Goaltending, offensive skill kept defensively challenged Jets alive

After rattling off four straight wins before the season went on hold, it’s difficult to figure out what might have been with the Winnipeg Jets, a team that seemed to go against all odds all season long on its push into a playoff spot.

Arguably the most unlikely team to be in contention, the Jets of 2019-20 are — or maybe were — a team of stark contrasts. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the biggest weaknesses the team faced this season and its biggest strengths.

Let’s start with the weaknesses:

The axes in the graphs are set at league averages to give context to how far off the Jets are, positively or negatively.

The Jets’ two most glaring weaknesses at even-strength are likely related, posting the fifth-worst defensive-zone turnover rate at just over 14 per cent of their plays in the defensive zone ending up on the sticks of their opponents.

That high turnover rate has a lot to do with the roster turnover on defence and was worsened by Josh Morrissey having a very poor season when he was supposed to be their lynchpin.

Turnovers are going to cause more dangerous scoring chances against, but it’s not the sole reason why the Jets’ biggest weakness exists. Only the Chicago Blackhawks have given up more shots on net from the inner slot per 60 minutes of even-strength hockey than the Jets have, with those two teams far separated from the next grouping of poor defensive teams.

It would be easy to say this is a function of the turnovers and that the Jets need to be safer with the puck, but the Dallas Stars have an even-higher turnover rate in the defensive zone than the Jets do and only the Boston Bruins allow fewer inner-slot shots-against than Winnipeg does.

Team-level defensive talent is a factor here with both the Bruins and Stars boasting some great defensive-zone players. What it comes down to more than anything is how players react to a turnover. Do they panic or reform their defensive structure? Unfortunately for the Jets this season, defensive structure just hasn’t been steady and they get hurt more than the average team does for their mistakes.

While they’ve been giving up the chances, Connor Hellebuyck has been stopping them at an alarming rate — keeping them in games and robbing opponents of golden opportunities.

The Jets do some good work defensively as well, keeping slot passes-against to the exact league average, which prevents catastrophe by allowing Hellebuyck to get set up properly more often than not on these dangerous shots, which leads us into team strengths.

The Jets’ goaltenders save a third of a goal per game above expectations, behind only the Blackhawks, Blues and Coyotes and tying them with the Avalanche.

Hellebuyck’s ability to stop dangerous shots and rarely give up a weak goal this season has been the biggest reason why the Jets have been able to stay in the playoff hunt all year long and he’s undeniably been the team’s most valuable player.

Outside of Hellebuyck it was a bit more difficult to find an area where the Jets truly stood out as a top-tier team. They rank in the top-10 in a variety of statistics, particularly in generating slot passes for themselves in the offensive zone, where they’re the eighth-best in the league. But if you’re looking for their greatest strengths, you’d like to see a top-five ranking.

One area that was a bit surprising after how they played last season is how often they were able to take advantage of counterattack plays and generate odd-man rushes.

Only the Colorado Avalanche created more odd-man rushes than the Jets did this season, nearly doubling up the Anaheim Ducks, the league’s worst team in that area.

Even looking at a relatively small group of metrics, you can see what drove the Jets’ success this season and the style they were essentially forced into playing. Unable to control play at even-strength and struggling at limiting shots-against, the Jets hunkered down and focused on defending passing plays and relied on Hellebuyck to bail them out.

With opponents maintaining long possessions in the Jets’ zone, the most impactful way to run the offence was to pounce on limited opportunities and make the most of them, hence the large number of odd-man rushes that occur when opponents get too aggressive in the offensive zone.

The odd man rushes allowed the Jets to convert on a higher rate of their shots, along with strong slot-area puck movement when they did gain the offensive zone for a full possession. These higher-quality plays work well with a very talented top end of their forward group, and allowed them to consistently outperform expected results.

This isn’t a style of play that anyone would suggest you build a team around, it’s highly volatile in the long term and is unlikely to ever win you a championship, but dealing with the cards they’ve been dealt, it’s a strategy that has given the Jets a lot of success.

Andrew Berkshire

Andrew Berkshire

Andrew Berkshire is a hockey writer specializing in data-driven analysis of the game.

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