"Complete emptiness. The payoff is nothing." The Jets are tough to evaluate after a cursed season

Some teams use injuries as excuses for their failures. But the Jets were so unlucky this year that they truly can call themselves hexed. What changes must they make in 2020-21 besides "get healthy?"
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Perry Nelson/USA TODAY Sports

Perry Nelson/USA TODAY Sports

You grind through three quarters of an NHL season. You claw yourself into a playoff position despite an endless parade of roster departures and injuries. Your season gets paused by a pandemic just as your team gets healthy enough to peak. You return to play four and a half months later. You lose two of your best players in your first playoff game. And…poof. Four games, after all that buildup, and it’s over.

So you could forgive the Winnipeg Jets if they scowled through their Zoom media availability Thursday night after two goals plus two empty netters amounted to a season-ending 4-0 defeat at the hands of the Calgary Flames, who took the series 3-1. But that really wasn’t the mood. The Jets weren’t exactly chipper, but they were thoughtful, as if they’d processed every stage of grief in the minutes after the loss and arrived at acceptance already.

It wasn’t that the Jets didn’t care or assign meaning to their short summer tournament experience. It’s that, after being beaten down by one misfortune after another, their fate felt like, as coach Paul Maurice put it, “par for the course.”

“It starts from July 1 last year to August 6,” Maurice said. “I’ve never had a team go through what this group’s been through. The loss of key people and then the injuries on top of that. So I thought tonight looked like our season. They played as hard as they could. They truly did. The bench was right. They were supportive of each other. They were cheering the good plays. They were hanging with each other. We got behind it, and they didn’t quit. They just kept fighting and grinding. And that was our year.”

Sometimes, when coaches and players blame a loss on X or Y, it reads as excuse making, but the 2019-20 Jets were a unique case. They shipped out rugged defenseman Jacob Trouba in a June 2019 trade to the New York Rangers. They lost Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot to free agency. Top blueliner Dustin Byfuglien arrived at camp with a previously unreported ankle injury that got him suspended from the team and, in the end, led to the him and the Jets mutually terminating his contract. Their opening-night defense corps was missing four starters from the season prior. And that was before the bad luck hit. Center Adam Lowry missed 20 games with an upper-body injury. Center Bryan Little played only seven games after a slapshot to the head left him with a perforated ear drum. Left winger Mathieu Perreault missed multiple chunks of time with upper-body injuries. The Jets were just never healthy.

They survived the regular season, but it wasn’t always pretty, especially with their blueline so depleted. What made goaltender Connor Hellebuyck the Vezina Trophy frontrunner was the fact he did so much despite being peppered with high-quality chances all season. The Jets allowed the second most high-danger attempts per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 and had the eighth-highest expected goals against per 60 this season.

But they survived enough to make it to the No. 9 seed for the play-in tournament and…bam. Top center Mark Scheifele goes down in the controversial collision with Flames left winger Matthew Tkachuk in Game 1. With the series over now, Maurice was able to reveal it was not a cut to the Achilles, as many suspected, but a “crushing injury” from which Scheifele is expected to recover by next season. Key goal-scorer Patrik Laine was lost to a sprained hand that prevented him from gripping his stick, while depth forward Mason Appleton sustained a shoulder injury. It was incredibly deflating for the Jets, but they were used to it. That was the theme of their season.

“It was a year that was a test from Day 1,” said captain Blake Wheeler. “I couldn’t be more proud of this team. Realistically, there were plenty of opportunities for us to fold it in and chalk it up to a lost season and move on to next year. I’m proud and very disappointed. We just couldn’t catch a break, honestly. I’m not saying this series is flipped on its head by not having Mark and Patty. You’ve got to give Calgary a lot of credit. But I would’ve loved to play this series with those two guys.”

The Jets rallied to take Game 2, but that was it. Over the course of the series, they actually played Calgary evenly at 5-on-5 despite their losses, with a single shot separating the teams and the scoring-chance numbers almost dead even as well. But the Jets couldn’t contain Calgary’s second line of Tkachuk, Mikael Backlund and Andrew Mangiapane. Winnipeg’s penalty kill, which was a weak 77. 6 percent during the regular season, was even worse in the qualifying-round at 70.6 percent. Hellebuyck posted a .931 save percentage at 5-on-5 in the series but got beat five times on the power play. The Jets couldn’t keep the puck out of their own net enough and couldn’t muster the quality finishes needed to solve hot Flames goaltender Cam Talbot. The missing bodies hurt, but Wheeler and Kyle Connor, two other crucial Jets forwards, never found the scoresheet all series.

Still, there wasn’t an air of dejection during Thursday’s Zoom post-mortem. It was as if the Jets understood their season was merely cursed and they couldn't beat themselves up for it. Some, like, Hellebuyck, could already see silver linings.

“I learned how to find my game real fast,” he said. “I wouldn’t say I lost it at all, but I definitely got better every single day. That was really exciting and really fun for me. Not only that, but I’m really going to analyze my game and see what’s cost me, because I want to be able to do more for the guys in front of me.”

“I know we only lasted four games, but the best way to sum it up was: a whirlwind,” Lowry said. “You work so hard, you put in the time and effort to put your best foot forward under these difficult circumstances, and we all did that. There’s no one hanging their head in our locker room. We came out and played hard. Unfortunately, our time in the bubble has come to an end.”

The toughest part about Winnipeg’s star-crossed season is that all the cursed elements make the team difficult to evaluate. Can you assess what’s wrong with your group when so much that went wrong was injury-related? When asked to list the main causes for his team’s defeat, Maurice did name the penalty kill, but his other culprit was merely, “health.” So what does GM Kevin Cheveldayoff do this off-season aside from praying for better luck?

It may be tough to analyze the Jets offensively after they endured so many depth injuries to their forwards, but Cheveldayoff can focus on what he does know: the Jets aren’t good enough defensively. The numbers showed that all year, exacerbated by unexpectedly playing the season without Byfuglien. The only NHL blueliners they have signed for 2019-20 are Josh Morrissey, Neal Pionk, Tucker Poolman and Carl Dahlstrom. Even if promising rookie Ville Heinola becomes a mainstay next season, the Jets will need to seek some help. They have $15.57 million in cap space but just 13 players signed so far, so Cheveldayoff will have to get creative. If he can find a way to make his money work, however, it’s a good off-season to hunt for a blueliner. Even if the Jets can't pursue the top dogs like Alex Pietrangelo and Torey Krug, there are plenty of mid-tier options out there, too, from Tyson Barrie to Sami Vatanen to T.J. Brodie to Brenden Dillon and, of course, the Manitoba boy Travis Hamonic. If the Jets feel too squeezed against they cap, they can also explore a trade. Something will have to change. Injuries were the No. 1 influencer of Winnipeg’s fate, yes, but this team wasn’t going to win a Stanley Cup even if healthy.

Not that the Jets themselves feel that way. In their minds, 2019-20 is a lost season, too cloudy to define and judge. Maybe that’s why their demeanor Thursday night reflected numbness rather than devastation.

“This one’s not like any other,” Maurice said. “I’ve never had a season like this when you face so much adversity and not quit. That’s how you should value yourself: how you hard compete in dire circumstances. We’ve just had a year of it. The feeling now is complete emptiness. The payoff is nothing.”

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