By Scott Taylor
Photo by James Carey Lauder
It’s official. Although, many Winnipeg Jets fans have been waiting for this day since Christmas.
On Monday night, March 27, 2017, Winnipegger Alexander Steen had four assists as he led the St. Louis Blues to a 4-1 win over the Arizona Coyotes. With that win, the Blues reached 88 points. With only six games remaining, the Jets can’t get to 88 points and so, that’s it. The Jets have been mathematically eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The Jets, since arriving in Winnipeg from Atlanta in 2011, have reached the playoffs once in six seasons. The team has yet to win a playoff game.
So, as another season comes to an end and the Jets are on the outside of the playoffs looking in, most Jets fans can only wonder what 2017-18 will look like. Sadly, with the exception of the arrival of Patrik Laine and the improvement of Mark Scheifele, Nikloaj Ehlers and Josh Morrissey, the 2016-17 campaign was almost entirely forgettable.
Laine, of course, was superb (on most nights), has scored 34 goals as a rookie and will battle Toronto Maple Leafs star Auston Matthews for the rookie of the year award.
Meanwhile, Scheifele emerged as the team’s best player, Ehlers has the ability to bring the crowd to its feet, Bryan Little came back from injury and had a solid season and young Josh Morrissey proved that he was, indeed, a sound NHL defenseman.
However, if the Jets have had one obvious weakness in this, their sixth season back in Winnipeg, that weakness was goaltending. The experiment at the start of the campaign was to send veteran Ondrej Pavelec to the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League and play rookie Connor Hellebuyck and 27-year-old Michael Hutchinson.
For the most part, the experiment failed, although to be fair, there is really no reason to believe that a full season of Pavelec would have made any difference at all. Numbers don’t always lie.
Hellebuyck played 53 games and went 23-19-0-4 with a 2.95 goals against average and a .906 save percentage. In fact, Hellebuyck was 38th in the NHL in save percentage and 41st in goals against average. That wasn’t good enough for most fans nor head coach Paul Maurice. In 26 starts, Hutchinson was 7-12-0-3 with a 2.96 goals against average and an .903 save percentage. That was even worse.
So Pavelec was recalled from the Moose in February and in eight games before he was injured went 4-4-0 with a 3.55 goals against average and an .888 save percentage. It is safe to say that statistically, Jets goaltending was the worst in the NHL.
Defensively, the Jets were not very consistent this season and that certainly hasn’t helped the goaletnding. On some nights Dustin Byfuglien is the best player on the ice and on others, he’s a minus waiting to happen. Let’s be fair and just say, it’s been an off year. Toby Enstrom was extremely inconsistent and eventually was injured (by a cheap shot) and did not play down the stretch. Morrissey was a very pleasant surprise. Ben Chiarot, Mark Stuart and Paul Postma have been serviceable. Nelson Nogier and Julian Melchiori have shown, in spurts, they have a future. Since his return, Jacob Trouba has been the best defenseman on the team. The injury to Tyler Myers (he missed most of the season) was, without hyperbole, devastating.
Up front, the Jets are a young exciting team and GM Kevin Cheveldayoff should be congratulated on some outstanding picks. Granted, a selection like Patrik Laine was quite obvious but Mark Scheifele? Not so much.
Here is what we know so far…
- Despite slumping a bit in March, Scheifele is still one of the best players in the NHL. He has 29 goals and 76 points and is a Top 10 scorer. He’s the Jets best player and one of the very best players in the game.
- Laine is as good as advertised and with 34 goals and 61 points, he’s one of the Top 2 rookies in the NHL.
- Nikolaj Ehlers has become one of the game’s most electrifying players. He’s now the team’s fourth leading scorer (22 goals and 58 points) and can bring the crowd to its feet on any shift.
- The captain, Blake Wheeler, has 22 goals and 66 points. Solid and consistent and 18th overall in the NHL.
- Bryan Little, after returning from injury, has 20 goals and 39 points in 53 games and has done a great job in the faceoff circle. Like Wheeler, he’s a solid veteran player.
- When the Jets play responsibly and with some motivation, they can play with any team in the NHL. When they don’t, they can get hammered.
- They have enough skilled players to play very entertaining hockey. In fact, they have five players – Scheifele, Wheeler, Laine, Ehlers and Little – who have scored at least 20 goals.
- They can make enough mistakes in their own zone and take enough dumb penalties to lose games they should win.
- The goaltending MUST get better.
The three biggest stories of the 2016-17 season, on the ice, were…
- The questionable goaltending.
- The play of Scheifele, Ehlers and Laine
- The problems on defense.
The three biggest stories off the ice were simply questions:
- How does Paul Maurice survive a season as head coach when a team that even he thought was a contender missed the playoffs for the fifth time in six seasons?
- What happened to GM Kevin Cheveldayoff’s alleged five-year plan?
- What happens now?
The Jets should have been better than they were. They still have issues in goal, they still play inconsistently, their special teams are problematic and while they do have some solid players at the American Hockey League level, that Moose team doesn’t win either.
At some point, the Jets need to wave good-bye to the Atlanta Thrashers Era. However, that’s not likely to happen any time soon. Believing that this team has the playoffs in its future — as early as next season? — might not be realistic.