The Winnipeg Jets are 7-3-1 with 11 games played and another 45 to go. That performance has been good enough to leave them challenging Toronto and Montreal for the Scotia North Division lead.
So before we look ahead to the next 20 per cent of Winnipeg’s schedule that begins Tuesday night with a one-game road trip to Calgary, let’s recap the highs, lows and in-betweens of the first fifth of the season.
‘Overachieve’ can be a loosely used term at times. But if you weigh what the Jets were projected to be ahead of their opening night back on Jan. 14 and where they now find themselves, perhaps ‘better than expected’ would be a more accurate assessment.
There is a valid argument that Winnipeg’s early schedule has been top-heavy with home games and matchups against the bottom half of the division. But many of the pre-season prognosticators had Calgary and Edmonton rated ahead of the Jets, so a combined 4-1-1 record against the two Alberta teams is notable. Going 3-for-3 versus Ottawa is what they were supposed to do, so let’s just call that ‘mission accomplished.’
Winnipeg can’t help who the schedule maker pitted them against through these first three weeks of the season, but if we’re going to be objective, Connor Hellebuyck was the only reason the final in Toronto wound up 3-1 back on Jan. 18 in their only meeting to date with the first place Maple Leafs. And Paul Maurice’s troops don’t cross paths with Montreal for the first time in 2021 until Game 19 on Feb. 25.
On the plus side, Winnipeg has played all but one game without a very key piece in the lineup. Initially, that was the injured Patrik Laine, which then transitioned into the quarantining Pierre-Luc Dubois. The Jets will play seven games in 13 days beginning next Tuesday, so Dubois should be able to find his “game legs” and timing over that busy stretch.
Nikolaj Ehlers, Kyle Connor, and Mark Scheifele have taken their turn being the most dominant forward on the team which, considering their pedigree, should be expected. But in the ‘pleasant surprise’ department, did anyone forecast that Andrew Copp, Adam Lowry and Mason Appleton would be as impactful as they have been?
Not mentioning Blake Wheeler might raise the head coach’s hackles, but if we are going to be blunt, the captain can — and needs to — be better in five-on-five situations, against the other “best players” in the division if the Jets are going to maintain or improve their current position.
The blue line was supposed to be Winnipeg’s Achilles’ heel. And while the Jets have certainly been reliant on the goaltending tandem of Connor Hellebuyck and Laurent Brossoit to see them through some chaotic times in the defensive zone, the six-pack of rearguards who have played the majority of the 11 games deserve at least some credit for the level they’ve performed at.
And if we’re going to be impressed with the efforts of Copp, Lowry, and Appleton upfront, then Derek Forbort, Nathan Beaulieu and Logan Stanley merit the same recognition for the steady play they have provided. Forbort in particular has been noticeable for almost all the right reasons. A blocked shot to save a goal, a mid-air swipe in the crease that very well may have prevented another, a consistent physical presence, and his first goal in almost two years.
The Jets have lit up opponents for three goals or more in one period five times this season. And twice already, Winnipeg has rewarded Brossoit and Hellebuyck by scoring with the extra attacker.
So some of the chores on the to-do list in these next 11 outings would include the following:
- Integrating Dubois “seamlessly” into the lineup
- Finding a way to overcome less than stellar efforts when coming off a multiple-day break. Winnipeg is “ofer” in that category based on the level of their play in the 2-1 loss at Toronto and 4-1 setback at home versus Vancouver
- Starting with the puck a little more often would certainly be helpful as well. The Jets are currently 18th in the NHL in that category at 49.7 per cent. That shortcoming came into sharp focus with a pair of lost defensive zone draws in a last-second loss to the Oilers. That should probably be considered one too many for this next segment of the schedule.
Kelly Moore is sports director with Global News Radio CJOB 680 in Winnipeg.
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