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Jets mailbag: Could less ice time actually benefit Wheeler’s productivity?

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — That Kyle Connor was able to snap out of a slump wasn’t a surprise.

After going 11 games without a goal, it’s fair to say that the Winnipeg Jets sniper was not just due, but overdue when he found the back of the net in a 3-2 victory over the Anaheim Ducks on Thursday.

One of the other developments in the game was how well Connor, Pierre-Luc Dubois and Nino Niederreiter were clicking with one another.

Connor and Dubois have been frequent linemates during the past two seasons. But with Connor working through a cold spell and Dubois working his way back from injury, this was an important development for a team that’s been looking to find its offensive stride.

Niederreiter continues to blend in with whoever he’s asked to skate alongside.

Now it’s a matter of seeing if they can carry that momentum into Saturday afternoon’s game against the Los Angeles Kings.

“There is a chemistry that you see and feel. They read off each other very well,” Jets head coach Rick Bowness said after putting his team through the paces at the Kings practice rink. “KC was really skating (Thursday) night. He did a lot of great things without the puck. (Dubois), that was one of his better games for sure. He’s a big, strong guy and when he gets going like that, he’s hard to play against. Good chemistry there. It’s good to see.”

Bowness has been looking for the right mix in his top-six for the past several weeks and while there have been flashes, it’s fair to say it remains a work in progress.

Given how both Dubois and Niederreiter like to draw opponents to them, that could present some glorious opportunities for Connor to find open looks in dangerous areas.

“We all still want them to shoot the puck more. They’re looking for that extra play sometimes. It’s the same thing we’ve been asking from day one, if you see the chance to shoot the puck, shoot the puck,” said Bowness. “Sometimes you get it and there is no one around the net and you don’t think you can score, so you hang onto it a bit longer. We’re always encouraging them to put pucks on the net.”

After posting consecutive victories over the Arizona Coyotes and Ducks, the Jets are about to face a Kings team that has been on fire lately. L.A. is battling for the top spot in both the Pacific Division and Western Conference.

“They’re a very difficult team. They’re 8-0-2 in their last 10. I think 14 of their last 18 games they’ve only given up two goals,” said Bowness. “We’re one of the teams that scored on them — but they are very structured and they’re getting great goaltending now. That’s why they’re where they are in the division. It’s going to be a tough battle (on Saturday), there is no question.”

Not only are the Kings structured, they play fast and play a stiff style, led by a pair of two-way threats down the middle in captain Anze Kopitar and Phillip Danault.

“They’re very strong. Where they’re really good is the face-offs. They control a lot of the play when they’re out there. They get control of it and it makes their job a little easier,” said Bowness. “They’re both heavy guys, they’re very reliable defensively and great penalty killers. They’re just tough to play against. That’s why they have the reputations they have and the way they play. It’s well deserved because they work very hard, they compete very hard, and they don’t give you a whole lot of room out there.”

Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck is set to make his 57th start of the season. Bowness will make one change on defence, inserting Dylan Samberg for Kyle Capobianco.

Kings head coach Todd McLellan insists his team doesn’t spend any time talking about streaks, despite the recent run of strong play.

“Maybe the players are talking about it in their cars or whatever, but we don’t talk about a streak at all,” said McLellan. “There’s no ‘Hey, this is what our record is, we’ve got to keep the streak alive. We just don’t do that. We see something and we try to augment it or repair it or promote it and get ready to play the next game. It’s just simple.”

That sounds simple enough, but if it was, more teams would be doing it.

On to your questions for the monthly mailbag:

Ken Wiebe is called in to cover for an under the weather Rick Bowness. The Jets are up 3-2 with a defensive zone faceoff with 45 seconds left on the clock. Which five skaters do you send out (assuming everyone is fresh and available? Part 2: in the next game, the Jets are down 3-2 with an offensive zone faceoff with 45 seconds to go. After you pull the goalie, which six skaters do you send out? – Craig Zamzow

First and foremost, the Jets have people smarter than me to make those decisions but that won’t prevent me from weighing in on the subject. In the defensive zone, it’s most likely going to be a two-centre setup, with Adam Lowry and Pierre-Luc Dubois.Mason Appleton is probably the third forward in the group, though Morgan Barron is growing into the role and it probably won’t be long before he forces his way into that discussion.

On the blue line, it’s going to be Josh Morrissey and Dylan DeMelo, though Brenden Dillon would be under consideration as well to help keep the front of the net clear. As for the offensive zone faceoff alignment, Dubois will be joined by Connor, Mark Scheifele, Niederreiter, Nikolaj Ehlers and Morrisey.

