Heading into their three-game road trip, the Winnipeg Jets must get things back on track. Losing seven of their past eight games (1-5-2) and clinging onto the second wildcard spot in the Western Conference with 17 games left in the regular season.
In what could be a pivotal point in the Jets 2022-23 season with three games in four nights. Starting Saturday night against the Florida Panthers, followed by the Tampa Bay Lightning on Sunday night to finish the weekend. The finale of the three-game road trip is Tuesday night in Raleigh against the Carolina Hurricanes.
A combination of injuries and top players underperforming has led to many questions around Winnipeg of late on whether they are even a playoff team after spending most of the season as a top-3 team in the Central Division.
Jets head coach Rick Bowness said on Friday that Pierre-Luc Dubois won’t play in the first two games against Florida and Tampa Bay but wouldn’t rule him out for Tuesday’s game in Carolina. Dubois isn’t the only top-6 forward the Jets are missing during this slump; rookie forward Cole Perfetti has been on the IR since February 21st with an upper-body injury.
While forward Nino Niederreiter has fit in on the top line alongside Kyle Connor and Mark Scheifele since being acquired on February 25, 2023, from the Nashville Predators. He can’t fix the problems of the whole team alone.
Three other players come to mind who could be vital to Winnipeg’s success or lack thereof in the next three games.
In 65 games this season, Morrissey has cemented himself as Winnipeg’s top defenceman. He has 15 goals and 52 assists for 67 points. If not for San Jose’s Erik Karlsson’s 83 points (20G, 63A) in 66 games, Morrissey could very well be the 2022-23 front-runner for the James Norris Memorial Trophy, which is is awarded annually to the National Hockey League’s top “defense player who demonstrates throughout the season the greatest all-round ability in the position.”
For a team with no captain, Jets fans were all but ready to anoint Morrissey as their next captain after this goal on January 30, 2023, in a comeback victory over the St. Louis Blues.
Josh “Norrissey,” it’s your time! No better time than now for him to create another statement moment in the next four days. Doing so would reignite that conversation of who should be Winnipeg’s next captain and could help put the Jets’ season back on track and make a stronger argument for why he deserves the Norris Trophy over Karlsson.
One of those guys getting an expanded opportunity is Vladislav Namestnikov. With the injury to Pierre-Luc Dubois, Namestnikov is getting a chance to be the second-line center with Nikolaj Ehlers and Blake Wheeler.
Namestnikov has played for head coach Rick Bowness two previous times in his NHL career. Although he was acquired just over a week ago from the San Jose Sharks, who acquired Namestnikov from the Tampa Bay Lightning for former Winnipeg Jet Mikey Eyssimont on March 1, 2023, at the NHL trade deadline, and no other players are seemingly interested in stepping up. It only makes sense for Bowness to use a player he is familiar with to try to spark their slumping second line.
Namestnikov’s natural position is center, and it’s a spot he played during the first quarter of this season with the Tampa Bay Lightning as they worked through injuries to their top-6 forwards.
After winning the Vezina Trophy in the 2019-20 season, which is awarded annually to the National Hockey League’s goaltender, who is “adjudged to be the best at this position.” Hellebuyck was again considered a candidate for the Vezina Trophy in 2022-23.
Hellebuyck has started 49 games this season with a record of 27-20-2, 2.63 GAA, and .913 SV%. In his last five games, many have questioned whether he is still a Vezina Trophy candidate. Over his last five appearances, he has one win, allowed 22 goalies against, and a .845 combined SV% in that stretch.
While Winnipeg’s recent struggles can’t be on Hellebuyck, it has exposed the Jets’ dependence on their star goaltender. Until he returns to his early season form, things could get worse before they get better, and unfortunately for Jets fans, a once-promising season could end in not even making the playoffs.
Going into Saturday night’s game, Winnipeg has a four point cushion on the Calgary Flames for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference with one game in hand.