Jets need to reduce undisciplined offensive-zone penalties

A solid win against the Vancouver Canucks, who have been playing teams hard to start the season — even with star rookie Elias Pettersson out with a concussion — has made the Winnipeg Jets’ start to the season more palatable with a 4-2-1 record.

But it’s not a stretch to say they haven’t exactly yet hit their stride as a team.

One of the reasons the Jets have struggled at times to be their usual dominant selves is a familiar problem they’ve run into over the years: taking far too many penalties.

Only the Anaheim Ducks (972) have been slapped with more minor penalties than the Jets (954) since 2015-16. The NHL average is 870. The difference accounts for just over a minute per game spent short-handed, which might not sound like much but could, in fact, decide the outcome of a game.

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A solid win against the Vancouver Canucks, who have been playing teams hard to start the season — even with star rookie Elias Pettersson out with a concussion — has made the Winnipeg Jets’ start to the season more palatable with a 4-2-1 record.

But it’s not a stretch to say they haven’t exactly yet hit their stride as a team.

Referee Chris Lee sends Winnipeg Jets' Dustin Byfuglien to the penalty box for holding in a game against the Dallas Stars in 2015. The Stars' Jamie Benn scored a power play goal during the penalty, helping the Stars to a 6-3 win.

(AP PHOTO/TONY GUTIERREZ)

Referee Chris Lee sends Winnipeg Jets’ Dustin Byfuglien to the penalty box for holding in a game against the Dallas Stars in 2015. The Stars’ Jamie Benn scored a power play goal during the penalty, helping the Stars to a 6-3 win.

One of the reasons the Jets have struggled at times to be their usual dominant selves is a familiar problem they’ve run into over the years: taking far too many penalties.

Only the Anaheim Ducks (972) have been slapped with more minor penalties than the Jets (954) since 2015-16. The NHL average is 870. The difference accounts for just over a minute per game spent short-handed, which might not sound like much but could, in fact, decide the outcome of a game.

Not all penalties can be judged equally. There are times when taking a penalty is a smart choice, such as negating a breakaway or equally dangerous scoring chance. Generally, obstruction calls aren’t seen as particularly bad, either, because it’s often a defensive effort that results in a trip, hold, hook or interference call.

What tends to infuriate coaches are undisciplined plays like elbowing, roughing, slashing and high-sticking. A team that tends to take an above-average number of obstruction minors likely does so systemically, and, because it takes so many, will often get away with more, too, as refs can’t and won’t call everything.

Unfortunately for the Jets, the penalties they take are often of the undisciplined variety. This season, they’re averaging two undisciplined penalties per game, third-most in the NHL. It’s the club’s same rank as in 2017-18, although the Jets took slightly fewer undisciplined penalties (1.77) per game last year.

Strangely, the Jets are among the most disciplined teams in the neutral zone, which means the problem areas are the offensive and defensive zones.

The Jets take an average number of penalties in the defensive zone, yet have been taking a below-average number of obstruction penalties and an above-average number of undisciplined ones. It’s a balance they’d probably like to correct overall, but it’s not the defensive zone that’s hurting them most.

In the offensive zone, the Jets are dinged with 72 per cent more penalties than the average NHL team, and it’s not just the undisciplined stuff they’re getting called on. They’re being punished for obstruction a bunch, as well.

Undisciplined plays are the far bigger problem; the Jets currently take undisciplined penalties at twice the rate of the average NHL team.

The biggest perpetrator of bad penalties in the offensive zone is right-winger Blake Wheeler, with a pair. He also leads with three total offensive-zone penalties, while defencemen Tyler Myers, Dustin Byfuglien and Ben Chiarot, and right-winger Patrik Laine have all served one undisciplined penalty from a play in the offensive zone.

It’s one thing for forwards to take penalties in the offensive zone. Things happen during an aggressive forecheck or hard battle in front of the net. But it’s inexcusable for a trio of Jets blue-liners to get nabbed for breaking the rules in the offensive zone this early in the campaign.

Myers has taken an obstruction call in the offensive zone as well, adding to his team-leading six minor penalties in seven games — an unfortunate start for a player who needs to be much better for the Jets to be a Stanley Cup contender.

The good news is the Jets’ problem with offensive-zone penalties is an obvious one and can be addressed. However, it’s also something they’ve been guilty of for several seasons. Winnipeg finished in the top five in undisciplined penalties in the offensive zone the past two seasons, and one player, in particular, needs to be more responsible.

Wheeler has taken 14 undisciplined minors in the offensive zone over the past two years. Indeed, the captain is already the driver of this club in so many areas, but could definitely lead by example and clean up the penalty problems.

Ultimately, the Jets will get back into a groove and settle in as the legitimate Cup contender they are, but cutting down on those needless infractions should be a focus to ensure games aren’t any harder than they have to be.

Andrew Berkshire, managing editor of Sportlogiq, produces stories on hockey by drilling down into advanced statistics and analytics.