June 7, 2023

When key personnel are out with injuries, there’s a blueprint teams have to follow to keep being successful.

On the weekend, the Winnipeg Jets followed that blueprint to a tee against the Vancouver Canucks but did not against the Seattle Kraken.

Jets Take a Licking, Keep on Ticking

With apologies to Timex, the Jets have kept on ticking despite someone going down long-term nearly every game lately.

Prior to Dec. 17’s contest in Vancouver, head coach Rick Bowness announced Nate Schmidt and Blake Wheeler would both be out with injury for a month or more. Both were knocked out of Dec. 15’s game against the Nashville Predators, with Schmidt being injured by a high Tanner Jeannot hit and Wheeler taking a hard shot to the groin and needing a procedure to correct the injury. (It speaks to his unmatched pain threshold that returned to play in the third period.)

Winnipeg Jets Celebrate
Wheeler and Schmidt (right) are the most recent Jets to be knocked out long-term by injury. (Photo by Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images)

Missing Schmidt and Wheeler means not only missing their on-ice contributions, but also their veteran voices. Schmidt has a happy-go-lucky personality that always keeps his teammates loose while Wheeler has resurged this season without the responsibilities of a captain on his shoulders and is setting an example with his play.

The pair joined Mason Appleton, Nikolaj Ehlers, Saku Maenalanen, and Logan Stanley on the injured reserve, who are all out until mid-January at the earliest. Almost unbelievably, the Jets have zero right wingers in their current lineup who were in their lineup at the beginning of the season and have $24 million in salary on the IR.

The team is also in the middle of a 16-game December that includes three back-to-backs and very few consecutive days off, and are battling a flu bug that’s run rampant through the locker room and forced some players onto IVs last week.

Jets Found Solutions, Not Excuses, Against Canucks

“We look for solutions. We don’t look for excuses,” Bowness said prior to the game against the Canucks. His team certainly looked like they had those solutions and displayed the “next man up” mentality that’s been key at keeping them near the top of the Central Division.

From stars to role players, everyone chipped into the dominant 5-1 win against the Canucks, as 15 of 18 skaters had a plus rating. Kyle Connor opened the scoring and had an assist, while Pierre-Luc Dubois had three assists.

Sam Gagner and Axel Jonsson-Fjallby —who have been in and out of the lineup this month — both scored, with Gagner adding a helper. Karson Kuhlman, in his Jets debut after being claimed off waivers from the Seattle Kraken earlier this week, played on the first line and logged 16:34.

Related: Jets’ Kuhlman Waiver Claim Bolsters Depleted Right Side

The defence, who Bowness encourages to jump up in the play with regularity, continued to produce offence as all six had a point; Kyle Capobianco and Neal Pionk scored the 14th and 15th goals by blue liners this season (the Jets had 24 goals by defencemen all of last season.)

Capobianco is not the most popular Jet as many have questioned he was retained and Jonathan Kovacevic was waived at the beginning of the season (Kovacevic was subsequently claimed by the Montreal Canadiens) and why he is playing instead of Ville Heinola (Heinola has been sick and missed the four Manitoba Moose games prior to his recall). Despite that, Capobianco blocked out the noise and played a quiet, mistake-free game. Pionk’s offence has dried up since the first month of the season but he picked a great time to score his first goal since Nov. 12.

The complete performance and confirmation that hard work equals results was especially notable considering Dec. 17 marked exactly one year since Paul Maurice suddenly resigned as the team was in a free fall.

Jets Run Out of Gas In Seattle

In Seattle against the Kraken, the Jets were back on the ice for puck drop at Climate Pledge Arena just 17 hours after the game in Vancouver ended. It was their seventh game in 11 days overall.

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Thus, it was unreasonable to expect them to impose their will — if they were to return to Winnipeg with all four points, it was going to be a grind. The Jets scored a pair of power play markers and entered the third period ahead 2-1, but were outplayed for most of the second and vastly out-chanced overall.

In the third, the fatigue and missing personnel — in combination with facing a team on two days of rest — were too much to overcome as the Kraken took control and put two behind David Rittich to capture a 3-2 victory. Jared McCann’s game winner, which came with 4:32 to go, was the end result of a bad turnover by Brenden Dillon that was a microcosm of how little the team had left in the tank.

“That’s two times we had to play a late game on a Saturday night and come in here and play an early five o’clock game against Seattle,” Josh Morrissey said. “We battled both games… (but) we couldn’t hang on tonight. But I liked the battle we had considering that’s not an easy thing to do.”

“They were flying, we weren’t,” Mark Scheifele agreed. “That definitely wasn’t our best game and there are things we would have done differently if we could do it over. But we’ve got to park that one and get some rest and get ready for Ottawa.”

Jets Must Keep Pushing and Avoid Making Excuses

As Bowness said, the Jets will not use the schedule, or travel across time zones, or injuries to justify losing — even if there’s some legitimacy to them — like Maurice did and allowed his players to. All those are simply factors to overcome, rather excuses to lean on.

A stern taskmaster, Bowness expects his team to bring their A-game, every game, no matter who is in the lineup, and holds them accountable if they don’t. The team has delivered more often than not and the 180-degree turn the culture has taken is simply remarkable.

The results lay it bare: it took the Jets until their 45th game last season to capture their 20th win, which came on Feb. 12, 2022. They captured their 20th win against the Canucks in their 30th game this season — 15 games and nearly two months earlier.

Rick Bowness Winnipeg Jets
Rick Bowness, Head Coach of the Winnipeg Jets (Photo by Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images)

They’re bound to have setbacks as they did against the Kraken, and as they did last week in back-to-back losses to the Washington Capitals and Vegas Golden Knights, where they got away from the style Bowness wants the team to play.

Related: Dear Santa: Winnipeg Jets Wish List for 2023

The rest of December won’t be easy, as there are still six games to go — including three in the next five days — and no reinforcements on the way. Thankfully, the Jets are in a good position thanks to strong play and strong leadership to rise to adversity and keep striving to follow the blueprint for success.

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