Jones on Jets: Five reasons to keep watching the Winnipeg Jets
The likelihood of the team landing a playoff berth is extremely low, but don't give up on the Jets just yet.
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With just a handful of games left, the Winnipeg Jets are almost out of runway.
The likelihood of the team landing a playoff berth is extremely low. We can expect to hear news the team has missed the post-season any day now while the first-round match-ups are solidified.
This year, the common ‘maybe next year refrain’ is complicated by the fact that NHL media and fans recognize the skill already on this team.
It’s harder, perhaps, to accept that despite having all that skill, there are pieces missing: Defensive depth, goaltending consistency, a strong penalty killer, and tighter team defense, to name a few holes.
With 210 goals for to date, the Jets have filled the nets of more than all but six teams, Pittsburgh (242), New York Rangers (228), Washington (227) and Toronto (211). All those teams are playoff-bound, but they also boast positive goal differential, whereas the Jets had a hard time preventing their own net from being filled, especially on the penalty kill.
Invariably so far, teams with a positive goal differential are slotted into a playoff bracket while teams in the red are looking for tee-times.
But there will be plenty of time and ink devoted to an autopsy of this season—for now, there’s still hockey to be played and many reasons for fans to remain engaged.
Here are five things that make post-elimination games worth watching:
What do Kyle Connor, Jack Roslovic and Eric Comrie have in common with Nic Petan, Joel Armia, and Connor Hellebuyck? They’re young, tearing it up in the AHL, and due to battle for an NHL roster spot next fall, just like the latter three once were.
And also like the elder players, they’ll also probably to be called up to the big club near the end of the season so the team can get a look at their adjustment to NHL game-speed.
There’s precedent for it—last year, Scott Kosmachuk and Chase De Leo were recalled in the twilight of the Jets regular season, and a dozen regular Jets were once Manitoba Moose (or St. John's IceCaps), so it’s an avenue the team explores often.
In Connor (21 goals, 38 points), Roslovic (12 goals, 40 points), De Leo (13 goals, 30 points) and Dan Desalvo (15 goals, 33 points), the Jets have a handful of guys who are putting up impressive point totals with the Moose for being such young pros.
Jets coach Paul Maurice will want to see if they can be responsible in their own end and the defensive side of the puck.
In Comrie, the Jets can also get a look at a young and talented goaltender who posted improved numbers over last year while handling a significant workload. Goalie development is hard to project, but Comrie could make the Jets' goaltending conversation even more complicated if he shows up and plays well.
Job security insurance
The fact that there are talented players waiting in the wings and likely to get called up can only light a fire under the feet of several current Jets.
Missing the playoffs isn’t the only sign something was off with the current cast, so it’s likely that there will be changes up and down the lineup come fall.
Throw in the Las Vegas Golden Knights expansion draft as well as off-season trades, and a good few players probably have cause to be nervous for their jobs. If the Jets protect one goalie and eight skaters, there are bound to be exposed players on the outside looking in.
Players like Mathieu Perreault, who, despite having upped his game lately, hasn’t been the forward advertised when he was working to earn his current contract. Or third-liner Joel Armia, who, despite his upsides, is far enough down the depth chart that he could be exposed.
Both men have scored lately. Watching to see how they and any other Jets figuring they’re not in the top eight perform in the home stretch will be interesting to say the least.
Patrik Laine brought a bright beacon of hope into the City of Winnipeg, and even if the team is out of playoff contention he’s still a leader for one of the NHL’s most revered awards: The Calder Trophy.
Selected by hockey writers, the award is for the most outstanding rookie in a given season. Laine’s incredible scoring has him right in the thick of it despite being up against one of the strongest freshman classes the league has seen in a long time.
Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, Zach Werenski and Matt Murray would each make a logical Calder choice, but Winnipeg’s sniper has a slight edge, depending who you ask.
He leads all rookies with 33 goals and 60 points, despite missing eight games with a concussion in the middle of the season.
He has also, as his coach notes, been improving steadily on the defensive side of the puck—turnovers aside—in addition to throwing 69 checks, shedding countless others from top defenders, and winning battles like a much more experienced pro.
He has admitted it would be nice to win the individual award, but continues to reinforce that his attitude lies more to the side of confidence than cockiness as he humbly insists the team’s success remains his primary concern.
Laine’s an entertaining player who makes the Jets worth watching even when hope is lost. No matter how quiet the MTS Centre gets, fans will jump out of their seat when he scores.
Good hockey left to be played
Just because the team’s playoff push didn’t payoff doesn’t mean the players will swap their skates for tracks and start tanking.
Not only does it go against the nature of competitive pro athletes, but if the luck that landed Winnipeg the second overall pick after a sixth-place finish last season holds any morsel of a lesson, it’s that tanking doesn’t work—or at least a decent pick can be made after finishing anywhere near the bottom of the league. The Jets have been inconsistent enough all year to ensure that, and they’re also a group of characters who are noticeably bugged by losing.
Don’t expect them to roll over as the season winds down—the Jets, embattled though they are, have some fuel left in the tank, and there’s plenty of good hockey left to be played.
This is Winnipeg
It’s not Edmonton, where they endured a 10-season playoff drought, or even Toronto where it’s been three seasons since they started a playoff game.
This is Winnipeg, and even if the Jets were swept, they cracked the playoffs in 2014-15, so the build towards a decent run is still early.
The Jets have five 20 goal-scorers and were just a few win streaks away from the post-season this year. There’s plenty to be optimistic about within the greatest disappointment of the season—obviously it’s hard not making it, but not every team does.
Winnipeg is a hockey town where fans have certain expectations, but as such, they also have an understanding that not every year can be ‘the year.’
The energy at the MTS Centre won’t reach white-out hysteria, but the team on the ice next year will look at lot like the team on the ice near the end of this year, in all likelihood, and is worth supporting.