It was only four games, but there’s plenty to glean from the Winnipeg Jets’ up and down, season-opening road trip. Here are five takeaways that stem from their performances out east.
1: No Opposition Lead is Safe
The Jets certainly showed they can answer in a hurry and can’t be counted out of games.
In a number of instances, the Jets showed their ability to answer back quickly after allowing a goal. The New York Rangers, for example, had 1-0, 2-1, and 3-2 leads in the season opener last Thursday. However, those three advantages combined equated to only 6:27 of Rangers’ lead time, as Blake Wheeler lit the lamp just 30 and nine seconds after Rangers’ goals by Artemi Panarin and Jacob Trouba, respectively.
A night later in New Jersey, they impressively erased a 4-0 deficit en route to a 5-4 shootout win over the Devils. Through two games, they appeared destined to begin their season with back-to-back losses.
Then, against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Tuesday, they answered Sidney Crosby’s first-minute goal just 5:16 later en route to a sturdy 4-1 win (their first in Pittsburgh since relocation in 10 tries.)
The victory in New Jersey, in particular, was important. Not only did it get the Jets into the win column, but it also provided “instant bonding” and “confidence as a group,” Neal Pionk said. (from ‘Jets storm back in Jersey,’ Winnipeg Free Press, 10/04/19.)
Mounting such a comeback was an early team catalyzer; the sooner teams gain chemistry, the better off they are. The St. Louis Blues showed last season the importance of being tight-knit.
Mathieu Perreault said the team was going out for a big bonding dinner after the comeback: they certainly wouldn’t have gone out together if they’d given up and limped to a loss.
“It brings this group closer. A win like this, you just feel like hugging everybody,” the forward told The Athletic’s Murat Ates. “Everybody is jumping into each other’s arms… for our group, it’s great. Especially with a bunch of new guys.”
2: The Defensive Picture Is Dire
It was no secret at the season’s outset that the Jets’ blue line was less than NHL-calibre.
It’s a motley crew — evidenced by the fact the oft-injured and inconsistent Dmitry Kulikov played on his off side on the top pairing — and it showed through the road trip. They struggled when challenged by opponents’ top sixes and were certainly exploited and caught flatfooted at times. They’re trying, but simply lack the skill to compete.
The d-corp went from suspect to downright shocking as Josh Morrissey was forced to sit out the latter two games after getting dinged up in Sunday’s warm-up and Dimitry Kulikov took a leave of absence to welcome his second child into the world before Tuesday’s game in Pittsburgh. The six-man unit they iced that night had a collective total of just 350 NHL games played.
Indeed, the numbers aren’t great — the octet of Anthony Bitetto, Carl Dalhstrom, Ville Heinola, Kulikov, Sami Niku, Morrissey, Pionk, and Tucker Poolman have surrendered 15 goals, given up 142 shots, and allowed the first goal in all four games. They especially struggled versus the Islanders, where they gave up 19 high danger scoring chances in the first two periods alone.
“They’re simply not good enough,” Craig Button told Kate Bierness recently. “They have defencemen in their lineup that really shouldn’t be in their lineup.”
Craig Button on the Jets’ defence
Button’s right, but it hasn’t been all abysmal. The teenaged Heinola, while struggling when challenged by bigger stronger players, is still playing well beyond his years, had a nice big-league debut, and scored his first NHL goal. Pionk is a slick-puck mover with good offensive instincts. Poolman is quietly solid with good possession metrics. They scored three goals against the Penguins. However, as a whole, they had trouble clamping down on opponents.
Not much can be done other than hope they improve with time. Dustin Byfuglien is holding the Jets hostage right now as he left them in the lurch by taking a leave of absence in September. Until he makes up his mind about whether he wants hang ’em up for good or return — a decision that has no clear deadline and may not come soon — general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff is handcuffed and cannot sign anyone.
Nathan Beaulieu is out until at least November and Niku — who suited up Tuesday after beginning the season with the Manitoba Moose on a conditioning stint — is still getting up to speed. Those two are not likely to drastically alter the landscape as the former is not top-four quality and the latter has just 32 NHL games under his belt.
