday, Laine only logged 10:55 of ice time, and again — that’s in a game that included a full five-minute overtime of 3-on-3 action. (That “free hockey” accounted for 52 seconds of Laine’s ice time.)

That ice time marks the second-lowest of Laine’s career, but his worst was a game cut short by injuries, so this was the harshest “coach’s decision” the sniper’s faced yet.

The Winnipeg Sun’s Ted Wyman wonders if that tough game was a “wakeup call,” one that might even merit a healthy scratch, and he’s far from the only person cringing at Laine’s numbers.

No doubt about it, the Jets need to make sure that Laine is focused and confident with the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs not much more than two months away.

Is it possible, though, that Laine’s struggles distract from some issues for the Jets? Winnipeg isn’t necessarily in a crisis, but there are some things to consider.

While that trio is dominant, Laine isn’t exactly riding with high-end scorers. During the last month or so, he’s mostly been skating with Bryan Little (a decent but unspectacular center) and Jack Roslovic (an intriguing but unfinished talent). It’s perfectly reasonable to wonder if the Jets would be wise to move Little or Roslovic off that combination in favor of Mathieu Perreault, a long-underrated play driver who has played at center in the past.

Either way, it’s clear that injured winger Nikolaj Ehlers is missed, whether Ehlers would line up with Wheeler and Scheifele (allowing Connor to boost Laine), or if Ehlers could join up with Laine.

  • The Jets aren’t lighting opponents up possession-wise.

Perhaps Winnipeg is coasting through the season while saving that “extra gear” for the postseason, but they’re not necessarily dominant by certain measures.

Before that Bruins game, Money Puck tweeted that the Jets have been looking like an “average team” at times in 2018-19, and that they were stronger according to the same expected goals metrics last season. Looking at Natural Stat Trick, Winnipeg is middle-of-the-pack by a variety of standards, including Corsi and Fenwick. They can’t explain it away by “shot quality” alone, as they’re middling in high-danger scoring chances, too.

Again, this isn’t to say that the Jets are a “paper tiger.” There’s plenty of talent on hand, and this team’s also dealt with substantial injuries to the likes of Ehlers and Dustin Byfuglien.

That said …

  • They might indeed want to spend at the trade deadline.

On Monday, The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun postulated that there might be something of an arms race between the Jets and the Nashville Predators during the deadline (sub required).

Winnipeg was happy with the addition of Paul Stastny last season, and there have been murmurs about Derick Brassard, but this could be a time for GM Kevin Cheveldayoff to gamble a bit.

For one thing, this team may very well need a bigger boost than you’d think, at least considering some of the struggles depicted in their underlying numbers.

Really, though, this might be the Jets’ best chance. Both Laine and Connor are due significant raises with their rookie contracts set to expire after this season, and Jacob Trouba needs a new deal as an RFA, too. Much like the Maple Leafs, things could really start to get tight for the Jets once they pay some of their brilliant young players — and they might lose some key ones in the process.

Cap Friendly projects the Jets’ deadline cap space at about $26.45 million. They should spend as much of it as ownership will allow.

***

Again, this situation is far from “doom and gloom,” as the Jets are set to be a competitive team for some time. Maybe some of their sneaky (possession stats) and headline-grabbing (Laine slump) issues could actually inspire this patient franchise to go bold, and possibly win big in the process?

Ultimately, Winnipeg’s challenges – and ambitions – could really spice things up during the trade deadline. Again.

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.

WATCH LIVE: Flyers host Jets on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Monday’s matchup between the Winnipeg Jets and Philadelphia Flyers. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

While the Tampa Bay Lightning lead the NHL with 76 points, the Western Conference has a tighter race at the top, especially in the Central Division, where Winnipeg currently owns the top spot and has four games in hand on the second-place Nashville Predators.

The Jets are currently on pace for 109 points and 52 wins. Last season, the team set franchise records in both wins (52) and points (114), but they still didn’t win the division (Nashville did w/ NHL-best 117 pts).

All-Stars Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele are top two on the team in points at 61 and 59, respectively. Kyle Connor is next with 38. Wheeler, tied for ninth in the NHL in points, is second in the league in assists (52) and although his streak of 20-goal seasons may end at five given he has only nine goals, he’s on pace for 104 points, which would be a career high and break Marian Hossa’s franchise record of 100.

In addition to the All-Star break, both teams are coming off their bye weeks, each having last played on Saturday, Jan. 19.

One of the bottom-dwellers of the Eastern Conference, the Flyers sit 14 points back of a playoff spot and are on track to continue their trend of missing the postseason the year after making it. From 1995-2012, the Flyers made the playoffs 16 times in a 17-season span. Since then, Philly has made just three postseasons in the last six years and each in alternating years.

Wayne Simmonds, a popular name in trade talks ahead of the Feb. 25 deadline, has played in all 48 games this season and put up 15 goals but just 23 points. He’s on track for his sixth straight season with 24-plus goals but only 39 points, which would be his fewest in a full season since 2011.

