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Breaking down Jets 2.0 franchise record-tying start through quarter-season mark

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CHICAGO — Raise your hand if you had the Winnipeg Jets leading the Central Division at the quarter point?

This isn’t a thinly-veiled shot at prognosticators around the glove either, as my own prediction had the Jets in a battle for the wild card and possibly the third seed, not battling the Dallas Stars and defending Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche for first place this season.

But as the Jets reached the 20-game mark with a 7-2 blowout win over the Chicago Blackhawks, they improved to 13-6-1 on the season, tying the best start in 2.0 franchise history in the process.

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The record is all the more impressive when you consider the Jets have only had dynamic forward Nikolaj Ehlers in the lineup for two of those games and dealt with a number of other injuries that resulted in 56 man-games lost to date.

“I think we’ve done a good job to continually work to get better and not be satisfied,” said Jets left-winger Kyle Connor. “We’re sitting obviously in a good spot in the standings, where we want to be, right near the top and battling for the top every night. But we’re constantly trying to look at different areas where we can improve. So I would say we’re a hungry group. It’s a good start.”

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It’s been highly entertaining and while the Jets have encountered some turbulence during this stretch of games. They’ve shown plenty of resilience and have been buoyed by a 6-1 record during three-on-three overtime – including a couple of high-wire victories last week over the Carolina Hurricanes and Dallas Stars.

“We’re playing great. We’ve seen a lot of improvement in our game throughout the first 20 games and preseason and what is nice is we’re winning games with the changes we wanted to make,” said Jets defenceman Josh Morrissey. “Obviously, we have high-end talent here and we have the ability to win games playing a loose style. But we’re winning them by playing the right way. It’s nice to see us get rewarded for doing that, and you see that start to work and all of the sudden, you’re like, ‘Wow, this is really how we have to play.’ And it gives us a chance to win every night.

“We’re a more mature team in the way that we play the game and the systems we play are systems, whether you feel your best or not, you have a chance to win every night. Reads have become more automatic, it’s a work-in-progress, but it’s exciting because you see that work and the commitment to the details are paying off.”

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Now it hasn’t all been sunshine and unicorns for the Jets, who had been hanging around the bottom third in goals per game before Sunday’s eruption helped them rise to eighth in the NHL (3.47 goals per game).

The Jets power play is operating at 20 per cent efficiency and sits 23rd in the NHL, which is an area that requires some improvement.

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“Right now I’m disappointed in it,” said Jets assistant coach Brad Lauer, who runs the power play. “With the personnel we have, it needs to be better. We’ve had some moments when it looks really well, looks really good. But overall, the consistency of it needs to be better. It’s something we’ve addressed, that we’ve talked about.

“When we’re looking good and we’re on, we have motion, we’re moving, we’re active. When we don’t, we’re very stagnant, we’re standing still, we’re not supporting the puck enough, we’re not quick enough and we’re not shooting the puck enough. All things you need to do on the power play.”

On the flip side, the penalty kill has vastly improved, sitting 10th in the NHL at 81.1 per cent. A slow start to last season had the Jets near the bottom of the league, operating around 67 per cent in that category.

How have the Jets got to this point?

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Let’s take a deeper look under the hood:

Measuring the seismic shift

Perhaps this is what Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff was talking about when he referred to head coach Rick Bowness’ hiring as a seismic shift when asked for his thoughts on what appeared to be a relatively quiet front, at least when it came to high-profile personnel decisions. After Barry Trotz turned down Winnipeg’s offer, the search took a late turn, landed on Bowness and the early results show that he’s been able to provide a message that has resonated with the players.

The talk about structure started with words, but led directly to actions. The Jets are currently third in goals against per game (2.47) and while Connor Hellebuyck’s brilliant performance has played a pivotal role in that department, the ability to tighten things up defensively is apparent. Although it will require further attention as the season rolls along and the games get tougher as the stakes get higher.

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“Well, that’s important to us. You don’t win in this league without being there,” said Bowness, who missed eight of the first nine games because of COVID-19. “You’ve got to play good, solid D because you get into the playoffs – first of all, we’ve got to get there – but defence wins. It’s all (about) playing the right way and getting good habits now.”

Paging Mr. Morrissey or is that Norrissey?

Few pundits had Jets defenceman Josh Morrissey leading his team in scoring through the first quarter of the season, but there he is at the top of the ledger with four goals and 23 points – those 19 assists just seven helpers shy of his career-high for assists – with three-quarters off the campaign left to play. Bowness recently shared the contents of a phone conversation he had with Morrissey, where he encouraged him to get more involved offensively and that he wanted him to be part of the Norris Trophy conversation this season.

Mission accomplished on that front, as Morrissey is among the league leaders in scoring on the back end while logging big minutes and facing top competition.

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“This system complements my game perfectly,” said Morrissey. “Our game is really defined and I can flourish because you see the game in front of you and what we’re trying to accomplish and if you can read the game or let your skill take over, sometimes it comes out more often.

