TAMPA, Fla. — When Ondrej Pavelec is at his best, the Winnipeg Jets can be a pretty good hockey team. When the team stays out of the penalty box, the Jets can be competitive and lately, even if they do get hammered with penalties, they can still be good. The first half of the NHL season has been good for the Winnipeg Jets and here’s why…
We know this team is thin at most positions and injuries to key players can hurt them deeply. We know that they are terribly inconsistent and quite often frustrating to watch. They don’t score as much as they should – at least as much as the talent suggests they should – and there are times when their offensive-minded defensemen get caught up ice.
However, as they’ve shown in the past two games in Florida, they play hard and can be a playoff contender. Honestly, they can be a playoff contender. I mean that.
Tonight they open the second half of the season against the New Jersey Devils. This is a team they can beat, a team they’ve beaten and a team that could give them a boost heading into the second half.
So as we do every year, here are the 10 things we learned during the first half of this lockout-shortened 2013 season:
1. The Jets are now 12-11-1 after that gutsy win in Florida on Friday night. Head coach Claude Noel’s team is so close to being good, it’s scary. But dumb mistakes, by both the players and the coach, have cost the Jets as many as seven potential points this season. Take the stupidity out of the turnovers, bad pinches, 3-on-2 and 2-on-1 rushes – the wrong way – the occasional mishandling of personnel and some frustratingly bad goals and the Jets might be golden. As it is, they’re ninth in the East, over .500 and still in the race.
2. With Tobias Enstrom injured, the Jets have received some tremendous play from people such as Paul Postma, Mark Stuart and Grant Clitsome (and even Zach Redmond until his terrible injury). Fans expect Zach Bogosian, Dustin Byfuglien and Roin Hainsey to lead the team, but the Jets fifth, sixth and even seventh defensemen have played well. If there is depth on this hockey club, it’s on defense. Postma, Stuart, Clitsome and Redmond have proven that.
3. Last season, Coach Noel spent a great deal of time benching Alexander Burmistrov. It might have worked. Burmistrov can still be frustrating, but he is the most talented player on the team. Yes, he should score more than he does, but this year he’s at least about his defensive game and he’s still a guy who makes things happen. If he ever gets hot – andf maybe he won’t , who really knows – he’ll be a dandy player.
4. After playing only 19:07 in last Saturday’s 3-0 loss to Washington and then only 20:48 in last Tuesday’s 4-1 loss to Florida, Ron Hainsey drew 25:17 in Thursday’s win in Tampa and 25:38 in Friday’s win in Sunrise. Say what you will (a couple of newspaper reporters in the Tampa press box on Thursday said: “Don’t boo Ron Hainsey because he was involved in the Players Association, boo him because he’s shitty.”), but the Jets are better when Hainsey plays at least 25 minutes a night than when he plays only 19 or 20 minutes.
5. After a dreadful start, the Jets have now killed off 15 of the last 15 penalties they’ve been forced to kill off. The penalty-killing unit has risen from 30th to 28th in two games and that’s significant. Now at 76.62 per cent per, the unit has come a long way and it looked terrific last Thursday and Friday against Tampa and Florida, especially during an almost two full minute disadvantage against the Lightning. “We changed a lot of things we’ve done on the pnelaty kill,” said assistant coach Perry Pearn. “The guys are really starting to figure out what we’re trying to do.”
6. The line of Andrew Ladd, Brian Little and Blake Wheeler is wonderful, In fact, when that line is right, it’s one of the best in the entire NHL. There are nights when they are the best thing on the ice. There are nights when you just can’t take your eyes off of them. When they wheel and deal, they are remarkable. In fact, there have been nights this season when every time they were on the ice, they made something happen. At they’re best, Little-Ladd and Wheeler are really fun to watch.
7. Ladd is the team’s leading scorer with 13 goals and 11 assists. A lot of that success has to do with his linemates. Wheeler has eight goals and 11 assists and Little has four goals and 11 assists. All three of them are among the team’s Top 4 scorers. Sneaking into the Top 3 Evander Kane who has nine goals and nine assists. When he wants to play, nobody is better. At 6-foot-2, 195 pounds, he has speed and skill and cane be as tough in the dirty parts of the rink as any player in the league. He’s an odd bird, no question (see; his interview in The Hockey News), but at 21, he’s still all upside. And when he’s good, he’s very, very good.
8. Ondrej Pavelec couldn’t play on the road last year. This year, he can’t play at home. He’s 3-6-0 at MTS Centre and 6-5-1 on the road. However, his statistics suggest he still struggles away from his home building. In Winnipeg, he might be 3-6-3 but he has a .903 save percentage and a 2.52 goals against average. On the road, he’s 6-5-1 but he has an .899 save percentage and a 3.13 goals against average. It’s not Pavelec. He’s 9-11-1 in 21 starts this season (the Jets have only played 24 games). His team has to play better at home.
9. Dustin Byfuglien is a forward (here I go again). But he’s a helluva forward who just so happens to play 22-27 minutes a night on defense. One NHL scout last week called Byfuglien “the most exciting player in the NHL when he wants to be.” He might be right. His winning goal on Friday was highlight-reel material and after watching what he did two or three times on replay, it makes me think that if he were actually in shape, nobody could stop him. He’s missed five games this season with “out-of-shape” injuries – pulls and strains. If he was 6-foot-5, 240 pounds as opposed to 6-foot-5, 270 pounds, he’d be one of the best players in the NHL. Period.
10. The first half of this season was good for the Jets. They got some nasty mistakes out of their system, they learned coach Pearn’s penalty killing theories, Byfuglien is closer to being in shape than he as seven weeks ago and now they might be turning into a team that actually plays well on special teams and they’re in the hunt despite the fact they’ve played without Bogosian and Enstrom for most of the first half. If the Jets stay healthy down the stretch, we’ll be watching them in May.
(All Photos By Shawn Coates)