Hockey was officially back in Winnipeg last April when the Jets played their first playoff home game since 1996. The Jets were swept by the Anaheim Ducks in the first round of the playoffs, but with plenty of young talent and a coaching staff that refused to quit, the future looked as bright as ever for Winnipeg.
Fast forward to the mid-season point this year, and suddenly everything is bleaker for the Jets. Winnipeg has failed to build on their regular season success last season, instead taking a step back in the Central Division and Western Conference. The season has been riddled with injuries to important players, leaked contract negotiations for important players and special teams struggles.
Currently, the Jets are in last place in the Central Division at 19-20-3, trailing the Nashville Predators by four points for the final wild card spot. Despite the miniature margin, Winnipeg has looked more like a lottery team than a playoff contender. Let’s take a look at the top headlines of the Jets season so far.
Uncertainty in Net
Last season it was the pair of Michael Hutchinson and Ondrej Pavelec that led the Jets to the postseason. This season, both Hutchinson and Pavelec have failed to play up to their normal goaltending standards, posting a combined .905 save percentage.
Pavelec landed on the Injured Reserve in November and has not returned since, giving Hutchinson the opportunity to build on his success last season, when he posted a .914 save percentage in 36 starts for the Jets. Rather than Hutchinson taking the reins in net, it was rookie Connor Hellebuyck that took control of the starting job. Hellebuyck, who entered the 2015-2016 with zero games played in the NHL, has posted a .934 save percentage to keep the Jets’ playoff hopes alive.
With Hellebuyck in net, Winnipeg is 9-5-1. With either of Hutchinson or Pavelec in net, the Jets are 10-15-2. Hellebuyck has surrendered more than two goals in only five of his 15 starts, allowing the Jets to play safe, low-scoring hockey games that fit their heavy possession style of hockey. Hutchinson and Pavelec have not allowed that same courtesy, giving up more than two goals in 15 of their 32 combined starts. Hellebuyck went into the season as the expected future of the franchise in net, but it is clear that he is now the present as well.
Specialty Teams Woes
Ranking in the bottom five in power-play percentage or penalty-killing percentage is a great danger for any hockey team trying to make the playoffs. Ranking in the bottom five in both, as the Jets do currently, is essentially a death sentence for playoff hopes.
They rank 26th in the NHL on the PK and 29th in the NHL on the power play, combining for the second-worst combined specialty teams units in the NHL behind the Calgary Flames.
With those horrendous rankings come the unfortunate undisciplined play of the Jets, as the team ranks 18th in the league in power plays drawn, but has been penalized more than any team in the NHL other than the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Jets have set themselves up for failure with a combination of undisciplined play and inability to make up for the undisciplined play with solid, defensive hockey.
To add to their woes, the Jets have failed to use the boisterous crowd at the MTS Centre to their advantage, ranking 25th in the NHL in home power play percentage. All around on specialty teams this season the Jets have failed, dropping the team in the standings in the process.
Recovering and Moving Forward
Despite the poor first half, the Jets are only four points out of a playoff spot, but there is no room for error in the tight Western Conference race. The trade deadline is rapidly approaching, and with so many teams in the race this season, it would behoove the Jets to trade away their pending free agent assets if they are not in the thick of the race.
Should the Jets find themselves improving behind Hellebuyck’s stellar play in net, it would be wise for the team to go for it. Take a look at the scene in Winnipeg last April:
For a franchise with minor roster turnover following the playoff appearance and positive possession numbers on the season, missing the postseason would be greatly disappointing. General manager Kevin Cheveldayoff must determine by the trade deadline if he believes this team can make the playoffs or not, as the moves he makes will go a long way to determine the present and the future of this franchise.