WINNIPEG — This weekend had the potential to be a defining moment for the Winnipeg Jets.
It still might, though not in the way the Jets had hoped for.
Going into a pivotal home-and-home series with the Edmonton Oilers, one of the questions surrounding the Jets centred around how they were going to react to a relatively quiet NHL trade deadline.
Let’s just say the early returns represent a serious cause for concern for both head coach Rick Bowness and general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff.
While it’s entirely possible this was simply a coincidence or a one-off, the mounting evidence would appear to suggest otherwise.
Slumps happen over the course of an 82-game season, that much is true.
But this stretch of uneven play has dragged out over a matter of weeks and even months now.
Remember that 20-9-1 start that had the Jets in prime position?
That must feel like an eternity ago for a group that has now lost five consecutive games, dropped seven of the past eight (1-6-1) and gone 15-16-1 over the final 32 games and is suddenly stuck in a rut after slipping to the eighth and final seed in the Western Conference.
Against an Oilers squad that held a two-point cushion in the standings going into the contest, the Jets constantly got beat to loose pucks.
They took too many undisciplined penalties against the best power play in the NHL — seven minors and a double minor for high-sticking, to be exact.
They passed over too many clean looks, something that isn’t a new issue.
By the time the final buzzer sounded, the Jets had been both outworked and outclassed.
Two of the three Jets goals were created by the fourth line, which was a good sign when it comes to the secondary scoring supplied for a second straight game.
It also meant the only other marker was scored by Mark Scheifele, but his 35th goal of the campaign came on the power play.
Again, a nice turn of events for a Jets power play that has been struggling, though it meant the top forwards were once again held in check at even strength.
That’s a disturbing trend and a big part of the reason for this season-long losing skid.
Discipline was a topic of conversation going into the contest, yet Jets left-winger Kyle Connor took a tripping minor just over a minute in and the Oilers quickly converted to take a lead they would not surrender.
By the time Ryan Nugent-Hopkins scored his second of the game to make the score 5-0 with a power-play marker, the Oilers were off to the races.
“I haven’t coached a team, I think, that was so undisciplined and took so many penalties. So, (if) you play a third of the game shorthanded, they’re going to make you look bad — and they made us look bad,” Jets head coach Rick Bowness told reporters in Edmonton. “We weren’t very good on the details at all in the faceoffs and we weren’t moving our feet at all. When you get outworked like they did and you don’t pay attention to the details and you don’t compete hard enough, then you end up looking bad. And we looked bad.”
For too much of this game, the Jets looked disinterested and sometimes disengaged.
That’s both a bad and scary combination.
And while you could understand how the Jets players could be feeling some frustration that more deadline moves weren’t made, given how things have gone for the group lately, they don’t have much time to let those thoughts linger.
Just as many Jets players weighed in when the team was dealing with what seemed like a multitude of injuries, nobody is going to feel sorry about their current lot in life.
Back to the game at hand.
Connor Hellebuyck, the Jets’ starting goalie, has now been pulled for the second time in three games after giving up four goals on 24 shots on goal through two periods of play.
Hellebuyck is having an excellent season, but he’s been hung out to dry too often recently and he’s allowed 14 goals during the past three games.
Were it not for a couple of garbage time goals, the score would have been far more lopsided and the truth of the matter is that the Oilers could have easily hit double digits were it not for a few big saves and a couple of shots off the iron.
Nugent-Hopkins finished with two goals and two assists, Connor McDavid had three helpers and Leon Draisaitl had two goals and an assist.
Simply put, the Oilers’ stars took care of business in a game they needed to win in order to continue their pursuit of a Pacific Division crown.
“We made them look a whole lot better than they are. They’re a very good team, there’s no question about that, but my point is we made it very easy for them to play their game,” said Bowness. “We have to take a lot more pride in our ability to defend, which we were doing for most of the season, which is not nearly where it needs to be.”
The Jets were already expressing gratitude for a chance for redemption on Saturday night in what will be the teams’ third and final meeting of the regular season.
“For sure,” Jonsson-Fjallby told reporters in Edmonton. “That’s a good thing.”
Given the magnitude of Saturday’s matchup, it’s hard to imagine Hellebuyck not being back between the pipes against the Oilers for what would be his 48th start in 63 games.
The Jets are down to 20 games in the regular season and their cushion over the Calgary Flames is five points — with the two teams even in games played.
The Jets are six points clear of the Nashville Predators, who hold three games and spent the majority of the past week sending good players out for futures as sellers.
By the way, the Predators face the Chicago Blackhawks on Saturday.
But while the Jets must be cognizant of what’s happening around them, the far greater issue is figuring out how they’re going to respond to the most severe case of adversity they’ve encountered this season.
Bowness wasn’t sure if newcomer Vladislav Namestnikov would be available for Saturday’s rematch with the Oilers, while the status of centre Pierre-Luc Dubois (lower body, day-to-day) remains up in the air as well.
Mason Appleton (upper body) had already been ruled out until at least Monday’s tilt with the San Jose Sharks.
So it’s up to the internal options to try and pick up the slack, something they did with regularity earlier this season.
Once again, those days feel like a long time ago and in this extended search for answers, there have been far too many nights when the Jets have come up empty.