When the buzzer sounded on the Jets’ 4-1 loss to the Arizona Coyotes on January 8th it signaled the end of the game and meant we had officially reached the mid-way point for the 2014-15 season.
The Jets started off the season with an anemic two wins and five losses and almost immediately panic started to set in among Jets fans. However, the team subsequently rolled to a 6-0-2 record over its next eight games and were right back in the mix.
When evaluating the 2014-15 Winnipeg Jets team after 15 games to the 2013-14 team after a similar number of games, this season’s team demonstrated a six-point improvement over the 2013-14 Jets squad.
A portion of that initial success may be attributed to the improved defensive play of the team as a whole, as well as the improved numbers posted by Ondrej Pavelec–not that these two factors are mutually exclusive.
The Jets then recorded a 4-4-2 record over its next 10 game stretch to complete the rest of November. November was also significant because coach Paul Maurice began to trust Michael Hutchinson, he was used just twice in October on the 12th and 24th (one appearance came in relief), as a legitimate option in the team’s goalie rotation. Maurice’s decision has clearly paid off, as Hutchinson is currently ranked 2nd in the league in G.A.A. at 1.88 and 1st in save percentage at .936.
Winnipeg kicked off December and was forced to deal with many injuries to its back-end as the Jets lost Grant Clitsome, Tobias Enstrom and Zach Bogosian. The rash of injuries resulted in coach Maurice looking internally, specifically to the forwards, in order to help the defense and team weather the storm of injuries.
Coach Maurice tapped Dustin Byfuglien to move back to his most desired position, defence. Additionally, the team promoted Ben Chiarot from the AHL. Chairot has been paired with Byuglien and formed a solid tandem for the Jets–a tandem which has been used as the number one unit with the subsequent injury to Jacob Trouba and Mark Stuart.
Internal options were not the only remedy for the Jets, as GM Kevin Cheveldayoff traded for Jay Harrison from the Carolina Hurricanes on December 18th in exchange for a 2015 6th round pick (originally from Ottawa). Harrison has been a steadying veteran presence on a patchwork back-end.
Even with the rash of injuries, including a late month injury to Evander Kane, the Jets surprised many by posting a 7-3-3 record in the month of December.
As it stands, the Jets now sit with 47 points on the season which has them tied with L.A. 1st/2nd Wild Card position in the Western Conference.
A look back one season demonstrates that this team has improved its fortunes by six points as compared to where the team sat, a record of 18-18-5, a season ago.
Biggest wins of the year:
1. Sunday, November 2nd : Jets 1 Blackhawks 0. Michael Hutchinson was simply sensational as he led the team to a 33 save win in the always tough United Center. It was also his first NHL shutout in just his second start of the season.
2. Friday, December 19th: Jets 2 Bruins 1. With the Jets missing four defencemen (Bogosian, Enstrom, Stuart and Trouba) it was the Dustin Byfuglien show as the big man played over 27 minutes and assisted on the game winning goal.
3. Tuesday, December 23rd: Jets 5 Blackhawks 1. To go back into the United Center and hand a team like Chicago just their fourth home defeat (second by the Jets) was impressive. Add to that that it was the first time all season that the Hawks allowed five goals against. A big win against a central opponent.
Biggest losses of the year:
1. Monday, January 5th: Sharks 3 Jets 2. It was one of those games in which the home team didn’t deserve a point but looked like they would squeak one out. However a Vlasic shot with 4.5 seconds to go in the 3rd ended any hope of extra time and a stolen point or two.
2. Thursday, December 11th: Avalanche 4 Jets 3. The Jets led the game 3-1 early in the final frame and looked like they would cruise to an easy two points against Colorado. A couple of energy sapping penalties in the first ten minutes of the 3rd period didn’t cost the team on the score sheet but it did kill the forward momentum and cost them at least one point.
3. Saturday, November 15th: Predators 2 Jets 1. Winnipeg had the benefit of a Nashville goal being disallowed, which they gave back just 12 seconds later. What really hurt was allowing a goal against with just 2:02 left in the 3rd period to cost the team a chance at any points.
Dishonourable mention: Just ten days after blowing a two goal 3rd period lead the Jets did the same against the Flyers on Sunday, December 21st. While they secured one point they failed to show the necessary killer instinct to walk away with two.
Top story lines of the first 41:
1. Bryan Little – While it is hard to say we are surprised by the Jets most consistent forward anymore his shooting percentage is a lights out 20%, which is 5th best in the NHL (based on players who have played 30+ games) and tops at centre. Of course he has been quite judicious in picking his shots with just 75 on the season (which ranks him 154th in the league).
2. Dustin Byfuglien – When a team loses their defensive core and doesn’t fall to pieces you can probably thank the play of #33 for much of that consistency on the back end. He has been dominating since the move.
3. Michael Hutchinson – He went from the ECHL to the AHL and finally the NHL last year but after he got pulled in his first game of this season and then didn’t start again until almost three weeks later fans weren’t sure what to expect from the goalie they call Clutchinson. Since then he has been lights out forcing the Jets to move into a goalie rotation and as previously stated is either top or near the top of the NHL in save percentage and goals against average.
4. The injuries on the blue line – Clitsome (twice), Enstrom, Bogosian, Stuart and Trouba have all been knocked out for a significant period of time. When the initial glut of injuries was announced early in December the inevitable McDavid and Eichel tank talk began. Instead a patchwork group of defencemen have somehow held it together and kept the Jets in the race for the playoffs.
5. Average play at home – While we like to think of the MTS Centre as a hostile environment for visiting teams it hasn’t been that at all (9-9-3) as the Jets seem unable to bring that road warrior mentality (11-5-4) back to their barn.
6. Friendly fire – Prior to the start of this season Evander Kane felt he could score 50. Of course in that pre-season chat with the media he said “…..obviously staying healthy is a big part of it too”. Unfortunately a collision with Mark Scheifele in game 1 and a Jay Harrison slap shot in game 36 has limited Kane to just 26 games.
7. The penalties – The Jets are leading the league in total times shorthanded at 166, 15 more than the next team (Devils). While the team ranks 9th overall at the PK (83.7%) they are clearly sapping their energy by spending too much time killing off penalties.
8. Needing more production from bottom six – The Jets have just 12 goals from Galiardi, Lowry, Halischuk, Thorburn, Slater and Peluso, five of which are attributable to rookie Adam Lowry. When the 3rd line had Evander Kane (6 goals) on it you could see the Jets attack had more balance but without him the Jets just aren’t getting enough production from the bottom six.
9. Emergence of Mathieu Perreault – He got off to a slow start but has proven to be a hard worker each and every night for this team. When coach Maurice asked him to move from centre to the wing he handled the move flawlessly. In his last 16 games has put up 8 goals and 7 assists.
10. Coach Maurice – The team has bought in to the message from the bench boss. He has gotten the most out of a team that many picked to be at the bottom of the central division, yet he somehow has them in contention, despite the injuries and a lack of depth.
What stands out to you after 41 games this season for your Winnipeg Jets? As always feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section.