It hasn’t been pretty, it hasn’t been easy, it hasn’t been devoid of controversy, and it certainly hasn’t been perfect, but 10 games in, the Winnipeg Jets’ season has been their best yet to this point.
Ten games into the young season, the Jets hold a solid-but-unspectacular 5-3-2 record. Their 12 points situate them second in the Central Division, in which not one team is below .500 and which again looks like one of the NHL’s best.
In a season with heightened expectations, coming from both the players and the fanbase, the Jets are off to their best ever 10-game start. It’s modest progress, but progress nonetheless.
Now, coming off a dominant win over Pittsburgh, there’s an optimism around the Jets that hasn’t been there much in recent years. You can chalk that up to the 7-1 win if you like, but there’s plenty to be happy about in Winnipeg.
— NHL (@NHL) October 29, 2017
For one thing, Connor Hellebuyck has officially taken the reigns as the team’s starting goalie. His game was lost in the offensive explosion against Pittsburgh, but he had a quietly brilliant night with 31 saves on 32 shots. He still hasn’t lost in regulation this year and holds a 2.05 goals-against average and .937 save percentage.
For another thing, the Jets’ top six is shining through brightly. At times this year, it’s been Nikolaj Ehlers and Patrik Laine carrying the water, but when they were held pointless against the Penguins, the Kyle Connor-Mark Scheifele-Blake Wheeler line stepped up.
Even their much-maligned bottom-six got out of a slump against Pittsburgh with three even-strength goals, triple their total entering the game. Brendan Lemieux’s first NHL goal highlighted their night.
So, now that the Jets have set a modest team record, what can we expect from the team from now on? Where do they go from here?
Related: Brendan Lemieux Proving He Belongs
A Murderous Central Division
Last year the Central Division featured the NHL’s whipping boys, the Colorado Avalanche, and no truly dominant forces as in years past. This year, it looks like there will be no weak links.
It’s true that Colorado could come down to earth, but the Central right now is tighter than a cinch and as competitive as a sibling rivalry. Not one team in this division sits under .500 and the top team, St. Louis, is tied for first in the NHL.
The Jets, despite having played fewer games than all but one of their division rivals, have the same number of points as five of them, sitting in second by virtue of having games in hand. Yes, there is a five-way tie for second right now in the Central.
If the Jets want to keep up, they obviously have to win as many games as possible against divisional opponents. It’s early in the year, but if the Jets want to see playoff hockey this year, they need to start treating these as “four-point games” early on.
They’ll also need to make the best possible roster decisions. Kyle Connor being sent down in the first place has proven to be a mistake based on his play since returning. When the Jets finally get healthy, they need to keep him around and keep him in a position to succeed.
Connor’s play with Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele has been strong from the get-go. Even knowing that he’s waiver-exempt and even knowing Paul Maurice’s predilection for veteran players, it’s hard to imagine him being sent down.
Of course, he’ll have to continue to earn his minutes. A slip-up from Connor (which at some point is going to come, young as he is) needs to be properly managed by both parties. The Jets need to be patient with him and Connor needs to reward that patience.
LOOK ? AT ? THAT ? GOAL! pic.twitter.com/Eq4RILt2oM
— Winnipeg Jets (@NHLJets) October 21, 2017
The penalty kill has turned it around as of late, but the power play needs to follow suit. Before their 4-on-3 power play goal against Pittsburgh, they hadn’t scored in two games and were 26th in the NHL. Missed opportunities cost them points on that last road trip, given they lost both games in overtime.
But there’s one thing the Jets really need to happen to stay among the teams fighting for Central Division playoff spots and not clawing at wildcard berths: Laine needs to get hot in a hurry.
Time for Laine to Shine
Patrik Laine hasn’t exactly been bad this season. Six points in 10 games isn’t a total to thumb your nose at, and his advanced metrics are strong at even strength. He hasn’t been bad at all.
There were lofty expectations on Laine this year, however, and his preseason teased us with previews of greatness. He is the Jets’ unquestioned best sniper, and he’s been a bit quiet the past three games. The Jets need him to get loud.
It’s not a pressing need. Laine is a teenager, after all, and he’s bound to suffer through some rough patches. And a three-game goal drought is nothing over which to sound alarm bells. This is less about Laine desperately needing to carry the Jets and more about thinking of what heights the Jets could hit if Laine hits his offensive stride to go along with the hot goaltending they’ve received.
If that happens, look out. The Jets have pulled out some wins they didn’t deserve and some they most definitely did. If they keep it up, they seem to be just a few more things going right from a terrific year.