Jets struggling to fight way out of slump

3 Comments

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

Getty
1 Comment

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.

NHL on NBCSN: Will Jets get over hump this year?

Getty

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.

After winning a franchise record 52 games last season, the Jets are putting together another terrific year. They’re actually on pace to put the same amount of wins but less points than they did in 2017-18, but the difference is they’re on pace to win the Central Division, which is something they didn’t do last year.

Last year, the Jets beat the Wild in the first round and they took down the top team in the division, the Nashville Predators, seven games. Unfortunately for the Jets, they didn’t have much left in the tank for the Western Conference Final against Vegas, which they lost in five games.

So is this the year the Jets get over the hump?

We all know they’re deep at every single position. They have a ton of quality options up front, they have a great group of defensemen and the duo of Connor Hellebuyck and Laurent Brossoit has been incredible.

The Jets have accumulated 64 points in 46 games with a number of injuries. Dustin Byfuglien, Ben Chiarot and Nikolaj Ehlers are all on the shelf for now. Byfuglien is expected to miss the remainder of the month with a leg injury. Ehlers’ upper-body injury will keep him out until mid-February, too. So the scary thing is that this team can get a whole lot better without even making a trade.

The Jets could also receive a boost from a more consistent Patrik Laine. The Finnish winger is tied for the team lead in goals, with 25, but he scored just three times in 12 games in October, 18 times in 12 games in November and four goals in 24 games in December and January.

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

“I hope so,” Laine said of being recharged after the break, per the Winnipeg Free Press. “Just not thinking about hockey and just doing something else. Just trying to get the batteries full. We’re going to be ready for the last stretch and the last games before the playoffs.

“I think there’s been good stretches and bad stretches, but still, 25 goals is more than I’ve had before an all-star break. That’s good enough for me.”

We also know that GM Kevin Cheveldayoff isn’t shy about making a trade or two on Trade Deadline Day. Last year, he went out and acquired Paul Stastny from the Blues for a package that included a first-round pick. He also added Joe Morrow from Montreal for a fourth-rounder.

So if Cheveldayoff is willing to sacrifice more draft picks for immediate help, the Jets might be able to add another solid piece or two before February 25th.

But even if they don’t make a major splash, they still have the talent to make a run to the Stanley Cup.

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.

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.

NHL Injury roundup: Updates on Byfuglien, Hall, Schultz and Karlsson

Getty

Now we will take a quick look around the NHL at some of the significant injury situations and where they stand as the league comes out of the All-Star break this week. 

Byfuglien getting closer, but not expected to play this week

Dustin Byfuglien has not been in the Winnipeg Jets lineup since the end of December, and while he is expected to return to the ice this week for practice he is not expected to play in any of the team’s three games and did not accompany the team on its upcoming two-game road trip.

The Jets are in Philadelphia and Boston on Monday and Tuesday before returning home to play the Columbus Blue Jackets on Thursday night.

Jets coach Paul Maurice was asked on Sunday if there is any possibility that Byfuglien could return for that Thursday game and seemed to downplay the chances of it.

“I’m gonna say no because I haven’t seen him skate yet,” said Maurice, via Ted Wyman of the Winnipeg Sun. “If he comes out and he’s flying around we’d consider it. I don’t expect him to be.”

Byfuglien is the Jets’ top defender and has 29 points (five goals, 24 assists) in 32 games this season while playing more than 24 minutes per night.

In his absence the Jets have still managed to go 7-3-0 over the past 10 games to remain tied with the Nashville Predators at the top of the Central Division. That number is even more impressive when you consider they have also been without forward Nikolaj Ehlers for eight of those games.

Jacob Trouba and Josh Morrissey have done a fantastic job stepping up on the blue line without him.

After the home game against Columbus on Thursday the next chance for him to get back in the lineup would be two nights later against the Anaheim Ducks.

Taylor Hall not progressing as quickly as Devils had hoped

The reigning league MVP has not played since Dec. 23 and is not progressing as quickly as the Devils had hoped in his recovery from a lower-body injury.

He did skate for the first time before practice on Sunday, but is not yet ready to return to the lineup and will not accompany the team on its trip to Pittsburgh for Monday’s game against the Penguins.

Even though Hall has only appeared in 33 games this season and has not played in more than a month, he is still the team’s second-leading scorer with 37 points, just one behind Kyle Palmieri.

Palmieri has played in 15 more games.

For the season Hall has 37 points in 33 games and is still the driving force behind everything the Devils do when he is in the lineup. He has arguably been just as good as he was a year ago when he nearly single-handedly carried the team to a surprising playoff spot. Injuries, however, have limited him and the Devils.

