You won’t find a help wanted sign posted anywhere, but when it comes to the Winnipeg Jets‘ struggling penalty kill, you have to wonder how much longer it might take before a call is made to the minors in this search for solutions.
While a great deal of the focus (and rightfully so) during this four-game losing skid (0-3-1) has focused on the inability to score goals going into Friday’s matinee with the Minnesota Wild, the elephant in the room remains.
How are the Jets going to fix things while playing shorthanded?
At a time when the offence is sputtering, special teams can sometimes be an area that can provide a pick-me-up.
But for the Jets, it’s provided the opposite effect.
The power play isn’t getting much going during a 1-for-21 slide, while the penalty kill continues to sit second-to-last in the entire NHL, operating at an efficiency rate just over 60 per cent.
As Jets centre Adam Lowry said recently, that’s simply not going to get the job done.
It’s not an easy fix or a matter of cleaning up one area for the penalty kill, it’s been myriad issues that are cause for concern.
No, there haven’t been a lot of easy backdoor tap-ins or an abundance of one-timers or point-blank chances that have led to the goals.
In Wednesday’s 3-0 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Jets trailed 1-0 in the third period when Riley Nash was given a minor penalty for cross-checking in the neutral zone.
That’s an infraction the Jets can’t afford to take in that situation, even if it was a bit of a ticky-tack call.
The Jets needed a kill to try and generate some momentum, but instead, Zach Werenski caught Connor Hellebuyck cheating ever so slightly and found a small opening high to the glove side.
Despite having the firepower to rally, the Jets were unable to push back and were blanked for the fourth time in 19 games.
Earlier in the day, Nash was asked about how the Jets can start digging themselves out of this penalty kill and provided a thoughtful answer.
“However it looks, however it gets done — every kill you have, every minute, every 30 seconds you’re on — take the positives and take that confidence and let it grow into the next one,” said Nash.
“You don’t really think about going on a streak of a couple games without being scored on until you’re in it. Then it’s just second nature. I know you guys talk about the stats and the numbers, but in the room, we don’t talk about it much.
“It’s just more of a feeling of ‘this is how it’s supposed to feel,’ where we’re not giving up many chances, our goalie is playing well, we’re giving up shots where we want to, we’re dictating a bit more. It would be nice to get on a bit of a run here and have it be a positive part of our game instead of it being at a negative or neutral.”
There is only one reason the penalty kill is being discussed: it hasn’t been good enough so far, giving up 18 goals in 19 games (including two or more goals in six of the 11 games they’ve allowed a power-play marker).
Of course, the 10 goals allowed through the first five games have skewed the numbers somewhat but a team can’t just erase those goals from memory either.
The reads must get quicker, the clears can get stronger and the Jets can do a better job of getting sticks and bodies into both the shooting and passing lanes while attacking the pressure points when the time is right.
“Obviously, we’re not happy with it, it’s cost us some games,” Jets defenceman Dylan DeMelo said earlier this week.
“I would just say overall consistency with it. Guys are trying and working hard. Maybe just some details or getting that clear or getting that stick on the puck, things like that that could help. We need a little bit more from everybody on our kill right now.”
The Jets must make the necessary corrections in an effort to turn the penalty kill from a weakness to a strength.
One of the ways to do that would be to consider a change in the personnel.
It’s not like putting one player in or taking one player out would provide an overnight fix, but the door is open to give David Gustafsson a promotion from the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League.
Despite his age, the 21-year-old Gustafsson isn’t lacking in pro experience.
He’s got the skill set, mentality and intelligence to lend a helping hand.
Gustafsson is an integral part of a Moose penalty kill that is operating near the top of the AHL.
He’s strong in the circle, he makes good reads and he plays with a maturity in his game that suggests he’s not just knocking on the door of being an NHL regular, he might be ready right now.
Given the limited minutes handed out to the Jets’ fourth line, it’s understandable why the Jets wanted to give Gustafsson more responsibility and seasoning at the start of the season.
It’s a way to build a baseline and give him some additional puck touches and confidence — especially after the pandemic limited him to 40 games last season between three levels.
But on the flip side, this might just be the best time of the year to get Gustafsson some reps at the NHL level during the second quarter of the season, before things ramp up during the stretch run.
The worst thing the Jets could do would be to wait until February or March, providing a built-in excuse to suggest there would not be enough time at that point in the campaign to get him the necessary experience because the stakes were suddenly too high.
While there is certainly value in Gustafsson playing a first-line role and being used in all situations in the minors, he’s not auditioning for a recall for a top-six job.
Whenever he breaks into the NHL on a full-time basis, those minutes are likely to come in a fourth-line role.
His ceiling is higher than that, but a quick look at the depth chart and subsequent contract status shows that Pierre-Luc Dubois, Mark Scheifele and Lowry are all ahead of him and under team control for multiple seasons, so he’s unlikely to be passing them any time soon.
So unless Gustafsson is going to move to the wing at some point and be under consideration to play with Lowry, the fourth-line job is what he would have his sights on, at least initially.
Were the Jets not dealing with some salary cap challenges, it’s possible that Gustafsson might have already been recalled and given a chance to see what he can do.
But that limited flexibility means the Jets would either need to send down Kristian Vesalainen or subject a player to waivers to make that transaction.
With Paul Stastny on the verge of returning to the lineup, the Jets are going to be making a change on the fourth line — with Jansen Harkins a candidate to bump down.
At this stage of the game, giving Gustafsson a shot looks like a solution that should be investigated further.
After being named the most valuable player on the team last year, Gustafsson has shown no signs of lingering disappointment after returning to the AHL.
He’s handled the decision the right way, providing solid minutes and raising his production to nearly a point-per-game level.
That’s exactly how you want a prospect to respond and this could be an opportune time to reward Gustafsson for his strong play.
Along with possibly providing a lift for the penalty kill, Gustafsson has always been known for his ability to make the players around him better.
He could add another element to a fourth line without being a defensive liability.
That’s another reason why giving Gustafsson an opportunity makes a whole lot of sense.
Ken Wiebe covers the Winnipeg Jets for Sportsnet.ca and is a frequent contributor to CJOB.