The New Year didn’t bring much cheer for the Winnipeg Jets after losing lynchpin defenseman Dustin Byfuglien to a lower-body injury a couple of days before, and then top-six speedster Nikolaj Ehlers to an upper-body injury four days into 2019.
Now, in the middle of February, Byfuglien has been sent back into the defensive lines, sitting in the second pairing with Ban Chiarot most recently. Ehlers, on the other hand, is still out with his injury. It has been reported that he could return before the February 25 trade deadline, but that the stated window could extend to the first week of March.
Bringing back some added speed and power
When healthy, Nikolaj Ehlers can blaze past the best defenseman in the league to make plays deep in the offensive end, while Dustin Byfuglien is one of the most notoriously physical skaters in the league, boasting a tremendous hit and an almighty slap shot.
Despite the Winnipeg Jets doing very well in the absence of Ehlers and Byfuglien, the team will be very happy to have them both playing again. The towering defenseman and the fleet-footed winger still stand as the team’s eighth and ninth top point scorers: Byfuglien has 30 points in 37 games, and Ehlers has 15 goals and 27 points in 40 games.
With 58 games in the books, many of which have been played without either Ehlers or Byfuglien, the Winnipeg Jets lead the Central Division with 75 points, sitting behind the Calgary Flames by virtue of their Canadian rivals playing one game fewer. With ten wins in 15 games since their top defenseman went down on December 29, it’s clear that the Jets have the depth and skill to handle major losses.
The scary element for the rest of the Western Conference is that when Byfuglien has skated off the rust and Ehlers has returned to the second line, to play alongside Patrik Laine, the Jets will be even more menacing.
A heated Western Conference
Despite there being many great teams in the Eastern Conference, the Tampa Bay Lightning simply look too good to not come out of the Eastern Conference Finals as the team to beat in the Stanley Cup Finals. In the Western Conference, however, there’s a very strong quartet of contenders vying for a shot at the Bolts at the end of May.
As of February 15, the San Jose Sharks, Winnipeg Jets, and Calgary Flames all sat on 75 points with the Nashville Predators close in toe with 73 points. According to the odds, the Flames edge the Sharks with the two Pacific Division contenders at +300 and +350, respectively. Then come the Central Division’s top teams with the Jets at +350 and the Predators at +500.
If Byfuglien and Ehlers can get back up to speed, they’ll certainly help to push the team back to the Western Conference Finals. Last summer, Byfuglien stepped up in a huge way to notch five goals, 11 assists, and a +2 rating through 17 games. His experience and physicality proved invaluable during the team’s first run to the conference finals.
Ehlers’ stat line was distinctly underwhelming given his 29 goals and 60 throughout the campaign. But despite only getting seven assists through 15 postseason contests, the Dane proved to be a vital piece of the very effective second line, which also featured Paul Stastny and Patrik Laine. It may not have been high-scoring, but it worked very hard, caused problems for the opposing line, and stifled the opposition a great deal. Adjusting to playoff hockey can be difficult for speedy young players who utilize their hand skills, as Auston Matthews and Travis Konecny also discovered last spring, but with 15 hard-nosed games under his belt, Ehlers should be able to have a greater impact on the score sheet this season.
Having Byfuglien and, eventually, Ehlers back in the lines certainly enhances Winnipeg’s chances of winning the Western Conference Finals, but they’ll face stiff competition from one of the other three powerhouses in the west.