As Jets’ roster inches closer to full health, tough decisions are on the horizon

WINNIPEG — This game of musical chairs can best be described as one of the unpleasant parts of the business.

A harsh reality, if you will.

As the Winnipeg Jets continue to inch closer to full health as they return to action for Saturday’s game against the Chicago Blackhawks, it’s becoming clearer by the moment that a transaction or two is on the horizon.

The music is going to stop shortly and someone is going to be left without a seat.

Being sent to the minors or exposed to waivers like left-winger Michael Eyssimont was before he was claimed by the San Jose Sharks last month.

With right-winger Mason Appleton set to be activated after missing the past 38 games with a wrist injury, the Jets are likely going to have to place defenceman Dylan DeMelo on injured reserve, retroactive to Jan. 27.

That will buy Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff a bit more time, but with both DeMelo (upper body) and forward David Gustafsson (lower body, out since Jan. 10) close to being ready to return, more moves will need to be made to get down to a 23-man roster.

Provided the Jets actually get to the point of full health, of course.

So how does an NHL coach deal with the stress of knowing this type of decision is on the horizon?

“You just try to keep the open and honest communication as best we can. Someday, when we’re healthy — completely healthy — someone is going to have to leave. It’s as simple as that,” Bowness told reporters on Friday. “That’s as simple as we can make it. Those are tough conversations, but they have to be made. We’re all pros. Some of these guys are going to hear news they aren’t going to want to hear. But it’s the reality of the situation.

“Let me put it this way: You signed up for this. It’s not always roses out there. It’s not. There are some tough moments in a professional athlete’s career. We’re going to have to make some very tough decisions, there’s no question. but they have to be made. They have to live with the decisions that have to be made.”

Given the magnitude of the injuries the Jets have dealt with this season, the organizational depth has been tested, especially at the forward position — where 19 players have suited up for at least two games this season.

Call ups from the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League and waiver claims have eaten up some valuable minutes and carved out roles in the meantime, enhancing the competition both for ice time and to maintain regular duty.

Based on the line rushes during the past couple of days, Appleton is going to be eased into action on the fourth line, but it shouldn’t be long before he’s riding shotgun with Adam Lowry and Morgan Barron.

That means the spots on the fourth line are going to come down to Kevin Stenlund, Saku Maenalanen, Karson Kuhlman, Sam Gagner, Axel Jonsson-Fjallby and Gustafsson.

Never mind the fact the Jets figure to be active in the days and weeks leading up to the Mar. 3 NHL trade deadline.

With 30 games left in the regular season, how things unfold on the ice both in terms of play — and with health — could play a significant role in how many moves Cheveldayoff makes.

But that’s not something those in the competition for jobs — or even the head coach — can waste any time worrying about.

“I don’t think about all of that. Right now, we’re happy with where we are, and we know we have to take our game to another level,” said Bowness. “That’s (what) our focus is on, is the guys that we have, the team we have, the position we’re in and what we have to do to keep getting better and raise our team game to another level, which is going to be necessary now and until the end of the season and into the playoffs.

“Then when you get to the playoffs, it’s another level entirely, as we all know. So, right now it’s ‘just enjoy this.’ We’ve worked hard to be where we are and give the players a lot of credit for that. Let’s enjoy it but also know we have work ahead of us. We’ve got a long way to go. We haven’t done anything yet and we just have to keep pushing.”

That push begins with a matchup with a Blackhawks team that is playing its third game out of the break, including Friday’s 4-3 overtime victory over the Arizona Coyotes.

One player who won’t be suiting up is Blackhawks captain — and Winnipegger — Jonathan Toews, who is out with a non-Covid related illness but could be back in action early next week.

The Jets haven’t been in action since rallying for four goals in the third period in a 4-2 victory over the St. Louis Blues on Jan. 30.

With things tightening up in the Central Division standings, the Jets realize they can’t sleepwalk their way into the stretch run.

“We’d all love to come out there and feel like there’s no rust and go up 3-0 in the first period but, realistically, there’s going to be some rust, there’s going to be some missed passes,” Jets centre Pierre-Luc Dubois told reporters. “Where we can decide how it goes is our intensity level, our mindset in that sense, keeping it simple at times.

“We haven’t played in a while. This is going to be their third game. Their rust is off, ours isn’t. We just need to keep it simple early on and try to build our game from there and not start and try to hit for the fences right away.”

After shaking off the cobwebs, pushing to get sharp as quickly as possible is high on the list of priorities for the Jets.

“For us, we’ve talked about (how) it doesn’t matter who your opponent is, doesn’t matter the time of the game or back-to-backs, on the road, at home, we want to play and dictate the style of play,” Jets defenceman Brenden Dillon told reporters. “We want to play the way we’ve talked about, the level that we’ve expected of ourselves and usually when we’re doing that, we’re playing well. We definitely got away from that there in the last five, six games before the break.” 

This is the time of the season when the intensity naturally begins to ramp up and that’s a trend that will be welcome.

“Hopefully. I love that stuff, personally,” said Dillon. “I think for our group, too, when we get engaged in the physical games and the emotional games, that’s when we’re playing our best.

“We want to start this last 30 games here off the right way.”


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