Winnipeg Jets clinch playoff spot: 3 crucial storylines to track

Winnipeg’s 2024 playoff spot was unthinkable before it was inevitable.

“The Winnipeg Jets look a lot like a playoff team with Connor Hellebuyck and Mark Scheifele on the roster and a little bit like shambles without them,” we wrote in August.

Back then, Scheifele and Hellebuyck’s futures were up in the air, like Pierre-Luc Dubois’ and Blake Wheeler’s futures before them. The Dubois trade yielded Gabriel Vilardi, whose first career hat trick secured Winnipeg’s spot in the 2024 postseason. Wheeler was bought out, completing the change in leadership that saw Adam Lowry named Winnipeg’s third captain of the 2.0 era. Scheifele and Hellebuyck landed back in Winnipeg with long-term extensions at the outset of the regular season, feet planted firmly in Jets skates.

And now the Jets are headed to the playoffs for consecutive seasons under head coach Rick Bowness.

It’s an opportunity Winnipeg has earned through improved team defence, great goaltending and smart acquisitions in the form of Vilardi, Sean Monahan and Tyler Toffoli. It’s one that was never fully at risk, even during Winnipeg’s disappointing February and March performance, because of the heights the Jets hit before their game went awry. They’ve endured defensive lapses, inefficient bench management and a horrible flu which still affects members of the team — Logan Stanley shared recently that he got through multiple days this week on a couple bowls of soup.

They know their game has slipped, just as they know they’re capable of being a great team. The tone in the Jets room right now doesn’t reflect a sense of mission accomplished, false bravado or unearned swagger. From Bowness behind the bench through the Jets’ star players, the story of the moment is clear: Winnipeg has given itself an opportunity to have a playoff run. Winnipeg has six games left in the season to re-establish itself as a top-tier team. There’s no raucous celebration to be had here: the Jets need to put in work.

I asked Vilardi about Winnipeg’s to-do list on Thursday.

“I’m not the coach but I’d say we’ve got to clean up things,” he said. “We are having breakdowns where I feel we’re getting outworked for not a few shifts, but for the whole period and we can’t have that. There’s definitely parts of the game where we are dominating. You can see it. And then we just kind of lose it. We have to find a way to narrow that down.”

Here are three focal points for the Jets with six games left in the regular season, including special teams, coaching and how Winnipeg stacks up against Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and the rest of its most likely first-round opponents.

Will special teams cost Winnipeg?

It’s a treat to watch Vilardi work on the power play. While it’s obvious that Vilardi has more ideas than penalty killers know how to deal with, his biggest gift is the way he scans the ice long before he gets the puck. With a quick turn of his head, Vilardi processes an enormous amount of information in an instant, sorting out the positions of defenders, the goalie, his teammates and the assortment of sticks and skates that stand in his lanes.

“He knows who’s open and what he’s doing before he gets the puck,” Bowness said on Thursday. “And he sees what the options are when he gets it. He know exactly what he wants to do, he knows exactly where the guys are. He has that unique ability to see that. He’s not ad-libbing out there. When he gets the puck he knows where it’s going.”

It’s Vilardi’s ability to make the most of his options that reduces my concern about Winnipeg’s 22nd place in the power-play standings. With him in the lineup, Winnipeg’s top power-play unit scores at 7.8 goals per 60 minutes of five-on-four time — the 11th-best rate in the league.

It’s a small sample but put Vilardi and Monahan on the same Jets power play and the scoring rate soars to 11.2 goals per 60 minutes. There’s some luck in that, with Monahan shooting the lights out, but it’s a scoring rate that only trails the very best combinations in the league: Edmonton and Tampa Bay.

The penalty kill has been a mess, ranked 26th in the league — the worst among playoff teams, unless the Islanders make it — and shows no signs of improvement.

Winnipeg’s defensive zone has been an absolute shooting gallery, with a ton of shots

I asked Bowness about the theory behind it. He said the Jets are fine with giving up the initial shot from the outside of the ice but also put emphasis on what happens after the initial shot.

“Just as important as all of that is that when there is a shot that everyone collapses and goes to the net,” he said. “We don’t want you going to the shooting lane, ‘OK it gets by me’ and then you’re just standing there. There’s going to be two or three guys from the other team down by the net so, when the puck gets to our net, we’ve got to keep getting better at getting more bodies down there, getting control of the puck so they’re not getting second and third whacks at it.”

