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DETROIT — Put down the pitchforks and tuck away the torches. Take a deep breath and relax. Maybe count to 10, although we’d suggest you don’t do so by using each and every Winnipeg Jets game so far this season as your numerical template. That might get the blood pressure back up.
We get it. Wednesday night’s loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs was about as disappointing as they come. And the way the Jets played, especially in the first 40 minutes, should set off plenty of alarm bells. Throw in the fact it happened on a grand stage, with national audiences in both Canada and the U.S. tuning in, and it’s understandable some fans are reaching for the panic button.
But there’s nothing to worry about, at least for now. The sky is not falling. There’s no reason to blow things up, swing a big trade or run anybody out of town. A team that finished second-overall last season, made it to the Western Conference final and returned nearly an identical roster hasn’t suddenly lost the ability to play solid hockey.
No, all is not well in Jets nation, and yes there have been more duds than dandies so far this season. They’ve shown flashes of brilliance, but have yet to string together much in the way of consistent efforts.
Despite the somewhat uninspiring play so far, this team is still 6-3-1 and near the top of both the Central Division and the NHL standings. Even though to some, it probably feels like 3-6-1. Or worse.
The on-ice execution may range from mostly passable to poor, but the talent hasn’t gone anywhere. And the very fact this squad has come out on the right side of the scoreboard more often than not is no small feat and speaks to the elite skill they possess.
What will they look like when they figure things out and start clicking on all cylinders?
Of course, some fans might be wondering when that will happen, and it’s a fair question. To borrow an old expression, this Jets team is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.
I mean, what’s going on with Patrik Laine? He has yet to score an even-strength goal and looks lost in his own zone, painfully so at times, such as a nightmarish first-period shift Wednesday in which he ended up gift-wrapping a goal for Toronto’s Kasperi Kapanen following two brutal turnovers. The shot is still top-notch, but the rest of his game remains a big work in progress, to say the least.
How about the captain, Blake Wheeler? The points are still coming, largely through his playmaking ability on a still-potent power play, but many have suggested he just doesn’t seem like his usual dominant self. As far as we know there’s no injury, but there’s clearly some frustration as evident by the team-leading 17 penalty minutes he’s already taken.
Should we be concerned about Connor Hellebuyck? He’s made eight starts this year, giving up four goals twice and five goals twice. It’s hard to pin much, if any, blame on him, but those are not the kind of numbers you expect from the Vezina Trophy finalist.
There are other issues, too. The fourth line is barely playing, with Mathieu Perreault, Jack Roslovic and Brendan Lemieux struggling to get more than a handful of minutes every game. The blue line has been dangerous at both ends of the ice — providing some offence, but also serving up a generous helping of what former coach Claude Noel used to call “free pizzas.”
There have been far too many minor penalties. And they’ve played only three opponents so far that made the playoffs last spring, going 1-2-0 in those games against Nashville, Los Angeles and Toronto.
There’s no question expectations are higher than ever this season, and Wheeler mentioned as much recently when he said he thinks his team is still trying to figure out how to deal with all that. That makes sense, given this is still one of the youngest groups in the league.
The learning curve can be steep, and as hard as it may be to become an elite NHL franchise, it may be even more difficult remaining one.
Despite showing a few cracks in their armour, players and coaches are mostly displaying a, “What, me worry?” attitude.
A prime example of this came earlier in the week when coach Paul Maurice interrupted a reporter who began a question by referencing the Jets as “struggling.” For added context, this was the day after they’d come out flat against St. Louis, dug a big hole, mounted a third-period rally and won in overtime.
“I’m going to let you ask the rest of that question but I don’t agree with it. We’re not struggling. We’re not where we’re going to be in the end, but no team is. We’re all building here,” Maurice said. “There aren’t any games in the Central Division where you think you can go out and be average and win. We’re not struggling. We’re living the daily life in the NHL right now.”
Perhaps getting out on the road for a bit is the tonic this team needs. Sure, they just finished a 4-1-1 run at Bell MTS Place, even if it did end on what Maurice called a “sour note” against the Maple Leafs, but it’s clear the players recognize they have miles to go before they sleep, and a little team-bonding away from home might be a good thing.
Up first is the sad-sack Detroit Red Wings on Friday night, a team with just one win in its first nine games and the NHL’s worst goals-against-average. That’s like comfort food to a team with plenty of high-end offensive weapons, right?
Then it’s a Saturday night rematch in the Centre of the Hockey Universe, where you’d think the Jets would be highly motivated to redeem themselves and prove they are every bit the Stanley Cup contender as the Maple Leafs.
And then it’s off to Finland for a pair of games against the Florida Panthers, who aren’t exactly burning up the league at the moment. Maybe Laine will rediscover his game in his homeland.
When the Jets return to Bell MTS Place two weeks from now to take on the red-hot Colorado Avalanche, we may know a lot more about them. Or perhaps we won’t and the list of questions will have grown longer.
Regardless of how it plays out in the short term, it’s important to remember the big picture. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.
And nobody wins the Stanley Cup in October.
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.