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Sure, its early, but there are already several potential roadblocks emerging in what many Winnipeg Jets fans no doubt hoped and dreamed would be a smooth ride through the regular season, into the playoffs and right to the Stanley Cup final.
At first blush, the 2-2-0 start seems perfectly respectable given the tough terrain the Jets have had to navigate right out of the starting blocks. Playing a pair of road games against division rivals, coming home to face a two-time champion, and then heading back into enemy territory against a hostile foe that likely spent months dreaming of revenge is a tall task for any team, even one as talented as the Jets.
Would three or four wins have been fantastic? Of course. But a split is nothing to sneeze at, at least if you were simply looking at the results on paper.
But the game is played on ice, and we’ve seen enough through the first 10 days of the schedule to throw up a few caution flags.
And pose three key questions:
1) Sure, it’s early, but what the heck has gotten into these guys?
We expected the Jets to come out with a bit of a chip on their shoulder, given all the training camp talk about how last year’s franchise-record run still left them feeling empty and with something to prove.
But we figured any subsequent punishment would be meted out against their opponents. Instead, Winnipeg is suffering from plenty of self-inflicted wounds after being short-handed 20 times through their first four games, while only drawing 10 power plays of their own.
That includes eight straight and nine overall in Thursday night’s breakdown at Bridgestone Arena, where the Nashville Predators seemingly spent the whole night on the power play. And while they somehow weren’t able to cash in on any of them, they still skated away with a 3-0 victory.
Perhaps most alarming is the response from Jets head coach Paul Maurice and several veteran players after the game, who seemed to adopt a woe-is-us mentality. Maurice suggested his club only deserved two of the penalties, while captain Blake Wheeler said it’s “not my job” to explain the parade to the penalty box. If not the captain, then who?
This wasn’t a case of the young kids getting carried away. It was the veteran leaders who were the biggest culprits. You might not have agreed with all the calls, but you have to admit the Jets made it pretty easy with their reckless play.
Wheeler was whistled for a silly roughing penalty in which he tried to fight Filip Forsberg for some reason. Defenceman Jacob Trouba had a hat trick of foolish plays with cross-check, slash and interference minors. Rearguard Tyler Myers took a 10-minute misconduct for mock clapping at the referees. Blue-liner Dustin Byfuglien took a blatant interference penalty by running Nick Bonino into the crossbar. Centre Mark Scheifele took a misconduct at the conclusion of the game.
If the Nashville contest was supposed to be some kind of a statement game for the Jets, then the message they sent to the rest of the NHL is just how easy it is to get under their skin.
2) Sure, it’s early, but what’s happened to the potent offence?
Toronto Maple Leafs superstar Auston Matthews has nine goals this season. The Jets have eight.
After lighting the lamp five times in their season-opening win in St. Louis, Winnipeg’s offence has gone cold with just three goals in the last three games. They scored once in the loss in Dallas, twice in the tight victory over the Los Angeles Kings and were shut out by Nashville.
The biggest concern is a lack of secondary scoring.
Winnipeg’s top line has five of the team’s goals, with Kyle Connor at three and Wheeler and Scheifele each with one. Adam Lowry and Brandon Tanev have also scored, while sniper Patrik Laine just has one power-play goal — on his first shot in his first game — so far.
Nikolaj Ehlers continues to be mired in a slump that goes back to last January. Bryan Little and Mathieu Perreault always give it a solid effort, but are producing little in the way of tangible results.
Jack Roslovic and rookie Kristian Vesalainen have also been blanked while playing limited minutes on the fourth line.
The Jets have also given up the first goal in three games, which means they’re chasing the game. That’s something Winnipeg only did in 37 of 82 regular-season games last season.
All of this is making the Jets a pretty easy team to match up against. Shut down the top line, don’t give them too many power-play chances, and you’re likely to end up on the right side of the scoreboard.
3) Sure, it’s early, but what to do about the blue-line blunders?
Byfuglien and his partner, Ben Chiarot, had a nightmarish game in Nashville. A Chiarot giveaway led directly to the first goal. Two Byfuglien blunders contributed to the other two.
Myers and Joe Morrow were shaky in St. Louis and downright discombobulated in Dallas.
Trouba had a lacklustre pre-season and hasn’t exactly stepped it up once the puck dropped for real. It could be argued that only his partner, Josh Morrissey, has lived up to expectations so far.
Throw in the fact you have a US$4.3-million healthy scratch in Dmitry Kulikov, and the defence is a source of early-season distress for Winnipeg.
How much longer will Maurice keep this group intact before mixing things up? Does Kulikov, apparently still trying to get up to speed following off-season back surgery, draw in soon? And if he does, will it represent an improvement?
The next 10 games will tell us plenty about the make-up of this year’s squad and how they can handle the increased expectations that have joined them on their journey this season.
Consider this: Winnipeg only faces one playoff team from last season over that upcoming stretch. That would be the red-hot Maple Leafs, who they’ll play twice in that span. The other eight opponents were all on the outside looking in last year in Carolina, Edmonton, Vancouver, Arizona, St. Louis, Detroit and a pair of contests with Florida.
It’s also worth noting six of those 10 games are in the friendly confines of Bell MTS Place, where Winnipeg had the best home-ice record last season and is off to a 1-0-0 start. Only two are true road games, with the other two being the neutral-site affairs in Finland.
It goes without saying that playing .500 hockey will no longer cut it. Despite the fact the Jets clearly have plenty to work on, a golden opportunity to make some hay over the next few weeks is staring them in the face.
Sure, it’s early. But it won’t be for too much longer.
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.