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The Winnipeg Jets continue to run hot and cold of late, winning half of their games over the last stretch and managing to keep pace with the Nashville Predators with two games in hand and one more point.
With the injuries on defence, that’s probably about what should be expected in a year where the Jets haven’t quite been as dominant as last season, but are still the odds-on favourite to win the Central Division.
While the team has struggled a little bit offensively, at least in terms of consistently putting up goals, team captain Blake Wheeler has been on his hottest goal-scoring stretch in recent memory.
Since the beginning of February, Wheeler has 11 goals in 19 games, 10 of them at even-strength. He also leads the Jets in points over that period with 23, seven more than Mark Scheifele’s 16, but the bulk of that gap is on the power play, where Wheeler has nine points and Scheifele has just three.
We already know that Wheeler is one of the most lethal power-play playmakers in the sport, so there’s nothing new there, but 10 even-strength goals in 19 games is a huge change for a player who averaged about 19 even-strength goals per 82 games played over the previous three seasons.
Is Wheeler experiencing a hot shooting streak, or has he stepped up his shooting in order to lead by example while the Jets, as a team, are struggling a little?
Prior to February, Wheeler had scored just six goals at even strength in 51 games, and since then he’s hit the net 10 times in 19, but the change in shots he’s taken is not very large.
Wheeler is producing slightly more scoring chances, and they are closer to the net on average, with a higher percentage being from the high-danger area. But he’s also shooting more from the perimeter, which should drag his expected shooting percentage down.
However, it’s possible that Wheeler has changed up his attack, so let’s take a look at what types of scoring chances he’s creating.
There’s been a slight change in his attacking style, trading some chances off cycle plays for more chances off the rush, which makes sense, since Nikolaj Ehlers has returned to the lineup and the addition of Kevin Hayes has allowed the Jets to formulate more rush changes than before. But the changes for Wheeler specifically don’t look that significant to me — we’re talking about one extra chance off the rush every 167 minutes of ice time at five-on-five, which is about one every 10 games. That’s just not going to explain such a massive change in goal scoring.
At 20 goals overall this season on 203 shots, Wheeler is actually shooting below his career average of 10.7 per cent, so I think we could assume that this hot streak was a long time coming, as he had been pretty absurdly unlucky beforehand; his five-on-five shooting percentage before February was just 3.88 per cent.
There’s some regression to the mean happening in his shooting, and that seems to have more to do with his increase in goal production than any changes to his shot volume.
Through the first 51 games of the season, based on his shot volume and shot locations, he was expected to score 9.21 goals at five-on-five alone, but had just four. Since then he’s scored nine of his 10 even-strength goals at even-strength, but based on his shots he was expected to score 3.96.
The hot streak he’s currently on has actually perfectly aligned his expected goal production and actual goal production at five-on-five with 13, which is the kind of thing we expect to happen, as samples get larger.
Things aligning back to expectations does not mean that we should expect Wheeler to continue to score at exactly his expected pace now; goal scoring is always subject to random variance. He could continue this hot streak for another stretch before going cold again — it’s the nature of the sport to subvert our expectations over small samples, which is a huge reason why the playoffs are so exciting.
This hot streak has come at a very convenient time for a team that needs its captain to shoulder the offensive load a little bit, but it’s more random than it is pure high-level performance. Wheeler has put the work in to deserve this goal-scoring streak over the course of the season, so nothing should be taken away from him, but we also can’t credit leadership for this one.
Andrew Berkshire is a hockey writer specializing in data driven analysis of the game.
Andrew Berkshire is a hockey writer specializing in data-driven analysis of the game.