Photo by Dan Bodenstein
It’s game two against Florida this month. The first, a 5-2 loss in Sunrise, left fans reeling with a potent cocktail of frustration, anger, and shame. In fact, a December schedule seemingly designed to get the Jets back on track has yielded just three wins and 5 losses thanks to unexpected losses to the Panthers and Sabres. A game under .500, the Jets sit above only Calgary and Edmonton in the Western Conference standings and fans are starting to look to the future of this club.
Even if Jets fans aren’t delusional about the quality of this club, another loss to the lowly Panthers would surely cut deep.
The thing is, they’re not as lowly as they were two weeks ago. When the Jets flew into Ft Lauderdale, the Panthers had lost three straight and had just 19 points in 28 games. Since their convincing win over the fighter planes, the team is 7-1. A loss to Chicago is all that interupts a perfect Panthers record since the teams last met. They’re now 2 points behind Winnipeg in the league standings with a 5 game winning streak – longer than any by the Jets this season.
Many are crediting interim Head Coach Peter Horachek with the change, and his 10-8-1 record is certainly better than the 3-9-4 span under Kevin Dineen. Advanced stats gurus are quick to point out the PDO cliff the team has managed to climb up, as their save percentage and shooting percentage have started to move toward league average after a disasterous start.
Still, there have been changes to the roster as well. Kris Versteeg was playing poorly in Florida, and whatever his contributions in Chicago, his -9 will likely continue to be the worst mark on the Panthers. Free agent Ryan Whitney was sent to the AHL after a disasterous 6 games revealed it wasn’t just a curse over the Oilers that made him awful. Scott Gomez became the team’s extra forward, and Marcel Goc was moved to the wing to find his game (he’s back at centre now).
Simple common sense has changed the fortunes of this team as much as dumb luck, and when you’re hot, you’re hot. The Jets certainly aren’t that, and are at risk of dropping yet another winnable game.
- Ladd – Little – Wheeler
- Kane – Scheifele – Frolik
- O’Dell – Jokinen – Setoguchi
- Tangradi – Wright – Thorburn
Peluso is still suspended, and young John Albert was sent away. These are the 12 forwards the team has available, organized into sensible lines. How likely is it that Claude Noel goes with these groupings? Let’s just say he’s pretty convinced the forest he’s in is an outcropping of about 9 trees (and the rest can go to hell!)
The Kane/Scheifele/Frolik line has 4 goals in their two games together. That ties them with Claude Giroux/Jacub Voracek/Michael Raffl as the league’s most productive even strength line over the past two games. It’s obviously an absurdly small sample, but it’s the entire population of games this line has had together so far.
- Enstrom – Bogosian
- Clitsome – Byfuglien
- Stuart – Trouba
In contrast to the O’Dell / Thorburn decision, Noel is in a tough spot with this goalies. Pavelec’s game has fallen apart (for the second time this season), losing 5 straight and seeing the red light 19 times in those 5 games. His December save percentage is .872 in six starts, and Noel has managed his time off appropriately. With the team (and Pavelec) dropping two games this month that were circled in the calendar as points, winning this Florida game becomes a point of pride for everyone on the team.
It seems the organization still regards Pavelec as their undisputed starter and goalie of the future, but Al Montoya is once again in a place to steal his job. Noel needs wins to keep his job, but his bosses won’t appreciate a Ted Nolan-esque move that would embarrass the GM for his $20M mistake.
Reports are that Zach Bogosian is back. He was practicing with Tobias Enstrom, which many have taken as a sign of his imminent return. Of course, with this coach, it could be that Tobias Enstrom is being scratched.
Despite Adam Pardy’s very successful return to the lineup, I would bet a limb that Mark Stuart stays in. I’d also bet that his partner looks like a plastic bag on the highway, flitting about the air as people speed by. In reality, his partner will be trying to do two jobs at once, since Stuart’s transition gap is wider than the cannal through Panama and his puck skills consist of hoping it hits him.
The good news is that with Bogosian’s return, the team is just one NHL quality defender away from icing a top-6.
Photo by Cary Bass
- Huberdeau – Bjugstad – Upshall
- Fleischmann – Goc – Kopecky
- Bergenheim – Barkov – Boyes
- Hayes – Matthias – Barch
These are also not the lines posted on DailyFaceoff.com and around the web. Jonathan Huberdeau returned to the line up agianst the Senators last game, and these are the lines the team used.
The scoring has come from all over the roster this year, and to some extent that’s the result of their lines being a bit of musical chairs. That said, the scoring hasn’t been particularly impressive, with a 27th ranked 2.25 goals per game.
Fleischmann leads the team with 19 points, and Scottie Upshall is second with 18. Upshall has lost a lot of time to injury in his career. He made his debut in 2002, and in those 11 seasons has managed just 447 NHL games and another 123 in the AHL. He’s just 30 years old but has already lost ~30% of his career to rehab (and another 10% to lockouts). Most forget he was a 6th overall selection way back on ’02, and in that light, his 200 career points aren’t terribly impressive. Still, I’m not sure we’ve ever seen a healthy Upshall play. I think it’s possible his modest 45 point pace is a reasonable expectation for the veteran.
The team’s Free Agent re-tool has become a young player re-build, with Huberdeau, Bjugstad, Barkov, and Hayes make up the youthful group up front, and defenders Dylan Olsen, Gudbranson, and Kulikov are all still producing more cells than die on a daily basis.
Barkov is one of my favourite young NHL’ers. Like Nichushkin, he has a man’s body at an early age. His 15 points on the season have come on a low scoring club, and he’s played down the roster. His game shows his Finnish training – he’s hard working, physical, and hard on the puck. But he also has a natural sense for his teammates and already has the ability to create space for them. He could be a terrific NHL player, and honestly, it’s a little sad he’s in Florida, where so many young players learn poor habits and plateau below their peak.
- Campbell – Gilbert
- Gudbranson – Olsen
- Kulikov – Weaver
Tim Thomas is set to return from injury soon, but Clemmensen has won 4 of his 7 starts this season in spite of a .902 save percentage. The team misses Thomas’s better .909, but the strength of this team hasn’t been in net.
Tom Gilbert is on a one year, $600K contract, and I’ve never understood what happened to him. In Edmonton he was one of the few effective puck managers on a very bad team. He was a healthy scratch in Minnesota and played down the roster. He struggled to get a job this off-season, but has played himself from 8th man to the top unit in less than half a season.
Of course, Brian Campbell is still the main attraction on this defence group. He’s apparently untouchable, and now the Panthers are within 3 points of a playoff spot so actually need him.
However, Dimitry Kulikov has been popping up in trade rumours. The former 14th overall pick is just 23 years old, but is playing in his 5th NHL season. He’s never played a full season, never been a plus player, and his career high of 28 points in 58 games pre-lockout has been followed by 16 points in 69 games post-lockout. Suffice to say, he’s another Florida draftee on the cusp of falling out of the NHL with no clear plan indicated for his future development. Sounds like a Jet to me. If only they’d put him on waivers…
It’s a bit of a rag-tag group, but their recent streak has put them in a position to tie Winnipeg’s season point total with a win. The Jets may not be so fortunate as to be playing for a playoff birth, but they do have their pride on the line. It could be a good one, provided the Jets don’t try to play shinny again.