Jets flunk road trip

Opinion



Give the Winnipeg Jets an ‘A’ for effort. But an ‘F’ for execution.

If this just-completed road trip through Washington, Nashville, Boston and Pittsburgh was a litmus test, then an 0-2-2 record suggests the local NHL squad flunked. Quite miserably, in fact. Two out of eight points is not going to cut it for a club that entered this campaign with Stanley Cup aspirations. A few more weeks like the one it just had should pretty much end any spring hockey talk around here.

Harsh? Perhaps. Those were four quality opponents Winnipeg had to face, all in enemy territory and without its optimal lineup for any of them. It would be a tall ask, even for the most talented teams, to run the table. Still, the cold, hard reality is this is a results-based business. And it hasn’t exactly been booming lately for the Jets, now a rather pedestrian 17-14-7 as they approach the midway point of their season.

At the risk of being the bearer of bad news, Winnipeg is a whopping 10 points out of even cracking the top four in the stacked Central Division.

At the risk of being the bearer of bad news, Winnipeg is a whopping 10 points out of even cracking the top four in the stacked Central Division, with Colorado, St. Louis, Nashville and Minnesota establishing themselves as the cream of the crop. The top three automatically make the playoffs, and you can pencil in the fourth-place club as a wildcard lock at this point. Sure, the Jets have a few games in hand on the Blues and Predators, but those two are actually 14 points ahead, which is leap years in these times of three-point NHL games a plenty.

Barring a major collapse by someone, or a minor miracle around here, Winnipeg appears to be left scratching and clawing for a second Western Conference wildcard spot with whatever teams find themselves out of the top three in the inferior Pacific Division. As of today that would be San Jose, which is three points ahead having played four more games. In that sense, the Jets remain very much in the picture, along with the likes of Calgary, Dallas, Edmonton and Vancouver. It’s a crowded field for one spot, where the reward for squeaking in would be a first-round date with the No. 1 seed.

Good luck with that. Sure, anything can happen once you get to the dance. But that sound you hear is a once-promising season starting to circle the drain. Even the players seem to recognize it based on some of their comments over the weekend.

“I know everyone wants it in the locker room but for myself, I’m feeling the pressure,” Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck admitted Sunday as his team squandered a 2-0 third-period lead and ultimately fell 3-2 in a shootout to Pittsburgh.

“We’re running out of time and running out of games because, I know usually it’s after Christmas but we got a little bit of a delay so, right around now is the time teams keep on winning. Good teams start pulling away and if you’re not with that mix, you’re going to hang yourself out quite fast. The time is now.”

There’s no question Winnipeg hasn’t had an easy time of it lately, with nary a home game since Dec. 19. Just when it looked like they were about to get fully healthy last week, flashy winger Nikolaj Ehlers was taken out with a reckless knee-on-knee hit that will sideline him until mid-February at the earliest. The Jets sure could have used his services in back-to-back one goal losses against the Bruins and Penguins where, as Wheeler noted, they were “one shot away.”

Even now, as they finally return to the downtown barn, they are at a competitive disadvantage to their hockey neighbours to the south. Rather than the raucous, full buildings they’ve been experiencing on the road — save for a family and friends night in Arizona earlier this month — the Jets will be cheered on by just 250 people when they host Florida Tuesday night at Canada Life Centre.

Yes, that would be the Panthers, one of the top teams in the NHL that has been steamrolling most of their opponents this year. After a rare loss on Sunday night in Vancouver of all places, no doubt they’ll be an ornery bunch that won’t have to worry about trying to take the home crowd out of the game. After that it’s a Thursday night date with those plucky Canucks, who seem to have re-discovered their game under Bruce Boudreau, before it’s back on the road for two more heading into next week’s All-Star break.

The Jets are going to need a lot more than two out of eight points between now and then. Otherwise, it might be time to start looking a bit further down the road and pondering whether this group should be a seller — rather than a buyer — when the March 21 trade deadline rolls around. Notably, both Andrew Copp and Paul Stastny are set to be unrestricted free agents, and they could likely fetch a pretty price from a contender looking to beef up for a big run.

There’s still some runway to go before key decisions like that will have to be made, but you know it’s on the radar. What will be fascinating to watch is how much of that pressure Hellebuyck says he is feeling is being shared by general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff, who has already bid good-bye to head coach Paul Maurice this year. Winnipeg spent to the salary-cap ceiling once again this year, and was viewed as having a window of opportunity built around a key core of players led by Wheeler, who has two more years left on his deal. How will ownership react if this season ultimately goes south?

“I think you should have pressure to win hockey games,” interim coach Dave Lowry said after the latest loss.

“We’re in a business where you’re paid to win and your challenge is it’s a tough league to win in. Yeah, there’s urgency but for us, our mindset has to be we can’t look at the end — we have to look at where we are today. The only thing we can control is the game that we play that day. You look at the broad spectrum and you look where you are in the standings, reality is is we’ve just got to start finding ways to win a couple hockey games and we squeeze ourselves right back in.”

Easier said than done, no doubt. As the always blunt Blake Wheeler noted over the weekend, there’s no moral victories right now. Winnipeg desperately needs the kind that actually count in the standings before a team that hoped to be at the head of the class gets left behind this year.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

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