SAN JOSE — Blake Wheeler has been saying for a few weeks now that his Winnipeg Jets are trying to find their identity. The veteran winger, clearly frustrated with both his own play and the team’s overall performance, has often been at a loss to explain what’s transpired.
Well, call off the search party, folks. I say they’ve already found it. Yes, one month into the regular season and it’s not too early to draw some hard truths about what this club really is.
With a day off Wednesday to regroup here in the Bay Area following Tuesday’s 7-4 loss in Anaheim, there was time for another round of soul-searching as they once again fell below .500 with a 6-7-0 record. The Jets return to practice Thursday in San Jose ahead of Friday’s clash with the Sharks, then finish the road trip Saturday night on the Las Vegas strip against the Golden Knights.
Before we go any further in this season, let’s identity a few things we already know about these Jets:
They can’t afford many duds from their goaltender.
They couldn’t overcome a poor performance from Connor Hellebuyck in the season-opening loss against the New York Rangers. And they couldn’t outscore another clunker from the No. 1 goalie in falling to the not-so-mighty Ducks.
“It was just off. It wasn’t easy for him around the net. Nothing was clean for him,” said coach Paul Maurice, who gave his starting netminder the hook midway through the game after he surrendered five goals on 19 shots, including four on just six shots in the second period.
Maurice didn’t want to lay blame, and that’s fair enough. Hellebuyck had been lights-out recently, and his overall numbers are still solid despite the pair of stinkers.
But the margin of error for this team appears to be so thin that the Jets will need Hellebuyck, along with backup Laurent Brossoit, to be at their absolute best if they want to have a fighting chance most nights.
Of course, we also know that Hellebuyck will always like his game, regardless of how many pucks went by him.
“I liked the way I was playing, I liked the way I was feeling and I liked the way I was seeing the puck. For some reason, I just couldn’t get any of the lucky bounces. And I didn’t see any of the releases very well,” he said.
The situation is clearly wearing on the captain.
Those of us in the dressing room saw it first-hand. Wheeler sat silently at his dressing-room stall inside Honda Center while a small group of media gathered around, waiting for him to address the latest setback.
“I don’t think we’re allowed to use any excuses for a game like that,” a sombre Wheeler said at one point. He added they were guilty of “things that shouldn’t happen in a hockey game at this level.”
There was a similar glum reaction from Wheeler a week earlier at Bell MTS Place following a lacklustre 4-1 loss to the Los Angeles Kings. Wheeler isn’t just slinging arrows; he’s been critical of his own play and is clearly taking this all to heart.
“Listen, it’s not easy, we’re a young hockey club, we have a hard time moving the puck. Lots of pressure on him to put pucks in the net. But he’s been good with those kids and he’s been working his ass off, as he always does,” Maurice told me.
Speaking of which…
The top line has to shine.
Depth, or lack thereof, is a major concern. Once you get outside the obvious star power, there’s a noticeable drop-off in talent. We’ve seen it in the defence pairings, We’ve seen it in the makeup of the bottom six.
Other than Nikolaj Ehlers and Bryan Little and, perhaps, Patrik Laine prior to suffering a minor injury, how many forwards right now can say they are playing at a high level? The answer is, none.
Wheeler’s goal Tuesday broke a six-game pointless drought. Mark Scheifele has but one assist in the last five games. Kyle Connor has two points in his past five outings.
That’s your top line right now, supposedly one of the best in the NHL. But the trio is anything but dangerous at the moment.
The salary-cap situation is affecting the lineup.
It was surprising to see the Jets dress just 11 forwards Tuesday, but the reality is that’s all they had at their disposal. With Laine nursing a lower-body ailment, Adam Lowry serving the first half of a two-game suspension and both Mason Appleton and Mark Letestu on the injured list, it would have taken some juggling to find a way to recall another forward from the Manitoba Moose without some other subsequent roster move.
That’s because the Jets have very little financial wiggle room until, and unless, the Dustin Byfuglien situation is resolved. They have to reserve the space that his contract would otherwise occupy should he decide to delay retirement and return. Until a decision is made, it’s all about pinching pennies.
Playing 11 forwards is not ideal, and dressing seven defencemen is especially problematic. It puts everyone out of the normal rhythm of playing on set lines and blue-line pairings, and the Jets certainly looked like a team that was discombobulated against the Ducks.
There will be a lot of one-game winning “streaks.”
This doesn’t appear to be a group, as currently constructed, built for long victory stretches. We’ve already seen a bit of a pattern emerge of win one, lose one or, perhaps, win a couple, lose a couple.
The Jets can stay in the playoff race in the Central Division and Western Conference by playing .500 hockey, at least for a while, so the key is going to be avoid letting any losing streaks get too long.
There’s still enough raw talent around here to do that. Just be prepared for a season-long roller-coaster ride.
As you can see, there’s no identity crisis with the Jets. This is who they are. The bigger question going forward is whether this is who they’re going to continue to be.
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.
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