The Devils won the first three games of Hall’s absence but have fallen apart in the weeks since going just 3-7-0 in their past 10 games, with only two of those wins coming in regulation.

Justin Schultz is getting closer

While there is no official timetable for his return at this point, and even though he is not returned to full practice with the team, Pittsburgh Penguins defender Justin Schultz has been skating on his own and seems to be inching closer toward a return.

After practice on Sunday Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said that Schultz is “approaching” being able to join the team for practice and that he is more “week-to-week” than day-to-day.

Schultz has played in just four games this season after fracturing his leg back on October. He was originally expected to miss at least four months. That timeframe, assuming it is unchanged, would set him up for a return sometime around mid-February. Or in other words, about two weeks from today.

His return, whenever it happens, would be a significant one for the Penguins because he would help solidify their top-four on defense without having to make another trade (though, they still might). While their top-pairing is set with Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin, and they seem willing to ride with a third-pairing of Marcus Pettersson and Jack Johnson, their second pairing has been a bit unsettled as they’ve rotated Jamie Oleksiak and Juuso Riikola alongside Olli Maatta. None of those combinations have been bad, but Schultz brings an element offensively that neither Oleksiak or Riikola (or Maata, for that matter) can.

He would also help what is an already dangerous power play unit.

Erik Karlsson gets another week off to prepare

After being shut down for the three games leading up to the NHL All-Star break, San Jose Sharks defender Erik Karlsson was at least healthy enough to play for the hometown fans in Sunday’s game.

Now he has another week to recover as the Sharks do not return to action until Friday night when they host the Arizona Coyotes. It is expected that Karlsson should be ready for action at that point.

Prior to the injury Karlsson had returned to his usual Norris Trophy form where he can dominate the pace of the game and score at a level that is unmatched by almost any other defender. He has recorded 28 points in his past 20 games, while also posting some of the best shot attempt and scoring chance numbers of any player in the league. He has been great, and everything the Sharks could have hoped for him to be when they added him to an already strong defense in an offseason trade with the Ottawa Senators. The Sharks struggled in the three games he missed, winning just one of them and giving up at least six goals in all three of them.

They were 8-2-0 in the 10 games prior to that stretch.

More: Sharks soak in love from fans during All-Star weekend

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.

 

Jets prepared for Western Conference showdown vs. Golden Knights

5 Comments

Patrik Laine hasn’t forgotten how the Western Conference Final turned out. After the Winnipeg Jets topped the Vegas Golden Knights in Game 1, 4-2, the NHL’s newest expansion team didn’t lose again in the series en route to a place in the Stanley Cup Final.

So when the Golden Knights visit the Jets Tuesday night at MTS Centre, some revenge will be on the minds of Laine and his teammates.

“Obviously, they kicked our ass in the playoffs,” Laine said Monday. “We want to win [Tuesday] and get the two points.”

The two points will be huge for either team as the Jets, who have played the fewest games (45) among the top three teams in the Central Division, look to extend their division lead, and the Golden Knights try to remain red-hot and chip away at the Calgary Flames’ lead in the Pacific Division.

Both teams have a pair of tests this week after the conference final rematch Tuesday. Vegas heads home to welcome a Pittsburgh Penguins team on Saturday that’s playing very well. Winnipeg hops on a plane to visit the Nashville Predators on Thursday.

“The games will bring their own intensity,” said Jets head coach Paul Maurice. “Against the teams that aren’t right now in the playoff picture, our record is spectacular. So we haven’t taken anybody lightly. The challenges for us these next two games aren’t that. It would be playing well against good teams when you’re in the middle of a pretty good grinder missing some guys (Tyler Myers, Dustin Byfuglien, Nikolaj Ehlers). Not excuses.”

Tuesday’s matchup will also be the first time Paul Stastny sees his old pals since leaving in free agency during the summer. After an October injury kept him sidelined for two months, the 33-year-old forward has resumed compliling the points and has 13 in 18 games this season.

Stastny’s return has certainly helped Vegas in their second year to maintain the successful results they experienced in 2017-18. A slow start to the season has turned into a two-month run that’s seen them take 43 out of a possible 56 points over their last 28 games (20-5-3).

Maybe another rematch in mid-May is in the cards?

“Now they look as powerful, if not more, than they did at any point last year. They’re a year further into their program,” Maurice said. “They still have that real veteran team. They don’t have a lot of kids in that lineup. And they’re deep. They’ll go four lines all night long.”

————

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.