Blake Wheeler still generates points, but it seems like the points don’t necessarily lead to an overall style of play that creates a winning style for the Jets. Can Rick Bowness and Wheeler come to an agreement that Wheeler play less minutes, a more physical and defensive style that benefits the overall team play? I think Wheeler needs to shift his mentality to become the league’s best third line winger! – Lee Davis

First things first. That Wheeler has been able to generate 15 goals and 50 points in 64 games at the age of 36 is impressive. Especially when you consider the gruesome injury he sustained when taking a puck to the groin area that required surgery.

Wheeler’s ability to produce is one of the reasons the Jets remain a playoff team, though he obviously isn’t driving play the way that he did in the past. It’s been said in this space that a slight reduction of Wheeler’s minutes would be a way to help keep him fresher over the grind of the regular season. Although his ice time is down roughly two minutes from last season (19:32 to 17:21) there have been seven games since the end of January when Wheeler has played north of 19 minutes. That number is probably too high at this stage of his career.

I don’t think Wheeler needs to transition into a full-time role on the third line, but there are times when having either Vladislav Namestnikov or Morgan Barron take a bump up shift could be beneficial both to the Jets and to Wheeler. I’ve often thought Wheeler would pair well with Adam Lowry on a checking line that can contribute offensively, but Mason Appleton’s speed makes him a better fit in that role right now.

There are still plenty of times when Wheeler’s vision and passing ability are evident and that he’s currently tied for fourth on the Jets in goals and fifth in points says a lot about his skill set. When you consider the importance of Lowry’s line when playing against the opposition’s top line, Wheeler could be used in the role you are suggesting, at least when it comes to the distribution of minutes at even strength. With Wheeler currently on the second power play unit as the Jets continue to search for a formula that leads to more success with the man-advantage, that could also impact his ice time.

Have the Jets defence registered more points from their defensive core this year, than last year? If so, what is the goal differential? – Krystal Morgan

Jets head coach Rick Bowness made it clear that he needed more offence from his defence corps on the first day off training camp and his group has delivered.

In 2021-22, the 11 blue-liners used by the Jets — Josh Morrissey, Neal Pionk, Nate Schmidt, Brenden Dillon, Dylan DeMelo, Logan Stanley, Dylan Samberg, Vile Heinola, Nathan Beaulieu, Declan Chisholm and Johnny Kovacevic — combined to produce 24 goals, 109 assists and 133 points.

This season, Morrissey has delivered 15 goals and 69 points in 71 games all by himself while the group of eight returnees, plus Kyle Capobianco has already scored 42 goals and added 132 assists for 174 points. So, with nine games left in the regular season the Jets already have 18 more goals, 23 more assists and 41 more points.

Why does Pionk not seem to be skating as well as he has in previous seasons? Is it possible that he’s hurt or dealing with a nagging injury? And if so, would it be better to keep him out of the lineup for a few games so he can heal up? – @Oaktree

Although Pionk has denied that he’s been playing through injury when asked about it over the course of the season, it seems evident that he’s battling through some kind of ailment that will likely require some attention at the end of the season. It’s something he can play through and not risk further damage, otherwise he would have been held out of the lineup for precautionary reasons.

It’s fair to wonder if having Pionk see if some rest might have helped the healing process, but this feels like something that will need to be taken care of during the offseason. There have been times when Pionk has been able to move a little better than others, but it’s clear his skating has been impacted by whatever he’s working through.

With all the uncertainty around the roster next year, do you think anyone in the pipeline is ready to make a jump to the big club?  Any chance guys like Nikita Chibrikov come over and make the team? – Cole Grove

The roster for next season will get plenty of examination once the current season is over. Decisions are coming for defence prospects Declan Chisholm and Ville Heinola. Chisholm is no longer exempt from waivers, so he should be a strong bet to make the Jets after a strong campaign saw him named to the AHL All-Star Classic.

Unfortunately for Chisholm, he recently suffered a high ankle sprain, so he’s lost for the rest of the regular season and isn’t expected to be ready to return until at least the second round or later. As for Heinola, he’ll either earn a roster spot or could be on the move.

Brad Lambert has done an excellent job since joining the Seattle Thunderbirds, but it’s too early to tell if he’ll make the jump directly to the Jets or if he’ll need some additional seasoning before that happens. As for fellow 2023 first-rounder Rutger McGroarty, he’s expected to return to the University of Michigan Wolverines for his sophomore season. Nikita Chibrikov is likely to remain in the Kontinental Hockey League for at least one more season.

The Jets must be encouraged with the development of goalie prospects Arvid Holm and Oskari Salminen, but their opportunities to compete for a roster spot will depend on what the organization does in terms of either bringing back David Rittich to play behind Connor Hellebuyck or if they look at another outside option for the No. 2 job. Holm has taken an important step forward this season, while Salminen is adapting to the North American game. Both guys will likely require additional seasoning before they’re ready to push for the backup role.


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