It’s been so long since the NHL’s 2019-20 season was put on hold that watching hockey is starting to feel like a faint memory. All we can do now I suppose, is keep the dream alive that we’ll get some semblance of playoffs.
If the season does resume in some form or another, the Winnipeg Jets are in good position to find themselves in the playoff picture, despite clearly being a fairly flawed team overall.
Connor Hellebuyck has held the team’s defensive game together with gum, Popsicle sticks and a bit of duct tape — a Hart Trophy-level season that guarantees a Vezina nomination and may even guarantee a win. But clearly there’s more that can be done to help the team round things out.
With the benefit of time to reset physically and mentally, the Jets will want to return to the ice like they were shot out of a cannon and capitalize on the strong position they’ve put themselves in.
So here are a few ways they can improve their play:
Top offensive forwards must play better defence
In order to get a current view of the Jets, let’s look at only what has transpired since the calendar turned to 2020. Since then, we can contrast how much offence each forward who has played 150 or more minutes at even-strength is creating, with how many high-quality chances they give up at the other end.
These measures aren’t apples to apples; it’s a contrast between individual involvement in creating offence and the high-quality chances each player is on the ice for, but it demonstrates something that holds true across all quality metrics this season. Several of the Jets’ top offensive producers aren’t doing enough defensively.
The average forward in the NHL this season is contributing to scoring chances 6.1 times per 20 minutes, and the Jets have six forwards who are outpacing that number on the offensive side, but the average forward is giving up only 2.08 high-quality shots against over the same period, and the Jets have just three forwards who are seeing fewer than that while on the ice since 2020 began.
Of those three above league average forwards on the defensive side, only one of them is putting up above league average offence, and that’s Blake Wheeler. The Jets’ top line, which is producing excellent offensive numbers, is also being killed on the defensive side of things.
Creating offence is great, and with players like Mark Scheifele, Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor, you have to let them make some mistakes and take some risks to get the best out of them, but at the pace they’re going, that offence isn’t making up for what they allow.
If we look at the high-quality shots that occur with that top trio on the ice, Scheifele leads the pack with the Jets controlling 41.6 per cent of the inner-slot shots, while Laine and Connor are third- and second-worst on the team, respectively, with the Jets controlling a paltry 38.1 per cent and 36.3 per cent of the inner-slot shots while they’re on the ice.
Hellebuyck holds the fort as well as anyone this season, but even with above-average conversion rates on the offensive side at the same time, that top line can’t continue to be so porous defensively if the Jets want to go anywhere at all.
Contrast that to Nikolaj Ehlers and Blake Wheeler, who are the top two forwards on the Jets in inner-slot shot differential at 53.3 per cent and 56.1 per cent respectively, and it becomes quite clear that while the Jets’ second line may not be as dynamic, it will hold up much better when things get dicey.
The defensive improvement can’t all be on Scheifele
While Mark Scheifele isn’t going to win any Selke Trophies any time soon, the underwhelming on-ice differentials while he’s out on the ice shouldn’t all be placed at his feet. As the centre, he has more responsibility than anyone else on his line to get back and gum up the works for the opponents, but on the surface at least, he’s doing his job.
When I look at defensive contributions for forwards, the first two things I look at are how often is a player battling for and winning a loose puck, and how often are they taking the puck from opponents.
Being disruptive and creating possession changes is the name of the game, and as it turns out, Scheifele ranks first among all Jets forwards in loose puck recoveries per 20 minutes with 21.2, outpacing the gritty Andrew Copp by nearly two recoveries every 20 minutes, and he ranks first in won puck battles with 4.78 every 20 minutes, while posting a strong third-best puck-battle win percentage among forwards on the team.
When it comes to removing possession from opponents it’s more of the same. Scheifele ranks first on the team with 7.84 successful attempts to strip opponents of the puck every 20 minutes he’s on the ice, a big gap over Wheeler in second place, with 6.77.
On paper, Scheifele is both involved and successful defensively, and part of that is going to be because his line plays without the puck far too often, but he’s still doing the work. Laine and Connor however, need to contribute more and help out their centre.
Scheifele does have an above team average turnover rate in the defensive and neutral zones, but Connor posts about the same numbers and Laine is worse. The amount of pressure on Scheifele to carry the defensive load has simply been too much to form a truly successful line. His wingers need to chip in far more often outside the offensive blue line.
Andrew Berskhire is a hockey writer specializing in data-drive analysis of the game.
Andrew Berkshire is a hockey writer specializing in data-driven analysis of the game.
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