Crunch time

DENVER – Make no mistake: The panic button has been pushed.

Despite captain Blake Wheeler’s attempt to pass it off as something that happens a “handful of times every year,” Tuesday night’s 23-minute, closed-door, players-only meeting following his team’s latest inexplicable effort was anything but routine.

It would be unusual at any time in the season, let alone after Game No. 80 and with the start of the playoffs a week away. And it shows the Winnipeg Jets appear to recognize they are in danger of flushing a season with so much promise right down the drain.

Whether they have it in them to get their act together remains to be seen.

So what exactly is going on here? There’s plenty of blame to go around, and I’m guessing some of that came out in what must have been a pretty tense, uncomfortable bit of soul-searching at Xcel Energy Center.

Wheeler – the only player who emerged to speak publicly following the embarrassing 5-1 defeat to Minnesota – dropped some hints, mentioning things like the team needing to show “a little bit of resiliency, a little bit of maturity.” As well as needing to “get every guy pulling on the rope in the same direction.”

That would seem to suggest the Jets are a group that is falling apart under pressure, too childish to correct it and have several players simply doing their own thing, rather than as a collective.

Nikolaj Ehlers hasn't gained a point in seven games.

(JOHN WOODS / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES)

Nikolaj Ehlers hasn’t gained a point in seven games.

Sounds about right, actually, given what we’re seeing happening on the ice, with just one win in the past five games and a much longer record of erratic play going all the way back to just after the Christmas break. In many of those games, they’ve barely looked interested.

All of which is reason for grave concern with the post-season set to begin.

The Jets opted Wednesday to cancel a scheduled practice here in Denver – a curious choice given that Wheeler specifically mentioned “coming to work tomorrow” the previous night. Maybe they think they can find the cure for what ails them away from the rink?

Wheeler didn’t specifically point any fingers in public, but that doesn’t mean we can’t. So which players might not exactly be pulling in the right direction lately? It’s pretty easy to identify several culprits.

Nikolaj Ehlers is playing the worst hockey of his season right now, going seven straight games without a point. He’s gone a dreadful minus-eight in that span, and has been moved down the lineup, from the top line, to the second line, to the third line. He can be a game-breaker when he’s on, but right now Ehlers is completely lost. Sure, he’s still buzzing around the ice, but he’s not actually accomplishing anything in the process.

Winnipeg Jets' Patrik Laine has gone four games without a point.

(TREVOR HAGAN / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES)

Winnipeg Jets’ Patrik Laine has gone four games without a point.

His good buddy, Patrik Laine, isn’t faring much better. After showing some signs of progress after a stint up with the top line, Laine is once again back to being a non-factor. He’s gone four straight games without a point, going minus-six in that span, and has just one goal in the last 17 contests. After seasons of 36 and then 44 goals, Laine’s is stuck at 30 and that’s largely thanks to an incredible November which has salvaged his season from being an utter disaster.

Bryan Little doesn’t have a point in 11 straight games, and just one goal and one assist over 19. That’s simply not good enough for a veteran, proven point-producer who is being counted on for secondary offence.

Mark Scheifele has also gone ice-cold lately, with no points in his past three and just one point, a goal, in his last seven. He’s a minus-seven in that stretch. Most alarming is that he doesn’t look anything like himself lately. He’s noticeably slower, is getting easily knocked off pucks and knocked to the ice, and just doesn’t seem to have a next gear right now. Perhaps it’s a hidden injury, or just the wear-and-tear of the season taking a toll, but it should be of major concern.

The list goes on. Trade deadline acquisition Kevin Hayes has been streaky, putting up points in just six of the 18 games he’s played with the Jets. Kyle Connor has no points in four games.

Mark Scheifele isn't looking like himself lately.

(KYUSUNG GONG / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS FILES)

Mark Scheifele isn’t looking like himself lately.

Even Wheeler isn’t immune from criticism. He has just two assists in his last eight games, going minus-six in that span, and hasn’t scored in 10. The power play, of which he is a major part, has also dried up. All those seam passes that worked so well early in the year have vanished.

On the blue-line, inconsistency is running rampant. Dustin Byfuglien has just looked OK in his three games back since injury but will need to bring a lot more to the table if the Jets are to have success. Josh Morrissey can’t return from injury soon enough, but the Jets are in big trouble if they think he will just suddenly wave a magic wand and instantly wipe away their many troubles.

Jacob Trouba continues to make far too many poor puck decisions, and his continuing presence on the top power play unit instead of Byfuglien is a real head-scratcher.

Captain Blake Wheeler: The team needs to 'a little bit of resiliency, a little bit of maturity.'

(AP PHOTO/JEFFREY T. BARNES)

Captain Blake Wheeler: The team needs to ‘a little bit of resiliency, a little bit of maturity.’

Which brings me to coach Paul Maurice. He seemingly is pushing all the wrong buttons with his club right now, including the decision to sit Connor Hellebuyck in St. Paul with backup Laurent Brossoit still injured. Eric Comrie struggled mightily, and you could see his team sag after he left in a terrible third goal late in the first period.

That game might ultimately end up costing the Jets first place in the Central, maybe even home-ice advantage in the playoffs. The minimal line juggling he’s done hasn’t worked, and you wonder if it isn’t time to get Wheeler and Scheifele away from each other in an attempt to light a fire under everyone.

Of course, at this point in the season it’s pretty tough to overhaul the systems that have been put in place – ones that include giving up a boatload of shots nearly every single game. Right now, there’s not a whole lot that can be done about that.

Except talk, apparently.

“Sometimes the best therapy for that is having a conversation about it,” Wheeler said of the airing of grievances in Minnesota. “You hold things in, nothing gets figured out. So it’s good to talk.”

It doesn’t get any easier here in the Mile High City, where the Jets were clobbered 7-1 the last time they visited in late February. They’ll face a red-hot Colorado club Thursday night that just needs one point to secure a playoff berth.

Sure, they’re saying many of the right things. But they have been for weeks. It’s time the Jets started backing up their words with actions. Right now, they appear to simply be blowing smoke.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Reporter

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

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