Well… that certainly wasn’t worth the wait.
After four-and-a-half months of waiting for the NHL to resume from its COVID-19 season suspension, and a ton of hype from many media outlets on how the Winnipeg Jets could be a sleeper team in the 24-team playoff format and turn some heads with a deep run, they weren’t and they didn’t.
Instead, they were dispatched rather easily by the Calgary Flames in the best-of-five Stanley Cup Qualifiers three games to one, a 4-0 loss Thursday night eliminating them from Cup contention less than a week after games got underway.
It was certainly a disappointing six days for the Jets in the Edmonton bubble, a feeling of “complete emptiness,” as head coach Paul Maurice put it after being eliminated.
Certainly, it was an unsatisfying and anticlimactic end to the strangest season in hockey history, filled with “what ifs?” that will never have firm answers.
What If: Mark Scheifele and Patrik Laine Were Healthy?
The Flames never had to play the most dangerous version of the Jets. The Jets’ top five forwards, when healthy, rival any other team’s and can strike for quick offence.
Unfortunately, two of those top five forwards were injured early and never returned to play. Mark Scheifele was taken out only five minutes into Game 1 by Matthew Tkachuk near the Flames’ blue line on a controversial hit that head coach Paul Maurice called an “absolutely filthy, disgusting” play that could have ended the alternate captain’s career.
After Game 4, Maurice revealed Scheifele had an achilles injury — but does not believe there to be long-term damage — and the Finnish phenom had a sprained wrist and couldn’t grip a stick.
Scheifele and Laine’s absences were obvious. At the risk of being a Captain obvious, the players who combined for 57 goals and 136 points could have and likely would have made a major offensive impact in the series.
The Jets tried their damnedest to generate offence without the pair but they were simply outmanned and outclassed. The Flames’ aggressive forecheck greatly limited their high-danger chances.
“You lose two of your best players, it makes it tough to accomplish what you want to as a team,” Blake Wheeler said. “The guys that played this series: there’s nothing left in the tank. Our team left it all out there.”
Blake Wheeler on losing Scheifele and Laine
“I would have loved to play the series with those two guys and see, you know, how that would have shaken out,” he continued.
What If: The Jets’ Stars Had Shown Up?
Speaking of Wheeler and the three aforementioned five top forwards who were healthy, only one of them showed up.
That was Nikolaj Ehlers, who had a strong series and finally got the “no playoff goals” monkey off his back by potting a pair.
You’d need a search party to find Kyle Connor and Wheeler, however. The duo — who combined for 138 points in the regular season and were first and fifth in goals respectively — found the twine zero times and managed to record one measly assist each.
That’s not nearly good enough for guys making north of seven million per year. Connor, perhaps could be called snake-bit as he had 14 shots and a few ten-bell chances, but Wheeler was an total absentee from start to finish.
Not even moving Wheeler back to centre and adding Ehlers to their line for Game 4 could get them going.
The Jets’ depth scorers couldn’t make up for their stars’ lack of production. They only had four goal-scorers all series — Andrew Copp, Jansen Harkins, and Adam Lowry in addition to Ehlers — while the Flames had 11.
What If: Connor Hellebuyck Was in Finer Form?
Going into the series, it appeared the Jets had a big advantage in goal. They knew they’d have Vezina-finalist Connor Hellebuyck in their crease, while the Flames were waffling between whether to go with David Rittich or Cam Talbot.
Unfortunately for the Jets, Hellebuyck — who stole countless games for his squad this season and was one of the only reasons they were in the Stanley Cup Qualifiers at all — regressed to non-Vezina form, with his 3.04 goals against average and a .913 save percentage being far cries from the 2.57 GAA and .922 SV% he put up between October and March.
He wasn’t terrible, but didn’t make saves on high-danger changes as often as he did during the regular season. His inner-slot save percentage, in particular, plummeted 15 points below his regular season percentage of around .790, statistical analysis from Andrew Berkshire revealed (from ‘A few bright spots amid gloom after Jets’ quick exit,’ Winnipeg Free Press, Aug. 7, 2020.)
He was sharpest in Game 4, when he made 30 saves on 32 shots. He was weakest in Game 3, when he allowed five goals on 31 shots and had a big blunder playing the puck behind the net which allowed the Flames to take a 2-1 lead and was a major turning point in the game.
Overall, he was outshone by Cam Talbot, who was razor-sharp throughout and posted a 1.51 GAA and a .945 SV%.
If Hellebuyck was just a bit more locked in, the Jets would have been tougher to dispatch.
What If: The Season Suspension Never Happened?
The Jets were soaring before the sports world screeched to a halt in mid-March. The squad was riding a four-game winning streak and playing some of their best hockey of their adversity-filled season, with recent additions Dylan DeMelo and Cody Eakin chipping in nicely and building chemistry with their new teammates.
Would they have made the playoffs if COVID-19 didn’t exist? By the time the season was suspended on March 12, they possessed the first Western Conference wild card spot at 37-28-6 with 11 games to go.
It can’t be said with certainty they would have qualified, but if they had continued to play as well in weeks prior, they likely would have.
What if they had played in a normal postseason and were able to ride the momentum they’d built, rather than have to wait for 143 days many of which was spent wondering if the season was going to resume at all? Would they have fared better? Advanced farther?
Perhaps. Perhaps not. It may be the biggest ‘what if?’ of all.
What If: The Jets Get Lafreniere?
As a result of losing the Qualifier, the Jets will be one of eight teams with a 12.5 per cent chance of winning the first-overall pick, as a placeholder team won the Draft Lottery back in June.
Some Jets fans would argue that they weren’t a true Stanley Cup contender anyway and that having a chance at landing the once-in-a-generation forward is better than advancing past the Qualifier but falling in the first round. That’s certainly a compelling argument, although anything can happen in the playoffs and winning the Draft Lottery isn’t nearly as awesome as winning the Stanley Cup.
Still, Lafreniere would be one heck of a consolation prize for a team that exited the 2020 playoffs quickly and unceremoniously. We’ll find out who wins the sweepstakes on Monday.