Jets off to encouraging start

Seven games is not typically the time to start making snap judgments about a hockey team. But this is hardly a normal NHL season.

When you consider the Winnipeg Jets have already played 12.5 per cent of their schedule, and faced 66.7 per cent of their opponents, there may be no such thing as “too early” in this season like no other.

So what are we to make of this 5-2-0 squad that has quickly shot to near the top of the Canadian Division? A lot, actually.

After a busy first two weeks that included the blockbuster Patrik Laine trade and a couple COVID-19 scares, head coach Paul Maurice’s crew took a well-deserved break from the rink on Wednesday.

That brief pause provides a perfect chance to take stock of what we’ve learned about these Jets so far. Here are seven observations:

1) This club may be deeper than we thought: Adam Lowry, the team’s third-line centre, has seven points in seven games, including the game-winning goal Tuesday night against the Edmonton Oilers in which he made Connor McDavid look silly.

Remind me, who was trying to shut down who in that matchup? Heading into Wednesday’s NHL slate of games, Lowry would be the top point producer on 18 other teams. On Winnipeg, he sits sixth, behind Nikolaj Ehlers, Mark Scheifele, Andrew Copp, Kyle Connor and Blake Wheeler, and just one point up on Paul Stastny.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS So what are we to make of this 5-2-0 squad that has quickly shot to near the top of the Canadian Division? A lot, actually.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS So what are we to make of this 5-2-0 squad that has quickly shot to near the top of the Canadian Division? A lot, actually.

That’s just ridiculous. No, I don’t expect all these guys to keep producing at or near a point-per-game clip, but only the Montreal Canadiens and Florida Panthers are lighting the lamp with greater frequency than Winnipeg, which has scored 28 times in seven games.

Throw in the fact Laine only played opening night before getting injured and then traded, and that his replacement, Pierre-Luc Dubois, has yet to debut, and this is a potent offence perfectly suited for play in a division where defence is often an afterthought.

2) Goaltending hasn’t been great — and that’s actually a good thing: Sure, you love it when your goaltender steals you a game. But Connor Hellebuyck hasn’t had to find a phone booth to change into his costume and save the day, as he did so often last season.

The reigning Vezina Trophy winner fought the puck his last two starts, which were both wins by the Jets, and that is a terrific sign going forward for a club that is currently 17th when it comes to goals-against per game.

You know Hellebuyck is going to figure it out sooner than later. If backup Laurent Brossoit can provide some decent spot starts in relief, as he has through two games, the Jets are even more dangerous.

3) The blue line isn’t as bleak as it looked: If you had told me a few weeks ago that Tucker Poolman would only play the opener before going on COVID-protocol, that Dylan DeMelo would miss the first four games, and that Sami Niku and Ville Heinola would both get a look only to be passed on the depth chart by Logan Stanley, I would have assumed the Jets were an absolute tire fire in their own end.

Instead, they have been average. Which is actually a marked improvement from last year. Things should get better once new dad DeMelo gets settled and Poolman gets healthy. Just like with goaltending, you don’t need perfection every night from this group considering all the weapons up front.

Stanley has opened some eyes with his steady, physical play and imposing size. Derek Forbort has been a pleasant surprise, at both ends of the rink (he already has four assists). Neal Pionk and Josh Morrissey have provided the offensive spark you’d expect, and Nathan Beaulieu has been tough as nails.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Adam Lowry, the team's third-line centre, has seven points in seven games, including the game-winning goal Tuesday night against the Edmonton Oilers in which he made Connor McDavid look silly.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Adam Lowry, the team’s third-line centre, has seven points in seven games, including the game-winning goal Tuesday night against the Edmonton Oilers in which he made Connor McDavid look silly.

With Heinola and rookie Dylan Samberg waiting in the wings, the blue line isn’t as bad as many feared.

4) The power play and penalty kill remain a work in progress: Winnipeg is 16th with a power play that should easily be top 10, or even top five, given the talent involved. But it’s shown signs the last few games of breaking out.

The penalty kill is an ugly 28th, with really nowhere to go but up.

Despite that, Winnipeg has still found a way to win five of seven, due mainly to superior five-on-five play. If and when they really get going on special teams, look out.

5) The Canadian Division is a ton of fun — and nothing special: Talented Toronto is off to the hot start I expected, but the real test for the Maple Leafs will be if they wilt in the playoffs. Montreal, which made several nice off-season additions, looks like the real deal. After that? A whole bunch of “meh” when assessing the quality of Winnipeg’s competition.

As we saw first-hand at Bell MTS Place this week, the Oilers remain a mess in goal and on defence. The Vancouver Canucks and Calgary Flames haven’t looked much better. And the Ottawa Senators, try as they might, simply don’t have the horses for this race.

Nothing is guaranteed, but Winnipeg seems to stack up well with their northern neighbours, especially with high-scoring games often resembling a track meet so far. Remember: The top four clubs make the playoffs, and one will emerge from the division to compete in the Stanley Cup semifinals.

At this point, the Jets and their fans have every reason to ask: “Why not us?”

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS This four-month, 56-game season is more of a sprint than a marathon. But you still want to make sure you have enough in the tank to reach the finish line.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS This four-month, 56-game season is more of a sprint than a marathon. But you still want to make sure you have enough in the tank to reach the finish line.

6) Old habits die hard: Maurice is still playing his top line too much and his fourth line not enough. The minutes being logged by the likes of Scheifele, Wheeler and Connor are clearly taking a toll, as that trio had a rough night Tuesday in what was the team’s sixth game in nine nights.

Perhaps the addition of Dubois, and the surprising depth scoring coming from the likes of Copp and Lowry and even a rejuvenated-looking Mathieu Perreault, will spread the minutes out a bit more. Young players such as Jansen Harkins, Mason Appleton, David Gustafsson and Kristian Vesalainen, along with veteran Trevor Lewis, have brought energy, and calling their number a bit more often is a good way to keep the big guns fresh.

This four-month, 56-game season is more of a sprint than a marathon. But you still want to make sure you have enough in the tank to reach the finish line.

7) Their culture is crystal clear: No, you don’t want to make a habit of constantly chasing the game. But four comeback victories already, including three in the third period, tells you this is a resilient group that never panics.

We’ve heard plenty of eyebrow-raising comments over recent days from the likes of Maurice, Wheeler, Scheifele and Copp about what it takes to be a Winnipeg Jet, both on and off the ice. Much of that dialogue has been seen as a shot at the departed Laine and fellow forward Jack Roslovic, who clearly didn’t fit the internal culture and were deemed disposable.

Whether you agree with that mindset or not, there is no confusion about what they’re trying to build here. And when the Jets are pulling in the same direction, as they did during a rapid-fire sequence Tuesday where they scored three goals in 3:27 against the Oilers, the sky would seem to be the limit.

The trick, of course, is to keep that going over the long haul. But there’s no question Winnipeg is off to an encouraging start.

 

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.caTwitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

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