The Winnipeg Jets have experienced revitalization since the hiring of new head coach Paul Maurice. They have a record of 10-3-1 under the current bench boss, and appear to be headed in the right direction.
While their recent success is a positive, Winnipeg faces just six non-playoff teams for the remainder of the season, and will have to play their best hockey if they want to make the playoffs for the first time since returning in 2011.
With four teams, including Winnipeg, within four points of the final wild card spot, the race will certainly heat up. The toughest task now for the young squad is continuing their momentum after a 19-day Olympic break. Last Thursday night’s victory against Phoenix began a busy stretch—22 games in 44 nights for the Jets. Thankfully, five of Winnipeg’s next seven games take place at home, which could prove to be crucial.
With only a handful of Jets players playing in Sochi, a number of players received the opportunity to heal up and rest injuries. Evander Kane’s return to the lineup is by far the most noticeable. He provides a huge spark for the team, as his speed is an immediate asset. Jim Slater and Matt Halischuk have also returned from injury. With over 600 games of combined experience, their veteran presence is a necessity in the locker room and on the ice.
Slater rejoined the lineup against Phoenix for the first time since Oct. 18. The gritty fourth-line centre made a welcomed return to the faceoff circle, where he averaged a win percentage of 54.3.
“I was a little nervous coming in here; I still got things to work on. Obviously it’s tough jumping right in, but overall I think I felt pretty good,” commented Jim Slater post-game against the Coyotes.
While the Olympic break provided a long stretch without game action for some, for Olli Jokinen, it was of ideal importance. With just two goals in his last 14 NHL games, the veteran from Finland needed to pick his game up.
Playing for his home country in Sochi was a chance for Jokinen to hone his skills and generate some confidence for the final 22 games of the regular season. Appearing in all six of Finland’s games, he notched two goals and two assists. Jokinen was still trying to adjust to the NHL style of play against the Coyotes, but notched a goal against Nashville on Saturday.
“It’s a different game here. It’s a lot more physical and a lot more grinding over here, than over there (in Sochi) in the last two weeks,” Jokinen explained.
Something that could become a major factor entering the final stretch of the season is free agency. With the trade deadline on Mar. 5, Winnipeg will have some important decisions to make regarding the contracts of Jokinen, as well as defenceman Mark Stuart. Both players become unrestricted free agents at the end of the season.
With the fourth highest salary on the team and a cap hit of over four million dollars, moving Jokinen might make sense for the Jets. He has experienced rejuvenation this year, with 13 goals and 32 points in 61 games, but has been inconsistent at times. At age 35, he may very well be at the peak of his production, and this could be the best chance Winnipeg has to get positive returns for the alternate captain.
The same case could be made for Stuart; however, his character and leadership is nearly irreplaceable. He is a trusted veteran who has mentored Jacob Trouba from the start of his rookie season. His style of play represents the ideal defensive grinder, and he’s been known to provide a spark for this team. Stuart would likely be more open to restructuring his contract, if it benefits the team going forward as well.
No matter what Winnipeg Jets management chooses to do, they can be confident knowing a number of critical pieces are in place for a playoff push. This team has bought into Paul Maurice’s system, and is in a position to sneak into the final wild card spot at season’s end.
photo by beibei lu