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“It’s been great. It’s been fun to hear some of the (Norris Trophy) hype and stuff like that. But at the end of the day, I just worry about our team and continuing to try and improve. As I’ve said all along, I get to play with great players and there’s so much skill here. When you get to play with those guys, you’re going to have success. And individually, I’ve said it since my first training camp, I just try to get better every single day no matter what and that’s always been my attitude and that’s still my attitude.”

Morrissey was saluted by the NHL as its second star of the week after scoring three times (including two overtime winners) and racking up seven points in four games. Both of those OT winners showcased Morrissey’s sensational skating stride, the second of which saw him explode past Stars forward Jason Robertson before burying a shot through the five-hole of Jake Oettinger.

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“I think we’re kind of used to it, right? He’s such a gifted skater. He’s so effortless,” said Jets centre Adam Lowry. “I think having someone next to him, just to see the separation he was able to create. It really just shows how great of a skater he is. To pull away, it kind of looked like he was a few feet behind Robertson. Obviously Robertson’s not a defenceman, to pivot, things like that, aren’t as smooth. But to see him go from basically our hashmarks to the other end and get four or five feet of separation, or a stick length, is pretty impressive. To do that and have control and the wherewithal to know where you want to put it to bury it, it’s a pretty special goal.”

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A slow start gives way to a hot streak

After watching Connor put together a season that included career-highs in goals (47), assists (46) and points (93), the expectation was that the Michigan product might push to enhance those numbers and compete for the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy. After scoring an empty-netter in the season opener, Connor found the back of the net only one more time during the next 13 games.

But the scoring chances were there and Connor simply stuck with it, essentially willing himself out of the slump. By scoring six times in the past six games — including a hat trick against the Anaheim Ducks — Connor is up to eight goals for the campaign (with three game-winners among that total). What’s changed during the hot streak?

“Just skating. Getting the puck on the wall. Not flat-footed. I’m just taking it in my own zone and looking to move my feet right away. I’m kind of using that all over the ice,” said Connor, who is up to 20 points through 20 games. “Get the puck, move your feet. I find sometimes that gets you flat footed. And the guys above you, it’s just way easier to check. A whole overall theme of our group, I think, is just getting to the net. I think we were playing real perimeter the first couple. I think, for me, getting to the net and scoring some of those goals, too. You need to score those to be versatile.”

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Scheifele’s renewed passion

There were plenty of eyes on Jets top centre Mark Scheifele going into the campaign and it didn’t take long to see his demeanour had improved and his passion for the game returned. Not only is Scheifele finding joy on the ice again, he’s reaching new heights when it comes to goal-scoring, leading the Jets with 11 through 20 games, leaving him on pace to eclipse 40 goals for the first time in his career. More importantly, Scheifele isn’t cheating for offence and his push to becoming a better 200-foot player has been evident on a consistent basis.

Wheeler winning battle with Father Time

On the day the Jets announced that Blake Wheeler had been stripped of the captaincy, the veteran right-winger made it known to all in attendance that he wasn’t about to slip into the background or go quietly into the night. Wheeler has handled the situation with class, bringing the high work rate and despite seeing his average ice time shaved by more than two minutes compared to last season, the 36 year old remains a highly productive player, with four goals and 16 points in 20 games. That leaves Wheeler on pace for another 60-plus point season.

“Blake is a smart guy, an intelligent hockey player,” said Bowness. “With age, you don’t lose that. He knows how to use his strengths.”

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Hellebuyck leading the way

Although the raw numbers were somewhat skewed by allowing six goals against the Minnesota Wild on Wednesday and four more against the Stars on Friday, Hellebuyck is playing at an elite level by all metrics.

He’s already posted two shutouts, carries a 2.47 goals-against average and .925 save percentage and is among the league leaders in goals saved above expected (10.6), according to MoneyPuck. Hellebuyck has made 16 starts in the first 20 games, though backup David Rittich figures to get a bit more work in December, as the Jets have three sets of back-to-backs on the horizon.

Dubois delivering

Pierre-Luc Dubois quickly answered any questions about whether he would be weighed down by any lingering distractions related to chatter related to him wanting to play for his hometown Montreal Canadiens at some point.

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Dubois has shown a high level of engagement and is producing at a remarkable level so far. The centre sits second on the Jets in goals (10) and points (19) — which leaves him on pace to eclipse his career highs in both categories (28 for goals, 61 for points). Dubois has often been a thorn in the side of opponents this season and remains among the league leaders in penalties drawn.

Defence is contributing

On the first day of training camp, Bowness made it known publicly that he was encouraging his defence corps to get more involved in the offence, giving them the green light to join the rush. He noted that the 24 goals the group recorded during the 2021-22 season was simply not enough, adding he was hoping for something in the neighbourhood of 40 or more.

Morrissey and Neal Pionk lead the way with four a piece and the 10 goals scored (along with 35 assists) so far mean the Jets are off to a strong start in this category — and those numbers could get a boost if the power play can get going as well.

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