Gabriel Vilardi was the main event, the piece de resistance, the talented young player who immediately gave the Winnipeg Jets’ PL Dubois blockbuster its appeal.
Vilardi shone brightly at camp, spinning a backhand pass to Kyle Connor for a preseason power-play goal that left Winnipeg dazzled. Thoughts of Connor and Vilardi flanking Mark Scheifele on a powerhouse top line ran rampant among fans and Jets brass alike. If he could make that play while just getting acquainted with his new team, what would Vilardi be capable of at full power?
Blake Lizotte’s knee sucked the air out of that dream three games into the season. Vilardi persevered, returned to the lineup six weeks later, and stepped up in a big way when Ryan Strome’s knee took Kyle Connor out of the lineup for 16 games. The knee brace he wore bothered him but didn’t seem to hold him back: Vilardi scored the game-winning goal the night Connor got hurt and then scored six goals and six assists for 12 points in his next six games.
His new line with Scheifele and Nikolaj Ehlers was unstoppable on a night against his former team in Los Angeles. You may recall this backhand beauty:
The Ehlers-Scheifele-Vilardi line would go on to outscore opponents 15-4 at five-on-five as the Jets won 12 of their next 15 games, rattling off eight consecutive wins between Dec. 30 and Jan. 11. Scheifele was injured in the eighth of those consecutive wins — a 2-1 squeaker against Chicago — and Winnipeg’s struggles began.
Philadelphia stopped Winnipeg’s win streak the very next game. Connor returned to play soon after that but the Jets have lost six of eight games since winning eight in a row. They’ve lost five straight, including Thursday’s rematch with the Flyers, and for the first time this season, it looks like the Jets are out of answers. Vilardi’s failed backcheck on Philadelphia’s first goal saw him demoted to the fourth line in favour of Alex Iafallo but it wasn’t enough to spark a comeback.
The Jets appear to be in the midst of a tailspin and have only enjoyed 48 minutes of their Connor, Scheifele and Vilardi dream this season. Winnipeg has won those minutes 3-1, outshooting their opponents 29-20 in that time, so there are reasons to keep that dream alive, but the losses are piling up.
How big of a problem are we dealing with here? Is this last season’s second-half collapse all over again? I think it’s fair to say Jets fans are starting to worry.
How did things get this bad?
1. Nothing for free
For all of the Jets’ firepower, Winnipeg’s winning ways are built on team defence. The Jets win when they forecheck well, backcheck well, collapse to the middle of the ice between the faceoff dots in the defensive zone and turn stalwart defending into offence with quick transition.
This bears repeating: At five-on-five, where the Jets excel, they are an average offensive team. Winnipeg has scored a bigger proportion of goals at five-on-five than any other team in the league (61.3 percent) but is “only” 14th in goals for. The Jets are an elite five-on-five team, on paper, because their goals against is 12 better than anyone else in the league. It’s not all goaltending anymore, either: Winnipeg’s underlying defensive numbers are all toward the top of the league.
Flashback to Pittsburgh, though. Jesse Puljujarvi is leading the Penguins’ rush up the ice but Mason Appleton is backchecking with exactly the kind of tenacity you want from Jets forwards. He gains ground, turning a three-on-two rush into a dumped puck — a win, in most situations. Puljujarvi puts the puck in Dylan DeMelo’s corner. DeMelo takes Lars Eller out of the play, putting the puck on Josh Morrissey’s stick — a win, in most situations. Morrissey eats a check as he puts a pass in the middle for Adam Lowry, who is alone, but the puck rolls, Lowry can’t corral it, and Kris Letang makes the Jets pay for their mistake.
Back from break and scoring goals! 🙌 pic.twitter.com/KAR6eJ9kTD
— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) February 7, 2024
Winnipeg gave up the first goal against Philadelphia for free, too, and the error was unforced.
This time, Morrissey tries to make a pinch at the offensive line but gets beat: Noah Cates makes a quick pass to Tyson Foerster with the potential to start a two-on-one. Vilardi makes the correct initial read, making three quick strides to get to the safe side of Foerster, and then everything goes horribly wrong. Neal Pionk tries to knock Foerster’s cross-ice pass to Poehling out of mid-air, taking him a half-step out of the play. His turn is slow and Ryan Poehling beats him to the outside, firing a cross-ice pass that shouldn’t be a problem because Vilardi is there … Right?
— The Cam & Strick Podcast (@CamandStrick) February 9, 2024
That’s the play that got Vilardi demoted.
A team that scores more than one goal per game, which the Jets have struggled to do of late, might be able to get away with allowing a goal like that every now and again.
Scour social media and you’ll find me adamant that Winnipeg is a better team than last season — that this slide is unlikely to have lasting sustain. Part of that is because the Jets have given up so little for free at five-on-five this season. For me, that’s an enormous tell of a quality defensive team. Shifts happen and good teams lose games all of the time, I reasoned, but as long as the Jets’ defensive structure holds, they’re going to be OK.
Go back to Connor Hellebuyck’s giveaway en route to Ryan Reaves’ goal for Toronto before the break, too: Even though Winnipeg is still carrying the flow of play at five-on-five, the Jets’ mental mistakes have proven too costly to overcome.
If Winnipeg had more going for it in other aspects of its game, its defensive errors at five-on-five wouldn’t be as painful as they are.
2. Powerless play
Winnipeg’s power play has gone 0-for-14 in the Jets’ five-game losing streak and 1-for-30 in their last eight games.
But even if you take Winnipeg’s most dominant stretch of the season — its 18-2-2 tear from Dec. 2 through Jan. 20 — the Jets’ power play was still awful. Winnipeg is running at 15.1 percent now, good for 25th in the NHL, but was worse than that (14.5 percent) during the team’s torrid 22 games through most of December and January.
