Mid-Season Thoughts on the Winnipeg Jets: Perreault, Stafford Turning out to be key contributors

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Paul Maurice pondering just what it will take to get his club into the playoffs.

Paul Maurice pondering just what it will take to get his club into the playoffs.

It’s the middle of the hockey season. Teams all over the league have their own stories unfolding, whether it be a surprise rookie, a devastating injury, an inexplicable losing streak or a completely out-of-nowhere winning streak (you ever heard of the Florida Panthers?). The Winnipeg Jets this year have had their own stories unfolding as the year has progressed, and we’re here to tell you about some surprises, some things that have caught our eye, and some things that, based on last year, make plenty of sense.

The Jets have seen it all this year, and we’ll highlight some key observations from recent weeks.

 

It was inevitable that.. 

I guess when you're 5'10 in a league full of 6-foot-somethings, you have to look like a serial killer.

I guess when you’re 5’10 in a league full of 6-foot-somethings, you have to look a little bit like a serial killer.

Mathieu Perreault would go on to have the quality season he is having. During a 20 game stretch last season he hit the score sheet in 17 of 20 games, throwing down 24 points and 13 goals in the process. There was no way he was going to continue that pace, but anytime someone shows that level of production (seemingly out of nowhere) over a quarter of a season, it suggests a player might be able to find new heights and push his career highs.

Perreault has constantly been praised by head coach Paul Maurice for his consistency and for “being a driver” on whichever line he plays for. He isn’t big, but he is a complete pain in the ass to play against given how effectively he uses his undersized frame. He is the team’s best playmaker and a brilliant fit on the power play working the half-wall and it’s no wonder he continues to be one of the most underrated forwards in the league. I guarantee any team would pay the 3 million dollar cap hit he comes with.

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The diminutive center converted winger has largely played the season alongside Mark Scheifele and as a duo they have been relatively consistent. Perreault has gone only two stretches this season without finding the score sheet in 3 or more games consecutively.

Although he’s currently playing between Nik Ehlers and Andrew Ladd while Scheifele recovers from injury, look for him to get back to the left wing as soon as possible where his vision and puck skills will get back into the spotlight.

 

The most electrifying player has been..

Nik Ehlers, without a doubt. The Jets have been full of strong net crashing forwards since they’ve relocated to The ‘Peg, but Ehlers is a different breed. Sure, he’s been underwhelming in the points department since scoring 4 goals and 4 assists in his first 11 NHL games. But make no mistake about it, every time he has the puck the whole building shifts a little bit closer towards the edge of their seat.

He’s always looking to create opportunities and rarely has his head down – even when he’s going for his fifth fake slap shot of the game. His eyes are constantly surveying the landscape to see how he can wreak further havoc on the opposition’s defensive zone. Of course, he is still adjusting to the astute positioning of the average NHL defensemen, which stops him from flying wide as much as he did in junior, but as he learns the game and continues to get stronger, the Jets will have as dynamic a player as the franchise has seen since the not-so-glorious days of Ilya Kovalchuk.

We’d be completely lost without..

Look at the focus.

Mister Drewus Staffordus. Stafford was an underrated acquisition/re-signing last year, but with Michael Frolik hopping over to Calgary, his ability to play both sound defensive hockey and still chip in offensively has been invaluable to the Jets. Other than a mediocre November where he scored 4 points in 14 games (but still averaged 2.64 shots per game), Staff has been able to hit the scoresheet on an average of twice every 3 games. Not bad for your third or second line winger.

Stafford was obviously invigorated last year by coming to a club with playoff aspirations, and has resurrected his game by getting back to playing simple, hard working hockey. When he and Perreault are playing together and both forechecking, they represent a tenacious duo that can go fish out the puck for their regular centerman Mark Scheifele to get his devastating release off from between the dots.

Stafford tends to score in bunches more than consistently putting up a single point in a stretch of games (he has 8 single point games opposed to 7 multi-point games), but with 3 goals and 2 assists in 7 games since the new year, perhaps his new found chemistry with Bryan Little and Blake Wheeler can lead to a little bit more consistency.

Steady as she goes..

They sure do more than just score goals, don't they.

They sure do more than just score goals, don’t they.

Has to be Blake Wheeler and Bryan Little. What do you even have to say? Wheeler is third among all right wingers with 43 points in 44 games, and happens to only trail these two dudes named Patrick Kane and Vladimir Tarasenko. Bryan Little finds himself in the top 25 in scoring with 37 points in 44 games, as he looks to put up his fourth 20 goal season in the last five, and perhaps challenge his career high of 64 points.

Wheeler and Little have grown together over the last 5 seasons, working their way up from solid 1st round picks, to young players with potential, to serviceable top-6 forwards, to bonafide first line NHLers, and for Wheeler, a superstar. None of the players really exploded into legitimate 1st liners, but have always been sound professionals with a strong desire to improve. They’ve become more complete players every single season and still, at their respective ages of 29 and 28, haven’t stopped improving.

Both players are signed through 2017-2018, so if Andrew Ladd decides to go the way of the Frolik this summer, you have two obvious captain candidates ready and waiting.

The biggest surprise has been..

Unfortunately for the wrong reasons, the aforementioned captain Andrew Ladd.

Ladd threw down career highs last year in both assists (38) and points (62), and lead his team fearlessly to their first playoff berth, so it wasn’t quite expected for him to improve on that, but it also wasn’t most people’s predictions that his play would tail off like it has.

It hasn’t been all bad for Ladd this year, but with 2 goals in his last 17 games, you sense his confidence might be a little bit lacking – evidenced by him trying to force a pass on a 3-on-1 last night against Nashville where he had great position to sling a wrister in short side. Good thing he tallied 3 assists last night, or this piece may have been a little bit more negative.

Any sports fan knows that an athlete’s confidence is the equivalent to “Michael’s Secret Stuff” from Space Jam, so perhaps his strong showing against Nashville (3 assists, 4 hits, 2 SOG) can get the ball rolling for the rest of the home stretch.

 

5 quick thoughts from Nashville’s game:

  1. Dustin Byfuglien dominated that game. I haven’t always been a huge fan, but dare I say it, he might be more valuable than Andrew Ladd at this point. I stand (and hope) to be corrected.
  2. Preds rookie Kevin Fiala looked remarkably shifty playing with top guns Ryan Johansen and James Neal. As long as they don’t trade him to the Washington Capitals for Martin Erat, the Jets unfortunately will be seeing plenty of him for  years to come.
  3. It’s seemed inevitable regardless, but Connor Hellebuyck surely will maintain starting goalie status even when Ondrej Pavelec returns. Makes for an interesting situation regarding Michael Hutchinson down the stretch. Do you carry three goalies, put him on waivers, or try and flip him for this year’s version of Lee Stempniak?
  4. “I just don’t think there’s enough of an investment from everyone to get to where we need to go” were Blake Wheeler’s words following their 4-1 loss to San Jose on Tuesday. With an outstanding here-have-an-empty-net pass to Bryan Little and then circling past two defenders before snapping in the overtime winner, he sure isn’t at fault. It’s hard not to absolutely love what Wheeler brings to the team; this guy wants to win, and badly.
  5. Alex Burmistrov once again made some fantastic moves and plays – his tight turns with the puck are incredible – but I can’t help but wonder why he doesn’t find the score sheet more? He’s overflowing with skill but can’t seem to use it in as meaningful a way as you would hope. He’ll be interesting to watch as he matures and learns to become a more effective player.

 

 

Written by hockeythoughts.ca