The Jets have struggled with those boxouts and puck battles for most of the season, with Brenden Dillon and Dylan DeMelo generally having more success than Nate Schmidt and Neal Pionk. Bowness says the weak-side forward (the forward on the side of the ice that the shot didn’t come from) needs to drop down into the slot and help out.

Perhaps most frustrating is the lack of successful clears.

“The goal against Ottawa is an example,” he said. “We got down there, we got it, we just didn’t get it out of the zone and it cost us. So we did everything right there other than clearing the puck. And when you don’t clear the puck in this league, it’s usually going to end up in the back of your net.”

My opinion? The Jets are betting that Hellebuyck can make the first save on shots from the outside and that their defenders can win the battles that follow. I think Winnipeg is getting only half of that bet right and that its personnel is better suited to a more aggressive PK.

But those failures to clear are all about execution.

Is this Bowness’ last dance?

Bowness is coaching through the second year of a two-year contract with a club option for a third year. I’m certain that any decision about his future will be made collectively, out of respect, but there is a chance that this is Bowness’ last dance as a head coach.

He’d already been considering retirement before the Jets called him in the summer of 2022. His son Ryan tells a funny story about Rick missing Winnipeg’s first phone call while golfing, perhaps wondering if he was being asked for his opinion as opposed to being considered for a job. In the time since then, he has revamped the leadership group and made meaningful improvements to the five-on-five defensive game, charting the team’s course back to the playoffs in two straight seasons.

But he’s also stepped away from the team three times — first, due to complications from COVID-19, then to be with his wife Judy after she suffered a seizure and again for a minor medical procedure last month. At 69 years old, Bowness’ career at this juncture is about chasing dreams. After everything he’s gone through, it seems reasonable to wonder if this is his one last opportunity to chase the Cup. He’s played it coy when asked about the idea directly, leaving his future up in the air. His love of the game endures.

Fans of his may want to treasure the Jets’ playoff run, however long it lasts, a little extra sweetly — just in case.

How the Jets stack up against Colorado

It’s mathematically possible for Winnipeg to win all six games it has left and overtake top spot in the Central to earn a first-round matchup with a wild-card team like Nashville, Los Angeles or even Vegas. It’s slightly more likely — but still tough — for Colorado to catch Dallas, setting up a battle between the Jets and Stars.

The much more realistic scenario has the Jets headed for a first-round matchup with MacKinnon’s Avalanche. The spread between Dallas in first, Colorado in second and Winnipeg in third gives an 87 percent probability of a Jets/Avalanche clash — enough to start writing matchups with MacKinnon, Rantanen and Cale Makar in pencil if not in ink.

We compared Winnipeg and Colorado in our Stanley Cup contender preview. On paper, it’s a battle between Colorado’s superior top-end talent and Winnipeg’s superior goaltending, with both teams boasting more than their fair share of quality players from top to bottom of the lineup.

Hellebuyck and Josh Morrissey are the Jets’ two biggest strengths, even compared to Cup champions of seasons past.


Colorado has MacKinnon and Rantanen, two of the world’s best players on a line that few teams can match.

The Jets hold a 2-0 lead in the season series, but both of those games happened in December. The Avalanche have added Casey Mittelstadt, Sean Walker, Brandon Duhaime and Yakov Trenin since that time (at the cost of Bowen Byram) while Winnpeg picked up Monahan and Toffoli. Those are big changes on their own but, as Jets fans know well after Winnipeg’s fall from first place, the quality of a team’s play can swing wildly no matter who is in the lineup. Next Saturday’s game with the Avalanche will go further in terms of how these two teams stack up right here, right now, and then its outcome will cease to matter if and when the series begins.

Matchup-wise, Colorado went after Winnipeg’s top line of Scheifele, Kyle Connor and Nikolaj Ehlers with last change on Dec. 7 but Connor’s second-period goal won the matchup 1-0 that night. At home in Winnipeg, Adam Lowry’s line took most of the MacKinnon matchup, winning its battle 1-0, while MacKinnon and Valeri Nichushkin set up Jack Johnson for a goal against Scheifele, Ehlers and Vilardi.

No matter which forwards were on the ice or which team had last change, Morrissey and DeMelo got the overwhelming majority of the MacKinnon minutes in both Jets wins.

(Photo: James Carey Lauder / USA Today)

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