As things stand, the NHL is planning to have games resume at some point over the coming weeks. Assuming the regular season continues, there will be plenty of things to watch for over the stretch run. Over the coming weeks, PHR will examine the top stretch run storylines for each team. We continue our look at the Central Division with Winnipeg.
It has been a tough year for the Jets. They lost several key members of their back end over the summer and have been hit hard by the injury bug throughout the season. Despite that, a hot stretch of games just before the suspension of play got them back into the playoff picture. Will their back end be able to hold up the rest of the way? That’s one of Winnipeg’s key storylines down the stretch.
Losing Jacob Trouba to trade, Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot as free agents, and Dustin Byfuglien from the calamitous mess that is his situation is tough for anyone. There’s no improving your back end when you lose that many key players at once, even with landing Neal Pionk in the Trouba trade.
Pionk and Josh Morrissey lead Winnipeg’s defense corps that could best be described as patchwork. Of the ten rearguards on their roster before the roster freeze kicked in, two are waiver claims and another was a non-tendered RFA last summer. Two others are just beginning their NHL careers and another was a waiver claim in another organization last year and is best served as a seventh or eighth defender. Dylan DeMelo was a shrewd addition by GM Kevin Cheveldayoff a little before the trade deadline but in a perfect world, he’s on the third pairing, not averaging over 21 minutes a night.
Is it a terrible group? No. But when compared to the other teams that they’re battling with for a playoff spot, it’s a definite downgrade. This patchwork back end has held up quite well given the circumstances. But as the pressure mounts, can they hold up or will the cracks start to become more evident?
And if we’re throwing out questions, how about some with Byfuglien. While he was ruled out for the season before the trade deadline, could he be medically cleared to return if the break is long enough? Would he even want to return to Winnipeg? It’s a longshot but he’d certainly give them a boost if he came back.
Hellebuyck Holding Up
Quick trivia question – who leads the league in shots faced this season? The answer is Connor Hellebuyck who also is tied for the NHL lead in games played with Montreal’s Carey Price. A year ago, Laurent Brossoit was one of the top backups in the league and was pushing for more playoff time. This season, he has been well below average, even for second stringers. As a result, Hellebuyck has had to carry a huge workload.
This is where the shutdown could help the Jets. With the extended break, he should be fresh for the stretch run. However, it’s also quite possible (if not probable) that there will be a lot of back-to-backs if the regular season resumes to get as many games in as they can before the playoffs. They may need Hellebuyck to play both ends of those given Brossoit’s struggles this season as with being a bubble team, they can’t afford to risk it.
So far this season, Hellebuyck has only played both ends of a back-to-back just once and only made one start in that situation in 2018-19 (and didn’t make it through the game). Suffice it to say, he’s going to be in some uncharted waters if the regular season resumes.
There will likely be a new scoring champion in Winnipeg after Blake Wheeler had led the Jets in each of the past two seasons. But who that will be is something to watch for.
Winger Kyle Connor has already established new career highs in goals (38), assists (35), and points (73), eclipsing the point per game mark for the first time in his young career. Meanwhile, center Mark Scheifele was on pace for new career bests in assists and points before the shutdown and he’s also at 73. (Wheeler is still technically in the mix at 65 but would need quite the productive stretch run to contend for his third straight scoring title.)
Connor’s surge makes Winnipeg’s decision to sign him to a seven-year, $50MM contract partway through training camp look a lot better. With only two full seasons under his belt before this one, that type of commitment certainly carried some risk. Meanwhile, Scheifele continues to be one of the top value deals in the league with a $6.125MM AAV through the 2023-24 campaign.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.