WINNIPEG - No Big Buff? Big whup.
Missing Bryan Little? Even less to worry about.
Lose faceoff specialist Jim Slater for two games, and draws become a snap.
The most impressive thing about the Winnipeg Jets these days is how the loss of key players doesn’t even cause a hiccup.
Depth wasn’t a description you would have hung on the NHL team coming up from Atlanta this season.
But it’s quietly become one of its identities, as star players take turns going down with the injury du jour.
Look no further than the loss of Little, whose six-game absence with a foot injury hasn’t slowed his team (4-1-1) or his linemates on the Jets’ No. 1 unit: Blake Wheeler is on a five-game point streak, Evander Kane has three goals in his last three games.
“It’s a big compliment for the guys that have filled in for Litts,” Wheeler said.
That would be Alexander Burmistrov and, more recently, Tim Stapleton.
Back on the blue-line, you’d think Dustin Byfuglien’s giant skates would be tough to fill. Instead, the Jets have gone 3-0 without him, while outscoring their opposition, 8-3.
“That’s a testament to the depth we have on D,” Mark Stuart said, pointing to the other Mark, Flood, who’s filled those skates quietly, but effectively. “Flood stepped in right away and played really well. It’s tough to lose a guy like that, but we’ve played well in his absence.”
Then there’s the curious case of Patrice Cormier, called up from the farm to replace Slater the last two games.
All Cormier did was dominate the dot. “Jim Slater’s our best faceoff guy, and he (Cormier) comes in and goes 12-0,” Stuart said. “It’s huge.”
Suddenly, Slater, back for Wednesday’s game in Montreal, has a tough act to follow, not to mention explaining how a 21-year-old can come in and be perfect in his place.
“It’s definitely not that easy,” a smiling Slater insisted. “He’s a big, strong kid. He was snappin’ em back real quick.”
Slater didn’t say it, but each draw Cormier won could have been a reminder: there’s always someone waiting in the wings to replace you.
“That’s a sign of good teams,” Slater said. “We’ve had a lot of injuries this year and we’ve had guys step up in their absence. That’s great to see. That’s how I got my start. I’m sure some of these guys are going to get their start that way, too.”
They already have.
Flood, for instance, has opened so many eyes the Jets are leery about sending him back to the farm because they could lose him through the waiver process.
So he sticks around, seamlessly filling the hole left by whoever happens to be out.
If the Jets can be minus their highest scoring defenceman and one of their hottest forwards at the same time, and not even flinch, is there anybody they couldn’t afford to lose?
Wheeler fields the question and looks immediately in the direction of the dressing room stalls occupied by the goalies.
“Maybe one of those two guys,” he began. “But Mase (Chris Mason) has been pretty good, too.”
That’s just it. Mason has the unenviable task of spelling the Jets MVP so far this season, Ondrej Pavelec, and all he’s done is win his last four starts, stop well over 90% of his shots and allow less than two goals a game. He’s the ultimate fill-in, on a team full of them.
And it helped the Jets roll up that impressive, 10-3-1 December.
Wednesday, they take this show on the road, likely still without Little and without Byfuglien. And without a care in the world.