Sat. Mar 2nd, 2024

The Winnipeg Jets have opened their season 1-3, but the biggest questions have been about the amount of fans in the building. Welcome to another edition of our Jets Mailbag here at THW, in this edition, I tackle the attendance question marks, Connor Hellebuyck’s early-season struggles, Nate Schmidt’s healthy scratch, and more.

Would like to know how you feel about the low attendance numbers so far. Should Jets fans be worried? – @Avatarrant

The hottest topic surrounding the Jets organization to begin the 2023-24 season is the amount of people attending their games. I will try my best to articulate my thoughts on why there were only 11,226 people at Tuesday’s game, and 11,521 on Thursday against the Vegas Golden Knights, but before that, I should make my opinion clear – Jets fans have nothing to worry about, for now.

True North Sports and Entertainment (TNSE) has invested millions upon millions in the downtown space, the newly built True North Square outside of the arena, and the renovations indoors such as the Ticketmaster Lounge and Scotiabank Premium Lounge. While is it alarming that there were nearly 4,000 empty seats on both weeknights, this does not signal a move back to Atlanta for the franchise or anything of that magnitude. I understand why Jets fans would feel this way, given the franchise has already left town once before.

Fans wave white towels during the singing of ‘O Canada’ prior to puck drop between the Winnipeg Jets and the Vegas Golden Knights (Photo by Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images)

In an article from the Winnipeg Sun back on April 11, 2023, Paul Friesen pointed out that “Just 15% of the Jets season-ticket base is from businesses, Mark Chipman pointed out, far less than the other Canadian teams.” (from “Jets, Mark Chipman, call for help as attendance decreases,” Winnipeg Sun, 4/11/23). This is a shockingly low number, and if you look at the renovations inside Canada Life Centre this year, it’s clear that they are putting a focus on appealing to the corporate crowd.

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Part of the freakout online has been the shock factor, as Tuesday was the lowest-attended game in Jets 2.0 history, excluding the COVID-19 years of course. The reason I wrote that Jets fans have nothing to worry about, for now, is that if this record-low attendance was to keep up for the next 10-15 years, then there may be a serious conversation about moving the franchise again. We are a long way away from that conversation, and it’s one that could be avoided altogether.

All of this is without getting into things for the average fan, things such as cost of living, inflation, etc, all things I am admittedly unqualified to speak toward. I do know, however, that a portion of the fanbase has grown tiresome with the on-ice product as well as some aspects of the in-game entertainment. How TNSE will change that in the coming months and years will be something to monitor as they attempt to work their way back to selling out Canada Life Centre on a regular basis.

How concerned are you about Hellebuyck’s early play, especially since he’s not playing for his future now? – Declan Schroeder

This question was posed by my THW colleague, Declan Schroeder, and I must say it’s a valid one early on in the 2023-24 season. I think Hellebuyck is as safe a bet as anyone to bounce back and return to well above-average goaltending numbers. His .843 save percentage (SV%) and 4.38 goals against average (GAA) will not continue. I believe it’s just a matter of when rather than if Hellebuyck is able to get back to his Vezina Trophy-level of goaltending that we have grown accustomed to.

Related: 3 Takeaways From Jets’ 5-1 Loss to LA Kings

He just signed a massive seven-year extension and has three rough starts to begin the season, so I get why some people are beginning to panic, especially with the workload that the 30-year-old goaltender had shouldered throughout his career. The truth is, it’s been three games of an 82-game season, and if this remains an issue as we get into Nov. and Dec. then it should become a serious discussion.

Connor Hellebuyck, Winnipeg Jets (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

I feel the more concerning part of the Jets’ lineup through four games is the back end, as even Laurent Brossoit struggled against his former team on Thursday. Rick Bowness told reporters post-game that “It’s everybody, soft plays, soft plays at the wrong time. We’re playing the Stanley Cup champions, they’re big, they’re strong, they’re aggressive, and we’re making soft plays so we’re shooting ourselves in the foot.”

Once the team in front of him starts to limit these “soft plays” and turnovers in their own end, the goaltending will naturally improve. Hellebuyck hasn’t exactly been stellar either, as he is currently recording a -2.9 goals saved above expected (GSAx) number through his first three starts, a number in which you typically see him among the league’s best. I wouldn’t be hitting panic buttons just yet, but it’s something to monitor as we head into another portion of the schedule.

Schmidt Was a Healthy Scratch. Trade bait? – @Northender480

When asked about Schmidt’s healthy scratch, Bowness said “There are a couple of areas of Nate’s game that we need him to work on, and we’re very clear with that to him.”

I don’t think a trade is imminent, but Schmidt being healthy scratched twice in the past two seasons is not a ringing endorsement of his play and his $5.95 million cap hit. Moving money in today’s “flap-cap” world has never been more difficult, but a trade is absolutely a possibility for Schmidt as we get further into the season.

Nate Schmidt, Winnipeg Jets (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Had Ville Heinola not fractured his ankle in the final preseason game, he likely would have cracked the opening-night roster and filled the spot currently held by Schmidt and Logan Stanley. When Heinola returns, if he looks similar to what he did pre-injury, this may become a bigger conversation throughout the fanbase and the management group, as it would be very wise from a salary cap efficiency perspective.

Do you think the Dept. of player safety should look at the Vilardi trip and subsequent injury? – @DJS761

I don’t think so, and here is why – it is easy for someone like me to watch the super-slow-motion replay and come to the conclusion that Blake Lizotte slew-footed Gabriel Vilardi, resulting in him being injured. But the way I see it, this is just a regular tripping penalty with unfortunate results. Vilardi falls backward, and his right knee kicks back under him which results in an MCL sprain and 4-6 weeks on injured reserve. Now what if both legs had swung forward? The Jets are headed to the power play and Vilardi likely remains on the ice, no harm done.

While it looks extremely awkward and ends up with Vilardi suffering an unfortunate injury, it didn’t look as though there was malicious intent on that play. It looks to me that Lizotte is simply battling for the puck and takes a tripping penalty. Hockey is a high-contact fast-paced sport, and things like this happen, but to start suspending or fining players for something like this I think is a non-conversation.

The Jets have started their season 1-3 despite playing good hockey in the process, and next on their schedule is a battle with another Canadian, 1-3 team, in the Edmonton Oilers on Saturday, Oct. 21.

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