In a league where the best of the best monopolize most of the attention, there aren’t many sixth-place teams that could be described as “fascinating.” The Winnipeg Jets are becoming the exception that proves the rule.
The Jets are a deep team, one that’s stacked with young players at both the NHL level and beyond. They have an excellent blue line and an underrated cast of forwards. They have the talent to beat any team in the league on any given night, and they’ve already notched wins over the New York Rangers and Chicago Blackhawks. They’re a darn good team.
They’re also in the Central Division, where “darn good” isn’t good enough. At 10-9-2, they’ve banked 10 ROWs and 22 points, which would be good for third in the Pacific. In the Central, that leaves them sixth, looking up at five excellent teams, none of whom seem likely to have the sort of extended cold streak that would allow a team chasing them to gain big ground. A recent six-game losing streak appeared to have the Jets in danger of falling out of the hunt entirely, even before the calendar flipped to December.
All of which gave the current homestand against the Vancouver Canucks, Arizona Coyotes and Colorado Avalanche a distinct must-win feel. And after Saturday’s win over Arizona, the Jets are two-thirds of the way there, with Colorado in town tonight to close out the stretch.
Against the Coyotes, it took a late short-handed goal by Chris Thorburn -- his first since the 2009-10 season -- to deliver a 3-2 decision. The game was also notable for the loss of their starting goaltender, Ondrej Pavelec, who left after two periods following a collision with Shane Doan and was reportedly seen leaving the arena on crutches after the game.
And that’s where things may get interesting. For any other playoff bubble team, the appearance of the phrase “loss of their starting goaltender” would be the end of the road. But in Winnipeg, it could clear the way for Michael Hutchinson to earn the starter’s job, or perhaps even for the start of the Connor Hellebuyck era. The former has played well in a backup role the last two years, and the latter is one of the best goaltending prospects in the game.
And then there’s Pavelec, whose play can be a contentious topic; many Winnipeg fans swear by him and the Jets organization seems to trust him without reservation, but his career numbers are among the worst in the league among full-time starters. Some look at Winnipeg’s reasonably solid record with him in net and see a guy who finds a way to outperform his stats; others see a team being held back by subpar goaltending and wonder what the Jets could be with an upgrade in the crease.
We don’t know yet whether Pavelec’s current injury is serious enough to present that sort of scenario. But it’s yet another subplot to follow as the Jets' season winds on. Remember, they still have captain Andrew Ladd and All-Star Dustin Byfuglien unsigned heading into next year. Recent trade rumors involving local boy Travis Hamonic add yet another layer of intrigue.
Add it all up and there aren’t many sixth-place teams in the league that are this interesting. The Jets figure to have plenty of questions following them throughout the regular season. The answers to those questions will help determine whether the story continues in the playoffs.