Why don’t the Winnipeg Jets run three more balanced scoring lines?
It’s a popular question on social media and one that floods my inbox on a fairly regular basis.
The premise of the argument is rooted in thinking the idea of a top six (with scorers) and a bottom six consisting mostly of a checking line and an energy line is no longer the best way to operate.
That’s a fair assertion, but it’s important to remember the Jets already have three lines that are chipping in their fair share of offence.
The Adam Lowry line with Andrew Copp and Mason Appleton isn’t simply asked to check anymore, they’ve taken a major step forward in terms of production while often handling the job of trying to shut down the opposition’s most offensive line.
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That development has been an important one for the Jets, who already have six players in double digits for goals and several others knocking on the door to join the group.
With 18 games remaining in the regular season, the search for optimal line combinations is ongoing, but several things are already clear.
Jets head coach Paul Maurice has a veteran fourth line he’s entrusted with Nate Thompson between Mathieu Perreault and Trevor Lewis — and his preference is to keep the Lowry line together, even though Copp is someone who enjoyed success playing with both Paul Stastny and Mark Scheifele earlier this season.
That’s not to say Copp won’t get another shot like that one this season, but it’s not the preferred option for Maurice — which has more to do with the chemistry he’s built with Lowry over the years.
As the Jets prepare for a rescheduled game with the Ottawa Senators on Monday, Maurice is starting with the combinations that have been in place for the past three games — which means Scheifele is between Kyle Connor and Nikolaj Ehlers, while Pierre-Luc Dubois is skating with Blake Wheeler and Paul Stastny.
During his availability on Sunday, Maurice hinted that he won’t hesitate to go to the line blender as early as the second period against the Senators if things aren’t going well.
It’s a natural feeling after the Jets were held to just one even-strength goal (from Copp) in the two-game series with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Although the Jets did a good job of limiting the Maple Leafs’ top guns after the first period of Wednesday’s game, they didn’t get enough production of their own.
Going to the chemistry set is a tool all coaches have at their disposal, even more so in a condensed season like this one.
Of course, there would be some benefits to having all four lines humming along at the same time and for the Jets to be leaning on continuity with the stretch run about to arrive with a spirited sprint to the finish line.
But moving things around can also serve to provide a spark.
“I’ve gotten this question a lot through my NHL career and, you know, when the coach makes changes… sometimes you have a great line combination and it’s working out for you and something changes. That’s just the way it is,” said Ehlers.
“When it’s not going for the team, when it’s not going for you and it’s not working, you change it up a little bit. Sometimes it happens during games, sometimes it happens before games. We’re professionals. Most of the guys here have played together at some point.
“It’s nothing new. We’re not the only ones that do it. So, it’s fun, you get to play with a bunch of different guys throughout the season, you create a lot of chemistry with different guys, and that can help you in the long run, when things aren’t going.”
There was even a suggestion Maurice has been considering a reunion for Connor-Scheifele-Wheeler, a trio that Maurice has called his ‘safe place’ on numerous occasions.
The Jets are looking to get Dubois going offensively, as he’s been limited to one goal over the past five games and has six goals and 14 points in 23 games since the blockbuster trade with the Columbus Blue Jackets.
There have been signs of Dubois settling into his new surroundings and he’s been consistent in saying he sees room for improvement, while holding himself to a high standard.
Who Dubois ends up slotting in with on that second line remains unclear, but he’s embracing the opportunity to be someone the Jets are going to lean on when the games matter most.
“There’s so much depth in this lineup that wherever you are, whoever you’re playing with, you’re playing with talented guys,” said Dubois. “It’s part of the process. Obviously, it’s the first time I got traded but you don’t develop chemistry overnight. It takes practices, which we don’t have this year, and it takes games.
“But I think the more I get to play here, even if I’m not necessarily playing with the same guys, guys get to see how I play, guys get to see what my tendencies are and when lines change, other players know a bit more about me, just from watching me play.”
Finding a way to have more of those talented guys clicking at the same time is what Maurice and the rest of his coaching staff are searching for.
“When I put these lines together, one of the questions was that it was almost like they’re going to prove that they can work, because it’s almost too heavily weighted to one thing,” said Maurice. “So in a way, there can be times when there’s too much skill on a line and, say, not enough weight to it. So there’s a bunch of things that we want to learn by the end of the year.”
What the Jets learn on that front could ultimately determine where they end up finishing up in the North Division standings in what looks to now be a four-team race, where the Maple Leafs have built a six-point cushion at the top.
Ken Wiebe covers the Winnipeg Jets for sportsnet.ca and is a regular contributor to CJOB. He can be reached at email@example.com.