Jets’ season, lost in April, began spiraling downward months earlier

Scott Billeck
NBC Sports

To pin an exact date on the calendar where the Winnipeg Jets’ season started to head south is a bit of an exercise in futility. But here we are.

Did the downfall begin on Dec. 1, when Patrik Laine entered the final month of 2018 on the back of an 18-goal, record-setting November? He’d scored just nine goals in the remaining five months of the regular season.

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Maybe it was Dec. 29, when Dustin Byfuglien would begin a stretch of 39 games in which he missed 34 due to two ankle injuries?

What about a stretch from Feb. 7 to Feb. 26 where the Jets lost twice to the Ottawa Senators, twice to the Colorado Avalanche and once each to the Montreal Canadiens, Arizona Coyotes and Minnesota Wild? A woeful string of seven losses in 10 games against some of the worst teams in the NHL at the time.

What about that fateful day on Feb. 24 where Vinnie Hinostroza caught Josh Morrissey with a hit as Morrissey was stretched out reaching for a puck? Morrissey would miss the next 20 games and wouldn’t appear in a game until Game 1 against the St. Louis Blues.

Feb. 26 brought with it the first of four games in the final month and change where the Jets surrendered a third-period lead that cost them two points. Minnesota, San Jose, the New York Islanders and Avalanche also preyed on Winnipeg’s sudden inability to hold third-period leads, something they did on 42 of 44 occasions a year earlier.

Maybe it wasn’t one specific date at all, but a collection of unfortunate happenings that, when cobbled together, began to weigh down the Jets until they couldn’t bear the load any longer.

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An initial investigation seems to show the wheels began loosening on this train around the holiday season.

Winnipeg’s expected goals differential began to sink right as the clock struck midnight on Jan. 1, which when looking back, is a pretty solid centerpiece in a tale of two teams.

By that point, Byfuglien had already begun his first extended stint on the shelf. Winnipeg’s defensive depth began to show some cracks, ones that were further uncovered when Morrissey’s injury struck.

Here’s some of the math:

Jets from opening night through Dec. 31
• 50.91 CF% (10th)
• 50.73 xGF% (14th)

Jets from Jan. 1 to the final day of the regular season
• 47.22 CF% (25th)
• 45.01 xGF% (30th)

It’s a dramatic change. But why?

Laine was on pace for 50 or so goals after his November outburst, but by the end of 2018, worries surrounding his scoring drought were growing. The Jets spent game after game trying, at first, to let Laine work through his issues. That didn’t work. They then tried to give him some new linemates. It worked on a couple of occasions with different pieces but in the end, it would always revert to Laine struggling to find interest when he couldn’t score at will.

General manager Kevin Cheveldayoff brought Kevin Hayes in at the trade deadline in an effort to aid in several areas.

First and foremost, Hayes was supposed to fit in as the team’s second line center, one who might play nice with Laine and jumpstart his stick back to life.

Hayes’ arrival also brought hope that he could be used to alleviate ice time being handed in droves to Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler. Hayes could play on the penalty kill and the power play, so the plan was he would help give some rest to Winnipeg’s topmost point producers and minute munchers on forward.

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That never really came to fruition. Hayes didn’t build chemistry with Laine. Scheifele and Wheeler still commanded big minutes because of their trustworthiness in all situations. And by the end, the wear and tear was evident.

Hayes wasn’t the savior that Paul Stastny had been a year earlier and Winnipeg suffered because of it.

Coaching decisions, too, made for some perplexing times in Winnipeg.

Paul Maurice refused to break up Scheifele and Wheeler in an effort to spread out the depth and scoring. He broke up Winnipeg’s top possession line, however, in an attempt to do what he wouldn’t do with his top-line duo.

With Byfuglien and Morrissey both inactive, Maurice didn’t try Sami Niku as an anchor on the power play.

When Morrissey returned for the playoffs, the decision was made to keep Dmitry Kulikov in over Nathan Beaulieu, a trade deadline deal that worked very well for the Jets as the former Buffalo Sabres product jumped right into the top pairing with Jacob Trouba and earned his keep.

Kulikov’s familiarity with Tyler Myers came first and Beaulieu sat. Maurice placed his trust in players that, according to the analytics, shouldn’t have been trusted in the situations they put in.

In many ways, this stubbornness to even move pieces around to see if they fit played a factor in the downfall. Giving Matt Hendricks games down the stretch made little sense unless you buy into the “heavy” game mantra that the Western Conference presents. But Hendricks was nowhere to be found in a “heavy” series against St. Louis, so why play him at all when a player like Jack Roslovic — who played in all five playoff games — could have benefitted with more ice-time down the stretch?

Holes in the team’s defensive structure could be a post in and of itself. Simply, the Jets weren’t the same defensive team from the year previous, falling 10 spots from the fifth fewest goals allowed to 15th.

This leads to the question of if Maurice’s job is in jeopardy. While the Jets couldn’t put it together in Round 1, they’ve won nearly 100 games over the past two seasons under Maurice’s watch with a young, inexperienced team. The gut feeling, then, is no, he’s likely to stick around next season. Assuming that’s the case, however, the pressure and expectation will only be greater and his leash may get much shorter.

And it will be harder for the Jets to succeed next year with their pending cap crunch.

Winnipeg’s Stanley Cup window may have been widest this year. Coming off a trip to the Western Conference Final and with many of the same pieces still in place (and still only making a pittance of what they’ll start to see next year), the Jets had perhaps the widest range of talent they could have before the likes of Laine and Kyle Connor get paid this summer.

The window is by no means closed but there’s a big chunk of salary coming next year to those two prominent players. Wheeler’s big extension kicks in, too, and they may lose Trouba if they can’t hash out an extension, meaning a top pairing defenseman is also lost. And it all means they’ll have to make do with some of their youth pieces that have been marinating in the system.

The talk around Winnipeg last summer was one of locking up several pieces to take another stab at the Cup. This summer is that much more massive for Cheveldayoff and Co., who need to figure out how to improve the current lineup while paying a couple of their brightest young stars handsomely and dealing with the pending cap crunch because of it.

Gone is the hype train of that conference final run. Questions of leadership, on-ice structure (both offensively and defensively), killer instinct and coaching will take its place.

It should be noted that it sure seemed troubling when the Jets brought Hendricks back into the fold in a late deal on trade deadline day. His leadership qualities are what was lauded by Cheveldayoff. But why did the team need an injection of Hendricks’ tangibles in the first place? Why couldn’t the current core of veterans sort out issues?

That’s a crucial question moving forward.

Was there a division in the room? And if so, why wasn’t it squared away at the moment the leak was spotted?

Blame can be pointed in myriad directions, ultimately.

There will be no repeat of a summer filled with the fuzzy feelings of a team seemingly on the cusp of greatness. Only more stories like this one, autopsies of a failed season.

Another couple of questions added to a pile that is in need of answers this offseason.

And to tie this back in with dates, there’s only one that’s certifiably certain: April 20.

It’s the final etching on Winnipeg’s tombstone for the 2018-19 season, wherein their final hours, they produced one of their poorest, if not altogether worst, efforts of the season when only the opposite would do.

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

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