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Ahead of the Winnipeg Jets’ loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs, head coach Paul Maurice defended his third defence pairing, saying their defensive numbers were a function of the whole unit on the ice. He then went on to say the Jets simply aren’t where he wants them to be defensively right now as a whole.
It makes sense that Maurice is disappointed with the Jets’ defensive play, considering that in their last five games going into Friday’s match in Detroit, they’ve kept opponents to fewer than three goals just once, including a blown 4-1 lead against the Edmonton Oilers.
We know that Maurice has high standards for defensive play and he mentioned a few different areas that we can look at: turnovers, offensive zone time and giving up odd-man rushes
The Jets have been one of the tightest defensive groups in the NHL at 5-vs.-5 for several seasons now, so we know that Maurice has high standards for defensive play and he mentioned a few different areas that we can look at: turnovers, offensive zone time and giving up odd-man rushes.
Obviously there’s more to defensive play than a couple things Maurice mentioned off the top of his head, but clearly those are areas that he has identified. So the question is whether the Jets have been a bit sloppy defensively to start the season or if they’ve maybe been a bit unlucky and those are just areas to improve.
In order to find out, we can compare those things Maurice mentioned to the 2017-18 edition of the Jets, and league average numbers from this season.
Turnover rates are a more accurate reflection than just raw turnover numbers, because they account for how often a player or team turns over the puck compared to the number of plays they make with it. It’s worth noting that turnover rates on the team level don’t have an extreme level of variability. From the best team in the league to the worst team, the gaps in turnover rates are just 4.7 per cent in the offensive zone, 2.5 per cent in the defensive zone, and 1.9 per cent in the neutral zone. There’s more variance for individuals, but team changes that look small can be bigger than you think because of the frequency of plays at this level. For example, last season the Jets turned the puck over a total of 8,116 times, which gives you a hint of how little the NHL’s giveaway stat accounts for.
Compared to last season, this current edition of the Jets is turning the puck over slightly less often in the defensive zone and an identical amount in the neutral zone, but quite a bit more often in the offensive zone.
The offensive zone is easily the least dangerous area to commit a turnover, but it is the area where a turnover is most likely to lead to odd-man rushes against, especially if the mistake is made by a pinching defenceman. The Jets are currently giving up more controlled entries against per game than last season at 17.3, compared to 16.3 last season, but they’re allowing the same number of odd-man rushes against. However they are are allowing more scoring chances off the rush this year at 6.49 rush chances against, per 60 minutes, than they did last year at 5.66, hinting that maybe it’s their defending off the rush that’s suffering.
Last season no team in the NHL spent a higher percentage of their 5-vs-5 ice time in the offensive zone the Jets did, and this season so far is much the same, with the Jets spending a whopping 42.9 per cent of all 5-vs-5 ice time in the opposing zone. The direct consequence of this is that the Jets spend less time defending, which is a very good thing.
So far, this isn’t lining up with Maurice’s disappointment with the Jets’ defensive play, but let’s look at what’s actually happening in the Jets’ end of the ice.
The Jets are still excellent at cutting down passes to the slot, but the locations opponents are shooting on Connor Hellebuyck from this season are vastly superior to last season. That means the Jets’ in-zone defence has simply not been even close to last season, and in fact they’re allowing more scoring chances and high-danger scoring chances against than an average NHL team, after being top-five in scoring-chance suppression last season.
This is extremely curious when you consider that the Jets have been stuck in their own zone less often than last season, where they already didn’t allow much offensive pressure to build up on them.
Essentially, what this forces us to conclude, is that while the Jets have been good at defending the neutral zone and keeping teams out of their own zone with possession, when teams are able to penetrate their blue line, the Jets are victimized by clusters of shots and scoring chances, meaning Hellebuyck is dealing with periods of long downtime followed by furious action with a repeated need for big saves, which is a tough thing for a goaltender to deal with.
It’s the early days of the season, but if the Jets can’t tighten up in their own zone, you’ll probably see a few more blown leads that looked safe at the time, and Maurice may move a few degrees past disappointed.
Andrew Berkshire is a hockey writer specializing in data driven analysis of the game. He started writing for the Montreal Canadiens blog Eyes on the Prize in 2010 before taking over managing the site in 2012, turning it into SB Nation’s largest hockey community before he left in 2015 to become an independent contractor using SPORTLOGiQ data. Since then he has written weekly for Sportsnet and RDS, using SPORTLOGiQ’s unique tracking data, while also freelancing for Vice Sports and The Sporting News, contributing to The Point Hockey and hosting his podcast.
Andrew Berkshire is a hockey writer specializing in data-driven analysis of the game.