1. Winnipeg Jets
It has become ugly for the Winnipeg Jets, less than two years after they made it to the Western Conference final and were expected to be Stanley Cup contenders for seasons to come.
It has been a steady fall, starting with a 2018-19 season that ended in a first-round playoff defeat and continuing until this week, when the Jets entered the all-star break on a soul-crushing four-game losing streak.
No doubt, they played better in the last two games than they did in the two before that, but all resulted in losses that left the Jets on the outside of the playoff picture looking in with 31 games left in the season.
So, what are they going to have to do to turn all this around? Is it even possible with the current configuration of the team?
Of course it is, but it’s going to take over-achievement of the like we saw throughout November and early December.
STORY CONTINUES BELOW
When they return from their break on Jan. 31, the Jets will be three points out of a playoff spot and will open with games against Boston (second overall), St. Louis (third overall), Nashville and St. Louis again.
That’s almost unfair. However, the good news is the Jets are only three points behind the Vegas Golden Knights and Arizona Coyotes, who occupy the final two playoff spots in the Western Conference.
So, we’re saying there’s a chance.
With all that in mind, here are five things that must happen for the Jets to make the post-season.
IN HELLE THEY TRUST
As Connor Hellebuyck goes, so go the Jets. He was brilliant for much of the first half but faltered over the last month as the team’s overall defensive play waned. Hellebuyck can only do so much — it appears he literally has to be the best goaltender in the NHL for the Jets to win consistently — but this team is only going to make the playoffs if he is otherworldly. Hellebuyck has shown he can do it before — he was voted the mid-season Vezina winner by the Professional Hockey Writers Association — and if he gets hot again, it will bring confidence and success to a Jets team that sorely needs it.
STABILIZE THE D
It has been mostly one big tire fire on defence for the Jets so far this season. It started in the off-season when Jacob Trouba was traded, Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot left through free agency and Dustin Byfuglien decided he didn’t want to play, and it has continued three months into the season, with no pairings even truly established on the blue-line. No. 1 defenceman Josh Morrissey has played with four different players on his right side and every defender has had to adjust to someone new on most nights. Nothing has worked so far, which is why head coach Paul Maurice continues to mix it up, but getting some semblance of continuity would surely help get the Jets into a better position. It wouldn’t hurt if Byfuglien decided to come back for the stretch run — and that remains a possibility — but no one knows how welcome or effective he would be, nor what kind of shape he’ll be in.
POWER ON FRONT LINES
It’s supposed to be about balanced scoring in the NHL, but with the Jets it’s pretty much all about the top six when it comes to offence. Lately, the scoring has dried up a bit for Mark Scheifele, Kyle Connor, Patrik Laine, Blake Wheeler and Nikolaj Ehlers and that’s a big part of why the Jets have been outscored 20-7 in the last four games, all losses. There’s all-star talent there and the Jets need it to carry them, whether that’s optimal or not. The Jets would prefer to not have to outscore teams in wide-open games, but they do have the ability to do it on occasion, and getting all of those aforementioned players going on the scoresheet would make a world of difference.
COACH IT UP
Rightly or wrongly, there will be plenty of heat on Jets head coach Paul Maurice coming out of the break. His team has regressed over the last two seasons and is in danger of missing the playoffs entirely this year. He has 31 games left to turn this around — we think — or his future with the organization will have to be in question. He doesn’t have a contract for next season and it would seem odd for the Jets to hand him a multi-year extension after two years of going backward. Still, there’s a lot of faith in Maurice, who has 20-plus years of experience, and he’s got a chance to make this right. He’d best use this break to come up with a plan to get more out of what he’s got in this lineup. If he can get Bryan Little and Adam Lowry back from injuries, and maybe even Byfuglien or some kind of higher-end defenceman through trade, it could make a big difference.
CHEVY IN GEAR
One way or another, general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff needs to do something to help this team, either immediately, or in the future. He’s been hamstrung by the Byfuglien situation, which he won’t talk about, and that seemingly has prevented him from making any kind of move to shore up a lacking defence corps. Would it make a huge difference if he could trade one of his top-six forwards for a quality defenceman? Maybe. But the three weeks after the all-star break should tell if the Jets want to be buyers or sellers at the trade deadline. There’s certainly a chance they’ll fall further out of the playoff race and they’ll be looking to move pieces for draft picks instead of loading up. Either way, Chevy’s got his work cut out.