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Nobody likes a bully. And it’s safe to say the Winnipeg Jets aren’t making a lot of friends around the NHL these days.
It’s bad enough they’re routinely beating their opponents on the scoreboard. Now they’re beating them in the alley, too. The Jets, in some cases, are adding injury to insult. Just look at the recent body count left in their wake.
First there was Brendan Lemieux with a predatory blindside hit on Florida’s Vincent Trocheck two weeks ago that resulted in a well-earned two-game suspension for the Jets forward. Fortunately, Trocheck escaped injury.
Then there was Dustin Byfuglien launching Brian Boyle into orbit last Sunday, which is no small feat considering the veteran New Jersey Devils forward is six-foot-six and 245 pounds. Byfuglien was given a two-minute illegal check to the head penalty, which was later changed to charging. Boyle hasn’t played since, out indefinitely with an upper-body injury.
“It was a car wreck, right? Somebody had to go to jail. Just two enormous men coming together. And something bad had to have happened,” Jets coach Paul Maurice said of the impact, which he felt was a clean hit that shouldn’t have been penalized. Byfuglien wasn’t hit with any further sanctions, so it appears the league agreed.
In their next game against Washington, the Jets knocked a pair of Capitals out of action with questionable hits. Brandon Tanev clipped Evgeny Kuznetsov, the team’s leading scorer, in the head and was given a two-minute illegal check penalty. Then Josh Morrissey went all WWE on T.J. Oshie in the final minutes of the game, body-slamming him to the ice after a puck battle in the Jets’ end.
Oshie was clearly dazed on the play. Morrissey somehow wasn’t penalized, then dodged a bullet Thursday when he was fined, not suspended. Both Oshie and Kuznetsov missed Friday night’s game in Colorado, with the team calling them “day-to-day” at this point.
Tanev never did get a call from the department of player safety, which suggests they thought the play was more accidental than intentional.
Former Dallas Stars head coach Ken Hitchcock produced a memorable sound bite prior to a game last winter in describing what it’s like to play Winnipeg.
“They’re just a mean-spirited team,” the now-retired veteran bench boss said with a wry smile. “They’ve been beating up on everybody. I was with St. Louis and it wasn’t fun there, either. I think they’re mean in spirit and the league ought to look into them.”
Well, the league has taken notice, as proven by the Lemieux and Morrissey phone hearings. And Winnipeg’s tough-guy antics are showing up on the stats sheet, as well. Heading into action Friday night against Buffalo, the Jets averaged an NHL-leading 13.5 penalty minutes per game. Boston sat second with 11.6.
It’s a dangerous game to be playing, even if the Jets have escaped major damage so far. The penalty-kill has bailed them out of trouble on many nights, and this apparent mean streak often seems to wake them up from their many sluggish starts.
Not surprisingly, the Jets don’t seem to believe they need to clean up their act. A side dish of physicality, aggression and even intimidation to go along with the regular buffet of speed and skill appears to be part of the game plan.
“We’ve got some guys that are big guys, physical guys. When Buff lays a big hit, it obviously gets us going. (Lowry) has laid a couple big ones, it gets us going. We definitely have that element on our team, allowing our defencemen to be aggressive, so some of those big hits are there. It certainly plays into our identity,” captain Blake Wheeler told me Friday.
“There’s a fine line, because you want to stay out of the box. But if we’re off to a bit of a slow start or need a momentum change in the game, something like that seems to get us going.”
Morrissey met the media after Friday’s morning skate and said he meant Oshie no harm. But what else is he going to say? He was similarly contrite last spring after he force-fed Minnesota’s Eric Staal a healthy dose of his stick, then was suspended one playoff game for the vicious cross-check to the face.
“Just trying to make a hard defensive play. Minute left in the game. I thought we kinda got tangled up and went down,” he said Friday. “Unfortunately he went down awkwardly. You never want to see a guy hurt or in an uncomfortable situation. But I think plays happen in games.”
Some compared the play to one involving Florida’s Mike Matheson and Vancouver’s Elias Pettersson from earlier in the year in which Matheson was suspended for two games after the rookie Canucks sniper ended up concussed. One big difference is that Matheson was angry at Pettersson for embarrassing him on a deke moments earlier, while Morrissey was just trying to help his team defend a one-goal lead with under 90 seconds to play against six Washington attackers.
Still, he deserved to sit for at least one night, especially with Oshie sidelined.
“Everyone can interpret everything the way they would like to,” said Morrissey. “Like I said, I don’t ever play the game to hurt anybody. Would never want to see that happen. I mean, I felt bad right away, no matter how I felt the play went. Just trying to move on from it. The league made their decision and I respect that.”
Morrissey’s defence partner, Jacob Trouba — no stranger to controversy himself after being suspended two games in 2017 for an illegal check to the head of Ottawa’s Mark Stone — sees no reason for his team to start showing a kinder, gentler side.
“We have a big, strong group of forwards that have the ability to play the body and that’s a big part of our game. A lot of our players use that as a tool. It’s hard to play against. I think that’s the reason why we do it,” Trouba said.
Memo to the rest of the league: if you don’t like it, tough.
“We never ever talk about hitting in our room,” Maurice said. “There’s plays we want finished but we have some physical players, and then we have players that absolutely aren’t. We want the final result to be the exact same thing.
“On the forecheck we want the puck stopped, or at least in our hands. Adam Lowry’s going to try to make that event happen a whole lot different than Nik Ehlers is. But the result has to be the same. So we do have some players that are big and strong and can skate. Which is probably the foundation of being a physical team. They can get to the hit, and they can get to the hit with some force.”
That’s putting it lightly which, ironically, is something the Jets haven’t been doing much lately in throwing their weight around.
Sure, it’s making them plenty of enemies along the way. But hockey’s resident bad boys seem to be relishing the role.
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.