Typically that’s the sort of thing that you bank on to turn around. Scheifele, Connor, Vilardi, Morrissey and newcomer Sean Monahan are all quality offensive players. That’s why it can be frustrating to watch Scheifele parked on the half-wall without a lot of movement on his part or his teammates. He’s an excellent passer but the lanes are drying up, even when the Jets do get set up with possession.
Winnipeg is improving on that front — average in offensive zone time, compared to 24th the last time we checked in. They still take the third-fewest shot attempts per minute of power-play time (and the fourth-fewest shots on goal.) It’s also worth mentioning that former teammates of Monahan’s have referred to him as among the best bumper players in the league.
But Winnipeg’s power play has been 24th best in two years under Rick Bowness and power-play coach, Brad Lauer. It was 12th best in the span of three seasons without Dustin Byfuglien prior to the Jets’ coaching change (and was even better during the Byfuglien, Blake Wheeler and Patrik Laine era.)
When a team with this much star power fails to create shot volume, shot quantity or goals, it’s on coaching. And remember, even when playoff hockey is called differently than the regular season, the total number of power play opportunities goes up, not down. We’re seeing what happens when a great five-on-five team with poor special teams loses even a little bit of its five-on-five edge. At this rate of inefficiency, Winnipeg’s power play could cost it a playoff round.
Especially because it’s been outscored 2-1 by opposing penalty kills in the Jets’ last nine games. It’s a cherry-picked stat — Winnipeg has only given up four short-handed goals this season — but it stands out in an awful way now that the team’s scoring has dried up.
3. Boxouts and broken plays
Winnipeg’s penalty kill has not been much better than its power play.
A quick audit of recent goals against show failed boxouts and an array of bounces that, realistically, could be a rough run of puck luck.
But watch Jeff Carter’s battle with Nate Schmidt in front of Hellebuyck before he scores in this clip. The moment Erik Karlsson loads his wrist shot at the point, Carter lays a crosscheck into Schmidt. When the Penguins’ bumper player deflects the puck into Schmidt — a play that Schmidt has no control over — Carter is first to the ensuing bounce because he won the battle for space.
BIG JEFF CARTER WITH A BIG POWER-PLAY GOAL! pic.twitter.com/6OaYqi4GYF
— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) February 7, 2024
It’s not about Schmidt fronting the shot. It’s about Carter doing the dirty work to make sure Schmidt is off balance when the battle begins.
Schmidt isn’t one of Winnipeg’s primary options on its penalty kill. Sort by ice time and Winnipeg counts on DeMelo, Dylan Samberg, Brenden Dillon and Pionk more than anybody else. He does get called into action when one of the other defencemen takes a penalty, though, and while Schmidt’s PK minutes don’t correspond to higher shot rates, he has been scored on quite a bit more often than his peers.
I think the Jets would benefit from a fifth defenceman who can win those battles more often than Schmidt does. His five-on-five numbers alongside Samberg are great; he’s helping Winnipeg win those minutes. I still suspect PK ability will be high on Winnipeg’s shopping list for defencemen at the deadline. If they get their man, I suspect Schmidt’s minutes fade.
4. Offensive stars gone cold
Connor is one of the NHL’s best goal scorers. He’s scored the seventh most goals in the past five seasons and was flirting with the Rocket Richard lead at the time of his knee injury. Connor has looked rusty since his return to the lineup, handling the puck well in some moments but misfiring multiple times in recent games. His one-timer isn’t traditionally the best of his many weapons but, on Tuesday in Pittsburgh, he sailed a pair of one-timers high and wide by some distance.
Scheifele is also one of the league’s best goal scorers. He’s only played twice since pulling up hurt against Chicago at the tail end of Winnipeg’s eight-game winning streak. He’s had jump in those games but has yet to score.
Vilardi and Ehlers lead the Jets in five-on-five points per minute. The last goal Ehlers scored was at three-on-three during Winnipeg’s last win, an OT game in Ottawa on Jan. 20. Vilardi’s last goal was the game before that. You can keep the list going through Cole Perfetti, Nino Niederreiter, Lowry and so many more of the players Winnipeg counts on to produce offence. No one is scoring with any consistency at all.
One stat worth keeping in mind?
Winnipeg has the league’s second worst shooting percentage in its last 10 games. Zoom out to the Jets’ two full seasons under Bowness and company and the Jets’ snipers are in the middle of the pack when it comes to shooting efficiency.
Even if you blame the power play or the free goals against for a drop in confidence, this kind of scoring drought isn’t typically the kind that lasts.
It is the kind of thing that contributes to a team losing five games in a row.
5. A note on line combinations
As the losses pile up, Bowness and company are running into circumstances that don’t appear to support their player usage.
Connor and Vilardi aren’t scoring. They are contributing to goals against (and in Vilardi’s case, at least, it’s led to a one-game stint on the fourth line). The appeal of that Connor-Scheifele-Vilardi trio makes perfect sense to me; there’s a lot of offence to be had, if it works, and given each player’s injury troubles this season it makes sense to give it a good, long look if you can.
Part of the Jets’ roster advantage is their depth. Whether it’s a return to Ehlers-Scheifele-Vilardi, Connor-Scheifele-Ehlers, or some other combination of players which consistently outscored their opposition, Bowness has options he’s not using right now. I think the odds are in favour of shooting percentage regression helping the Jets regain their confidence in the long run; in the short run, something has to give. Winnipeg is making a few more mistakes at five-on-five right now, so it needs its power play or its penalty kill or its puck luck to change.
Winnipeg’s five-on-five play is a good foundation. Without improvements to the rest of the Jets’ proverbial house, that foundation is going to crack.
(Photo: Kyle Ross / USA Today)