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After breaking down why I think the Winnipeg Jets are inoculated against a 2017-18 Edmonton Oilers-style collapse this season, the question becomes how can the Jets improve?
It’s a tall order for a team that recorded 114 points in the NHL regular season and made it to the Western Conference final. Most experts see the Jets as a clear Stanley Cup contender, so what needs to change to get the team over that hump?
Before we can figure out weaknesses, it might be helpful to examine what made Winnipeg such a daunting team for opponents to play against in 2017-18.
The Jets were one of the most potent offensive teams in the NHL, and accomplished that not with shot volume, but by manufacturing high-quality scoring chances. The Jets outshot their opponents, though not by as much as the usual top-end teams in the league, because they regularly passed up shots from the perimeter of the ice, where the chances of a shot beating a goaltender is just four per cent.
They focused on more than just shot location, as well, leading the league in the percentage of scoring chances preceded by a pass at 5-on-5 — at 51.9 per cent. That dominance in passes to the slot came from a versatile group of forwards, led by Blake Wheeler, who are as dangerous shooting as they are passing — freezing opponents and forcing them to make a choice: play the shot or the pass. Every team has a couple players who can do this; the Jets have more than a couple, and even their lower-end players have bought into this mindset.
On the opposite end, the Jets were one of the stingiest defensive squads in the NHL, boxing teams out of the slot with phenomenal success, especially the inner slot or high-danger area.
So what can a team that exhibits such dominance in the most important areas of the game improve to better the chances of lifting the Stanley Cup in June?
In combing through the data for the Jets, it’s slim pickings to find glaring weaknesses — they are a structurally sound team, at least competitive in essentially every area. I decided to look at a few areas 5on-5 where they’re slightly below average as the areas in which to improve.
The Jets were the second-highest scoring team in the NHL last year, after the Tampa Bay Lightning, and the second-most offensively potent team at 5-on-5, after the Pittsburgh Penguins — but they have room to grow.
Likely by design, the Jets played a low-event game off the rush last season, not attacking that way often, and also not conceding many chances off the rush. With a year’s worth of confidence in goalie Connor Hellebuyck, a younger blue-line, and players such as Kyle Connor and Patrick Laine gaining a year’s experience though, I think this is an area where they can begin to exploit opponents more often.
Attacking off the rush carries an inherent risk: if you turnover the puck, you’re vulnerable to a counterattack, but the Jets are so good at defending they can afford to take more risks offensively. There’s really no reason why they should be a below-average team in rush chances or passes off the rush in 2018-19, they have the talent, and it could be a change that propels them to the top.
Another area the Jets were a hair below average in was generating scoring chances off rebounds. They were a top team in recovering their own rebounds in the offensive zone, they just struggled to turn those recoveries into second-chance opportunities. (This is an area I expect to see Connor take a big step forward in this season.)
Shorthanded, the Jets’ defensive dominance starts to dissipate a little bit, as they were victimized for more scoring chances than every team except for the Montreal Canadiens last season.
The Jets protect the inner slot well while down a man, and they’re one of the top teams at blocking passes into the slot — but they leave a pretty sizable gap in the high slot, which is the second-most dangerous area on the ice, and allowed more scoring chances on net from there last season than any other team.
The battle level in front of their own net could also improve, as the Jets left Hellebuyck a little vulnerable to second-chance opportunities if he wasn’t able to smother the rebound.
The cycle seems to be the biggest problem for the Jets while shorthanded, they remain excellent at breaking up forechecks and force teams to either dump the puck in or stay out of the middle on zone entries. It’s all about keeping strong in their positions while teams attempt to break down the penalty-killing unit with passing and cycling the puck.
Even with these weaknesses, the Jets penalty kill was pretty decent last season, but it was a bit more exploitable in the playoffs — so I would wage this is an area they would like to improve.
Andrew Berkshire, managing editor of Sportlogiq, produces stories on hockey by drilling down into advanced statistics and analytics
Andrew Berkshire produces stories on hockey by drilling down into advanced statistics and analytics.