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ANALYSIS: Ongoing identity search contributing to Jets’ slide

Click to play video: 'Weekly Jets recap w/John Shannon: January 26' Weekly Jets recap w/John Shannon: January 26
What's gone wrong for the Winnipeg Jets, who are on a five-game losing streak. Does Connor Hellebuyck need to step up? And how far do the Jets need go for Dave Lowry to be the coach of the future for this team? Here's 680 CJOB hockey analyst John Shannon. – Jan 26, 2022

Every single team in the NHL has a crystal-clear idea of how they want to play on any given night.

Personnel often dictates how successful teams can be in terms of implementation of the aforementioned plan and ultimately becomes the calling card of the group in question.

While each season is different — even if many core pieces are the same — forging an identity is one of the most important pillars when it comes to team-building.

The word gets tossed around frequently in discussions with players and coaches and the answers are often similar, but the reality is that the best teams in the NHL are usually the ones that play to their identity more often than not.

Which brings us to the current plight of the Winnipeg Jets, who have dropped six consecutive games (0-4-2) after Thursday’s 5-1 loss to the Vancouver Canucks.

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Click to play video: 'RAW: Winnipeg Jets Dave Lowry Interview – Jan. 27' RAW: Winnipeg Jets Dave Lowry Interview – Jan. 27
RAW: Winnipeg Jets Dave Lowry Interview – Jan. 27 – Jan 28, 2022

When the topic of identity has been broached of late, defining the way the Jets want to play has been the easy part.

“I think we’re moving in the right direction. I really want this group to be a fast, physical team. I want us to be a hard team to play against,” Jets interim head coach Dave Lowry said on Thursday morning.

“When you say you want to be a hard team to play against, it’s different. There are some guys that we have that my expectation for them is their first thought is contact, then separation.

“Then I’ve got some skilled guys that I expect to be hard guys to play against by using their speed, checking through hands, and getting in and turning over pucks. When the opportunity is there to separate, they have to find a way to go into the corner and come out with the puck.”

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Lowry isn’t asking his team to abandon the concept of making skilled plays or expecting every single player in the lineup to become a bone-punisher hitter.

Being hard to play against stretches well beyond finishing your checks or dropping the gloves.

Read more: Jets’ winless streak reaches five games with loss to first-place Panthers

The Winnipeg Jets’ Kyle Connor (81) is congratulated by teammates after scoring his second goal in the first period of the team’s NHL hockey game against the Minnesota Wild, Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021, in St. Paul, Minn. (AP Photo/Jim Mone).

“Absolutely. I can’t expect Kyle Connor to go into the corner and run over guys. I do expect Kyle Connor to get into a corner and come out with the puck,” said Lowry.

“If he can get in quick and if he can separate, that becomes hard to play against. He uses his speed, which is one of his greatest strengths. Using his speed is hard to defend.

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“You want your team to have an identity. Part of that identity is we want to be a fast team, we want to be a hard team to play against. We do like the physical component as well. The expectation is I do have some guys that have to play that way.”

The execution or ability to play to that identity has been a big issue for the Jets.

Right now, the Jets are a group that seems to be lacking confidence, at least in terms of delivering results.

“There’s just a lot of different facets where we’re just a half step off,” said Jets forward Andrew Copp. “So, it’s got to get cleaned up. We’ve just got to play better.”

Click to play video: 'RAW: Winnipeg Jets Copp & Wheeler Interview – Jan. 27' RAW: Winnipeg Jets Copp & Wheeler Interview – Jan. 27
RAW: Winnipeg Jets Copp & Wheeler Interview – Jan. 27 – Jan 28, 2022

Sure, there have been stretches when the group has shown signs of life and even delivered lengthy stretches of steady play, but after allowing a goal, things seem to be spiralling out of control.

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This isn’t a matter of the usual ebbs and flows of the season either.

The Jets seem to be struggling with what type of team they’re going to be.

Despite a nice collection of skilled forwards, the Jets aren’t scoring enough goals.

Some of that can be linked to a low shooting percentage, but the lack of finish has been a surprising turn of events.

Certain individuals are having strong seasons in that department, but a lack of secondary scoring has contributed to the problem and there are plenty of guys on the roster with the ability to find a higher level of production.

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Kovacevic to make NHL debut – Jan 27, 2022

Despite a pair of veteran additions during the off-season, the Jets have yet to transform into a defensive juggernaut either.

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Nobody expected the group to suddenly be among the league’s best in that department, but not enough steps forward have been taken in that category and that’s another thing that has contributed to this mid-season swoon.

The combination of injuries and players in the NHL’s COVID-19 protocols has contributed to the Jets already having used 11 different defencemen in games this season, including Johnny Kovacevic, who made his NHL debut on Thursday.

That’s an unusually high number when you consider that 42 games remain.

This isn’t pointing the finger at the defence corps either, it’s a collective issue in coverage for the Jets.

Read more: Canucks sweep season series with Jets thanks to Miller’s hat trick

The five-man unit has not done a good enough job and there is no argument that can be made to suggest otherwise.

Until an enhanced commitment is made to shoring up this area, it’s hard to imagine there being a noticeable change.

Special teams have also contributed to the Jets’ struggles.

A penalty kill that had been leaky at the start of the season has seen a rise of nearly 20 per cent efficiency since Lowry took over, but giving up two power-play markers in a grand total of 17 seconds certainly was a contributing factor in Thursday’s defeat.

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On the flip side, the power play has been generating right around 25 per cent since the coaching change, which is a steady number that has the Jets around the top third of the league for the season — but there have been situations of late when a timely marker with the man-advantage in a tight game of late might have shifted the momentum.

Winnipeg Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck (37) deflects a Detroit Red Wings center Dylan Larkin (71) shot in the second period of an NHL hockey game Thursday, Jan. 13, 2022, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya).

Which brings us to the crease, where Connor Hellebuyck has been tasked with starting 13 consecutive games and has been between the pipes for 34 of the 40 games played.

Even with a spread-out schedule to this point thanks in part to the postponements, that’s a high number — yet it’s been a manageable one.

With the Jets set to play 40 games in 81 days coming out of the NHL all-star break, it’s safe to say Hellebuyck is going to continue to be leaned on heavily down the stretch in an effort to make a playoff push.

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Hellebuyck is a Vezina Trophy winner and while nobody is trying to pin the blame on the man behind the mask, he hasn’t been playing at that superhuman level folks have become accustomed to witnessing since he became the starting goalie.

A big part of the Jets’ identity in recent seasons — even if not officially part of the mission statement — has been Hellebuyck’s ability to cover up many of the team’s defensive warts with his stellar play.

Knowing how driven Hellebuyck is to succeed and seeing how much ownership he’s taken in terms of growing into a leader with this group, you can be sure he’s going to do his part to try and get things turned around.

But in order for the Jets to give themselves a chance to do that as a group, Hellebuyck is going to need plenty of help.

Firmly establishing an identity and playing to it with regularity would be a wise place to start.

Ken Wiebe covers the Winnipeg Jets for Sportsnet.ca and is a regular contributor to CJOB.

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