WINNIPEG — The empty calorie games are just around the corner.
Some members of the Winnipeg Jets will use those to pad their statistics and chase individual goals or milestones.
Some will try to lay the groundwork for moving up an organizational depth chart, whether that means staying with the Jets or potentially moving on to a new club in free agency or via trade.
Others will work to drill down into the details, to basically begin the process of picking up the pieces from what has been another lost season.
The full autopsy report will be available soon enough, but for the time being, it’s important to see how the Jets respond after getting thumped 13-5 during a two-game swing through Florida this weekend, ending with the Tampa Bay Lightning scoring five unanswered goals in a 7-4 victory for the home side on Saturday night.
No matter what the motivation might be for those on the current roster or others who could receive a recall over the coming days or weeks, one item that can’t be ignored during these final six games of the regular season is something that could leave a far-reaching impact.
“Yeah, I mean, whether we’re in or out of the playoffs, six games, whatever it is we have left, I don’t think it’s too soon to start building culture, having that right attitude in the group,” said Jets left-winger Kyle Connor, who scored his 42nd goal of the season to give his team one of three different leads that were ultimately squandered against the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions. “So, we’re going to look to build on that in the next couple of games.”
To be perfectly clear, Connor is not suggesting for one second that the Jets can rinse away the disappointment of this campaign, which now holds a 35-30-11 record and leaves them a full 10 points behind the Dallas Stars in the chase for the second wild card.
But what he is saying is it would be foolish to simply not show up and accept mediocrity — or worse, allow apathy to be the prevailing feeling in the dressing room or on the ice.
By the time the buzzer sounds on May 1 after the game against the Seattle Kraken, the Jets will have finished the 11th season since the Atlanta Thrashers relocated to Winnipeg to become the 2.0 version of the franchise.
During that time, the Jets have won a grand total of three playoff series — including the sweep over the Edmonton Oilers last spring.
Building blocks have been put down over the years, but the foundation is showing some cracks that need repairing.
Not only have the Jets struggled to secure victories, they’ve also lost their identity.
They’ve got plenty of skill, at least on paper, but they don’t score enough — or consistently enough, including the 33 times the Jets have scored two goals or fewer this season.
They give up far too many Grade A scoring chances and don’t defend well enough, specifically when it comes to clearing the front of the net or allowing way too many slot shots.
Their special teams, once a strength, have slipped, whether that means having a power play that’s in the middle of the pack or a penalty kill that’s among the worst in the NHL — and 32nd overall since Mar. 10.
As for goaltending, you’ll need to look beyond the traditional numbers of goals-against average or save percentage for your answer.
There is no doubt that Connor Hellebuyck has not been playing at a Vezina-calibre level this season, but his season hasn’t been nearly as poor as some might suggest.
Can Hellebuyck play better? Absolutely — and he has since taking over as the full-time starter during the 2016-17 season but his underlying numbers tell a different story.
Hellebuyck made his league-leading 64th start of the campaign on Saturday night and despite getting pulled for the second time in as many days, it says here that goaltending is the least of the Jets’ concern going into this important off-season.
“We left our goalie out to dry. We’ve done it all year,” said Jets forward Paul Stastny, who expressed his disappointment after scoring his 21st goal of the season. “Some games, (Hellebuyck) makes big saves or they don’t score, but… if you keep giving up Grade A chances like that and keep leaving guys alone in the slot, you’re going to get burned.”
That’s a big part of the issue. The superhuman play of Hellebuyck in previous seasons has allowed the Jets to mask some of the inadequacies as they relate to the defensive-zone play.
As both the volume and quality of the shots Hellebuyck is facing have increased, the flaws have been further exposed this season.
The only way to chip away at that trend is by improving both the structure and the commitment to making that a reality.
That’s an important part of building a winning culture.
Games against the Florida Panthers and the Lightning were not-so-subtle reminders that skilled teams don’t just focus on the details when they have the puck on their sticks.
“Yeah, you just look at the best teams over the last two or three or four years,” said Stastny, mentioning teams like the Lightning, Boston Bruins and Carolina Hurricanes. “If you watch their game, yeah they have some high-end skill, but that high-end skill doesn’t come out right away.
“They play the game the right way, they almost grind you, force you to make turnovers, and then that high-end skill kind of takes over. You know, that’s how you learn to win. I think you have to realize it’s not going to be easy every single night.”
There’s that phrase again, playing the right way, the same thing Jets forward Nikolaj Ehlers brought up after Friday’s loss to the Panthers.
Can the Jets establish some of those hard-working habits over these final six games, when finding motivation could be a little tougher to come by?
Only time will tell.
What we know for sure is it’s nearly impossible to establish a winning culture without actually winning regularly.
It’s also increasingly difficult to win without establishing a standard and style that allows teams to hang out in the high-rent district of the elite teams in the NHL.
The Jets have let that standard slip during the past several seasons, and the process of repairing that culture must begin immediately, even if some of those pieces aren’t going to be around to see the finished product.