WINNIPEG — At one point, Connor Hellebuyck looked down at the microphone sitting in front of him as he collected his thoughts and the pause was long enough that it required a stopwatch.
The official total was nine seconds, but it probably felt like an eternity for both the No. 1 netminder and the audience he was speaking to.
The question from Sportsnet colleague Sean Reynolds was about Hellebuyck’s belief in the Winnipeg Jets as they are currently constructed and what level of control he believes he or his teammates have in keeping the core together during what figures to be a critical offseason.
As one of the Jets leaders, Hellebuyck wasn’t about to spit an answer out without giving it the right amount of care and consideration.
“I really don’t know how to answer that question,” said Hellebuyck, who missed the last two games with a non-Covid related illness but figures to be between the pipes on Sunday against the Colorado Avalanche. “I know there are a lot of good hockey players in that locker room and I really don’t know exactly what happened between our previous years and this year. I don’t know if this is just one of those off seasons or if there is something serious here.”
“That’s what this summer is going to be about for me, all about what’s going to get me to the next level and what’s going to get the team to the next level and how to get back to the playoffs and get yourself a chance at the Cup.”
Many of the Jets players have spoken openly about the frustration of this non-playoff season and Hellebuyck was the latest to join the chorus.
“It’s a bit of a disappointment, to be honest. I only have one goal left, and that’s to win the Stanley Cup,” said Hellebuyck. “So anything other than that is kind of a wasted year.”
Why does Hellebuyck think the Jets fell short of high expectations this season?
“I could come up with a million excuses, but that’s all they are, they’re excuses,” said Hellebuyck. “In the end it comes from the locker room. Every guy just has to be a bit better, (play) more of a team game. I could give you a million examples, but I’m not the one that gets to pick what is the right example, what is the wrong example. In the end we just didn’t do it. And next year the whole focus is that we’ve got to come back better.”
Jets right-winger Mason Appleton has been back for 15 games since the NHL trade deadline, but given his previous time in the organization he wasn’t shy about tackling a question about the inconsistency that has plagued this team this season.
“It’s talked about. There’s emphasis on it. But at the end of the day, a coach can only tell you so much. It comes down to each player,” said Appleton. “We know what consistency looks like in our own game and within the team structure. If you can’t balance it and find that fine line, that’s a you problem.”
This was another great example of accountability delivered by Appleton and provided the actions match the words, the Jets should be well on their way of trying to eliminate some of the issues that have been so difficult to solve.
The tone being delivered by Jets players is refreshing.
When a team underperforms and loses more than it wins, nobody should be happy.
The list of players being a bit more at ease with speaking a bit more freely at the podium is expanding and that’s a good thing.
You don’t need a letter on your jersey to lead and that’s been obvious with how guys like Pierre-Luc Dubois, Kyle Connor and Nikolaj Ehlers have handled themselves lately.
“That’s growth and maturity in the athlete. Obviously they’re comfortable in their game and where their game is at,” said Jets interim head coach Dave Lowry. “Different guys lead in different ways. Some guys don’t have a problem coming up and answering questions, answering them truthfully. That’s something that, we’re not going to run and hide from this. We’ll encourage guys to be open and honest.”
But is there an art to doing that honestly and directly in an interview setting without running the risk of ruffling a few feathers?
“As long as everyone is taking ownership, that’s the biggest thing,” said Lowry. “We can come up here and we can say whatever we want. If everyone is taking ownership, that’s what we need.”
Lowry made it official on Saturday that centre Mark Scheifele (suspected shoulder injury) and fellow forward Cole Perfetti (who initially suffered a shoulder injury and then sustained an undisclosed ailment afterward while training) would not play another game for the Jets this season.
Scheifele has missed the past five games after being on the receiving end of a thunderous check from Ottawa Senators forward Parker Kelly.
He finishes the campaign with 29 goals and 70 points in 67 games, giving Scheifele a sixth consecutive season as averaging a point per game or better.
Perfetti is expected to join the Jets for practice in a non-contact jersey at some point this week and he’ll finish with two goals and seven points in 18 NHL games.
There has been plenty of discussion about whether or not the Jets would use these final few games as an audition for several players with the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League.
Lowry doubled down on his comments from last week, suggesting there would not be a steady stream of guys from the minors working their way into the lineup during the final four games.
Part of that was related to the fact the Jets are only allowed four recalls after the NHL trade deadline (outside of emergency conditions) and they’ve already used two of them (on Morgan Barron and Dylan Samberg).
“We’ve used 14 guys (including third-string goalie Mikhail Berdin), 13 guys from the Moose that have played games. I think a lot of these guys had auditions when these were meaningful games,” said Lowry. “I’d be doing a disservice to some of our guys right now that are auditioning for positions next year. And am I going to take out some veteran guys to play a couple of younger guys when the Moose are in the playoff run? What happens if those guys get hurt playing up here? I think that’s probably the thought process behind it.”
“We’ve had six guys from the Moose that played their first game in the National Hockey League. So we believe that, yeah they might not be getting their chance here in the last week, but some of these guys got opportunities throughout the season and got real good opportunities. A couple of guys missed out on chances because they were hurt or had COVID with the Moose and that took away opportunities for them.”
There is also added value to the players suiting up with the Moose participating in the Calder Cup playoffs, which are just around the corner.
“You want to see them go on a long run. Experience and playoff experience is critical and it doesn’t matter what level,” said Lowry. “It’s about playing games when everything is on the line and competing for a championship. There is the preseason, there is the regular season, and there (are) the playoffs. The intensity in games in the playoffs, it brings it to another level. I think it’s really good for young players to experience that first hand.”
While there would certainly be value in providing another look or several for someone like David Gustafsson or Ville Heinola who is enjoying a solid season in the minors, Lowry emphasized that the Jets were still auditioning some players on the current roster and hinted that is a higher priority right now.
“Absolutely. This isn’t the first time some of these guys have experienced not making the playoffs. They have an understanding,” said Lowry. “It’s critical for young players, but it’s also critical for veteran players. Not only are you auditioning, but how you finish these games, you leave impressions and not only with your own organization, but throughout the league.”
That’s another one of the things to remember during garbage time.
Whether you’re a player on the bubble or someone trying to either move up the depth chart or maintain your standing, there is always something to play for – even when a team is no longer in contention.