ANALYSIS: Jets keep things interesting through first quarter of season

Work in progress.

Under construction.

Use any slogan you desire, but as the Winnipeg Jets inched past the quarter point of this 56-game season with Monday’s 6-5 rollercoaster-riding victory over the Edmonton Oilers to open a four-game road trip, the same overarching theme remains.

The results, which include a record of 9-5-1 to occupy third place in the North Division, would fall under the encouraging category.

However, the template that could bring sustained future success requires further refinement.

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That’s not a knock on the Jets, but more of an acknowledgment that paying a little closer attention to the defensive details will be high on the to-do list.

Nothing about this pandemic season is normal, and there was always going to be an adjustment period or feeling-out process, especially with no exhibition games on the docket and a condensed training camp to try and implement systems play.

By their own admission, the Jets weren’t going to morph into a defensive juggernaut overnight.

That’s not how this group has been assembled, though there are enough pieces in place to produce a level that represents progress when it comes to reducing the number of high-danger chances allowed by the Jets.

Through 15 games, there have not been enough 60-minute efforts, though a quick tour around the North Division — and the entire league, for that matter — suggests this is not an isolated incident that only the Jets are dealing with.

Wild momentum swings — and the lead changes that accompany them — have been commonplace.

Read more: Winnipeg Jets thwart comeback attempt & hang on for win over Edmonton Oilers

Having said that, if the Jets want to remain above the playoff line, tidying things up when the game is on the line is going to be at the top of the to-do list.

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Surrendering late goals is going to happen over the course of a season. Limiting the number of times it occurs is something that could be a determining factor.

With the Jets on the losing end of three games in the final two minutes — including two in the final 10 seconds — it’s too early to call it a trend, but not too limited to suggest it’s as simple as a one-off.

With the number of three-point games that have already been played, locking leads down or even getting to overtime is a must.

Winnipeg Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck, right, reacts as Calgary Flames’ Sam Bennett crashes into him during first period NHL hockey action in Calgary, Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

When it comes to the foundation the Jets are attempting to pour, reigning Vezina Trophy winner Connor Hellebuyck remains the rock.

Although the numbers aren’t quite as eye-popping (2.58 goals-against average and .918 save percentage) as they were last season, Hellebuyck has found his rhythm of late and he’s given up two goals or fewer in five of his 12 starts.

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Backup goalie Laurent Brossoit has been solid in his three appearances and his workload will be on the rise in the coming weeks, with the Jets scheduled to play 17 times in March.

The search for consistency among the Jets’ defence corps is an ongoing process, with Neal Pionk and Derek Forbort leading the charge and providing the steadiest pairing to date.

Read more: Hextall on Hockey: Heinola waiting in the wings for Jets

The anticipation for when 2019 first-rounder Ville Heinola could become a regular with the Jets is a popular topic and the fact he was able to suit up for his first American Hockey League game of the season on Monday should only accelerate the process.

Through no fault of his own, Heinola has only played two games since the 2021 World Junior Hockey Championship ended.

His puck-moving ability and smarts will provide a boost whenever he arrives — and even if you’re of the belief Heinola could help the Jets right now, this time in the minors is going to be valuable for him in the long run.

It’s been my contention that Heinola is going to make an impact with the Jets this season and by dominating at the AHL level and playing big minutes with fellow top defence prospect Dylan Samberg, he’s going to give the organization no choice but to find a spot for him.

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Edmonton Oilers’ Josh Archibald (15) is checked by Winnipeg Jets’ Josh Morrissey (44) during second period NHL action in Edmonton on Monday, February 15, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

Jets defenceman Josh Morrissey has first-hand experience when it comes to reaping the rewards of playing in the AHL.

“It’s not like a normal NHL season where you get sent down and there’s a struggle of the letdown of being sent down to the minors – I think they’re excited to go play,” said Morrissey.

“But it’s just about embracing (the opportunity) and trying to get better every day and pushing – pushing your limits, pushing yourself, working on things. Obviously, it’s about results in American League as well, but not being afraid to really work on your game and push yourself out of your comfort zone in the areas you feel you need to work on.

“So, they’re both great kids, obviously they’re great, talented young players and I think getting a chance to play will really help them out.”

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As for the forward group, the Jets are getting enough done offensively (they’re currently fifth in goals per game at 3.53) and are getting contributions throughout the lineup.

The big guns are producing, but there’s also been ample secondary scoring delivered as well.

Pierre-Luc Dubois in his first official practice as a member of the Winnipeg Jets. Marek Tkach / Global News

Jets head coach Paul Maurice is using this stretch to experiment with the line combinations and once Pierre-Luc Dubois returns from a lower-body issue that’s kept him out of the past three games (and limited him to two games since the trade and subsequent quarantine), there will be another weapon to incorporate.

The nature of the baseball-style schedule meant the Jets had an unbalanced schedule to this point — with five games against the Ottawa Senators and Calgary Flames, three against the Edmonton Oilers and one a piece against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Montreal Canadiens and Vancouver Canucks.

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So trying to figure out exactly where the Jets stand right now is a bit of a mystery.

For now, let’s call it the murky middle, though the upper echelon in the North remains within reach –provided certain steps are taken with regard to the team game.

There are bigger challenges ahead for the Jets as they push toward the midway point and by the time they reach 28 games, the crystal ball should be a little clearer and we should have a better idea of what this picture is actually starting to resemble.

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RAW: Winnipeg Jets Paul Maurice Interview – Feb. 15

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