This looks to be an issue that will only be partially rectified if Byfuglien returns or if the Jets swing a trade. It likely won’t be truly rectified until some of the Jets‘ terrific defensive prospects turn pro.
If the Jets want to afloat in a Central Division that’s tougher than ever in the meantime, they’ll simply have to outscore their back-end problems.
3: There’s Some Crease Controversy
Head coach Paul Maurice surprised, but pleased, an increasing number of Jets’ fans who have been calling for backup Laurent Brossoit to be given more action.
Brossoit was given the nod for Sunday’s game against the New York Islanders after he made 35 stops in the Jets’ aforementioned comeback against the Devils two days prior. The Jets fell 4-1 to the Islanders, but the loss wasn’t on Brossoit; the score could have been much more lopsided if it wasn’t for his good work in goal.
There’s a chance Connor Hellebuyck’s opening-night post-game comments — which came after he allowed five goals on 31 shots — rankled the bench boss and paved the way for Brossoit’s back-to-back starts.
“I liked a lot of my game,” a defiant Hellebuyck said post-game Thursday. “I felt that I earned better. I felt like I played a lot better than five goals against. I don’t know, it just seems like the puck was always in the wrong spot for me. And if I look back at my tape I probably wouldn’t do a whole lot different…”
Connor Hellebuyck on his season-opening performance
The number-one goalie came across as delusional as his game was nothing to like at all: he failed to control his rebounds and fought the puck just as he did in three sub-par preseason starts.
Hellebuyck’s quality of play took a big dive last season from his 2017-18 Vezina nominated campaign, while Brossoit gave the Jets some of the league’s best backup goaltending. Hellebuyck was given the start in Pittsburgh and looked closer to his 2017-18 self, making 37 saves.
Although he looked solid Tuesday, the fight for the crease between the two masked men is likely just beginning. Internal competition is never a bad thing.
4: Ehlers Is Electric
Nikolaj Ehlers’ play is indicative of a player who put in work during the offseason. The 23-year-old Dane, who re-watched every shift of his 2018-19 campaign, one game at a time, over the offseason, has clearly learned from his time with the tablet.
The speedy left-winger has been dangerous through four games and has set up his linemates for good chances with regularity. Check out this awesome down-low work that led to the Jets’ first goal of the season last Thursday and was the first of three assists Ehlers recorded on the night.
Ehlers, the subject of many trade rumours this summer, has a goal and four assists for five points — he already has more points than he had during all of last season’s abysmal October — and has 17 shots. When he played with Patrik Laine in the past, he often gave up good shooting opportunities in favour of a pass, so it’s good to see him peppering goalies with regularity.
Based on his offseason dedication and how he’s looked in the first four, he should be able to get back closer to the 60 mark.
5: Laine’s Putting in Work
Another youngster off to a better start than last season is Patrik Laine, who surprisingly, is tied with Mark Scheifele for the team lead in assists with five. (That’s 25 percent of his output from last season, for those keeping track.)
The 21-year-old has posted a goal in addition to his five helpers through the first four games of his fourth NHL campaign and capped off the road trip with a three-assist night at PPG Paints Arena. He’s played the right way; his forecheck has caused turnovers that have led to chances, he’s been hard on the puck and won battles, and overall, he’s busted his butt.
Laine — who struggled at the start of last season and for many stretches within it — was held goalless Thursday and Friday but notched his first of the season Sunday with sensational and unstoppable short-side snipe. He could easily have multiple goals as many of his 12 shots have been high-quality chances.
It’s a good early sign for someone who historically either disappears or hurts the team when he’s not putting pucks in the net. He’ll need to prove he’s not just a one-trick pony if he really wants to cash in at the end of his recently-signed two year bridge deal. Laine’s prone to drastic ups and downs, so the jury’s still certainly out on whether he’s truly a new man or simply riding high right now.
Upcoming Schedule Will Create More Storylines
The Jets’ open at home on Thursday against the Minnesota Wild and play six of their next seven at Bell MTS.
They’ll then travel to Regina for the 2019 Heritage Classic against the Flames in a must-watch matchup before finishing the month in California against the Anaheim Ducks.
These games will produce many more takeaways, so stay tuned.
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