The Flyers are 7-8-2 since interim coach Scott Gordon took over for Dave Hakstol. The coaching change was one of several moves in what has been a tumultuous season for the team that has also included letting go of GM Ron Hextall and replacing him with Chuck Fletcher.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Winnipeg Jets at Philadelphia Flyers
Where: Wells Fargo Center
When: Monday, Jan. 28, 6 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Jets-Flyers stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

JETS
Kyle Connor – Mark Scheifele – Blake Wheeler
Patrik LaineBryan LittleJack Roslovic
Mathieu PerreaultAdam LowryBrandon Tanev
Brendan LemieuxAndrew CoppMason Appleton

Josh MorrisseyJacob Trouba
Dmitry KulikovTyler Myers
Joe Morrow – Sami Niku

Starting goalie: Connor Hellebuyck

FLYERS
James van RiemsdykClaude GirouxTravis Konecny
Oskar LindblomSean CouturierJakub Voracek
Scott LaughtonNolan Patrick – Wayne Simmonds
Phil Varone – Mikhail Vorobyev – Michael Raffl

Ivan ProvorovTravis Sanheim
Shayne GostisbehereAndrew MacDonald
Robert HaggRadko Gudas

Starting goalie: Carter Hart

Kenny Albert and Brian Boucher will have the call from Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pa. Pre-game coverage starts at 6 p.m. ET with NHL Live, hosted by Paul Burmeister alongside Jeremy Roenick and Anson Carter.

Preds’ Johansen to have hearing for high-sticking Scheifele

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Ryan Johansen of the Nashville Predators will have a chat with the NHL Department of Player Safety on Friday after he high-sticked Winnipeg Jets forward Mark Scheifele during a 5-1 defeat.

As the two forwards were battling in the corner late in the first period, they separated and Johansen’s stick came straight down onto Scheifele’s head, sending the Jets star to the ice. Johansen received only a two-minute minor for the infraction, but will likely be receiving some additional punishment after his phone hearing.

Scheifele was uninjured and remained in the game.

Johansen could try reasoning with the DoPs like Radko Gudas did before he was suspended 10 games for slashing Mathieu Perreault in the neck last season. The Philadelphia Flyers defenseman, who had a history before that incident, said it was an unfortunate play and that he’d never used his stick in that manner before.

Of course, all players must be in control of their sticks during play. While Johansen probably didn’t intend to hack Scheifele in the head after their battle, it was still his stick and he’ll likely get some punishment out of it.

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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.

WATCH LIVE: Jets take on Wild in Central Division clash

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Thursday’s matchup between the Minnesota Wild and Winnipeg Jets. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Minnesota is coming off a 4-0 shutout loss in Boston on Tuesday night, which snapped a three-game winning streak. This game is the Wild’s first home game in 201, and the team is looking to snap a four-game losing streak at Xcel Energy Center.

They’ve dropped six of their last eight home games (2-5-1) after going 8-2-2 in their first 12 games at home.

Zach Parise, one of the “Last Men In” All-Star candidates, has 38 points (19G-19A) in 41 games this season, and is averaging 0.93 points/game, his best since 2009-10 (averaged 1.01). He leads the team in goals (19) and has nine points (4G-5A) in the last seven games.

It was Winnipeg’s stars who all shined bright in Tuesday’s win vs. Colorado, with Blake Wheeler recording four pts (1G-3A), and Mark Scheifele (1G-2A) and Jacob Trouba each recording 3 pts (1G-2A).

While the Jets are in good playoff position entering the second half of the season, the team is focused on trying to become a more consistent force, and are trying to use last years’ experience of reaching the Western Conference Final to help lead to another successful run.

“We’re happy with where we’re at in the standings… but overall, as good as we’ve played, we know we have another level that we can get to,” said Bryan Little. “It only gets harder from here. For us, it’s just to elevate our game and to get ready for that.”

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Winnipeg Jets at Minnesota Wild
Where: Xcel Energy Center
When: Thursday, Jan. 10, 7 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Jets-Wild stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

JETS
Kyle Connor – Mark Scheifele – Blake Wheeler
Patrik Laine – Bryan Little – Jack Roslovic
Mathieu PerreaultAdam LowryBrandon Tanev
Brendan LemieuxAndrew CoppMason Appleton

Josh Morrissey – Jacob Trouba
Ben ChiarotTyler Myers
Dmitry KulikovJoe Morrow

Starting goalie: Connor Hellebuyck

WILD
Jordan GreenwayEric StaalNino Niederreiter
Zach Parise – Charlie CoyleLuke Kunin
Jason ZuckerMikko KoivuMikael Granlund
Marcus FolignoJoel Eriksson EkMatt Hendricks

Ryan SuterJared Spurgeon
Jonas BrodinGreg Pateryn
Nick SeelerNate Prosser

Starting goalie: Devan Dubnyk

John Walton (play-by-play) and Pierre McGuire (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will call Jets-Wild from Xcel Energy Center. Tappen, Milbury and Jeremy Roenick will anchor studio coverage.