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The Winnipeg Jets are off to a decent start to the season, though there are several important players who haven’t started off playing their best hockey and, as a consequence, there have been some off games.
On the other side of the coin, Mark Scheifele has started the season at a level that has had some question if he might be a Top 10 player in the entire league. Scheifele has been very good for a long time now, but to be called Top 10 is a huge compliment — that’s elite territory that very few players ever get close to, even in the prime of their career.
Scheifele is undoubtedly in his prime, 25 years old coming off of two straight seasons at a point per game or better, and three straight seasons on pace for 30 or more goals per 82 games played.
The point-per-game pace that Scheifele is currently on is no surprise then, but it is a little surprising that he’s doing it while linemate Blake Wheeler is off to a slower start than usual.
Just to put things in context, we can look at how many scoring chances each player on the Jets’ regular top line is generating at 5-vs-5 compared to last season. We’ll ignore that Nikolaj Ehlers recently swapped with Kyle Connor.
Last season Scheifele and Wheeler were two peas in a pod at even strength, both involved in creating more than eight scoring chances per 20 minutes, while Connor was an excellent linemate who benefited from their playmaking, carving out a niche in front of the net banging in back-door passes, rebounds and other high-percentage plays on the way to a 31-goal rookie season.
This year, however, while Scheifele has improved slightly on a season ago if you look at in isolation, as has Connor, both players have managed to improve their playmaking ability, while Wheeler has had an off start that puts him in mid-tier second-line forward territory offensively.
That isn’t disastrous by any means, but Blake Wheeler is so good that this drop off in play looks catastrophic compared to last season. I’m not really worried about Wheeler at this stage, a slow start can turn around quickly, and based on his last couple games I think that’s already happening, but what does interest me is Scheifele being able to excel at an even higher rate with less help, and other data points us in that direction as well.
Surprisingly, Scheifele actually gets fewer of his own scoring chances than the average Jets forward, and even the average NHL forward, but this was true last season as well, and Scheifele seems to have become similar to Patrik Laine in that he can score at a very high rate with few opportunities.
It’s tempting to look at Scheifele’s 20 per cent shooting percentage and think he’s just riding a hot streak, but his last two seasons he scored on 18.4 per cent and 20 per cent of his shots on goal, respectively, so this start isn’t even an outlier for him, he’s just a menace for opposing goalies to deal with when he gets a shot.
Part of the reason his shots are so successful is his propensity to complete dekes immediately before shooting, which improves his expected shooting percentage in multiple ways. For one, there’s often one fewer player for him to shoot through after a successful offensive-zone deke, or he can use that defending player as a screen.
Deking also allows Scheifele to change his angle of attack, forcing goaltenders to move their feet and open up spots for him to shoot at, and finally, he’s also improving his shot distance more often than not.
In fact, on average Scheifele shoots from closer to the net than almost anyone in the NHL, with his average shot attempt coming from just 21.9 feet from the goal line, while his average shot on goal comes from just 12.9 feet from the net, making his average shot on goal at even strength a high-danger scoring chance.
One of the reasons Scheifele is able to maintain such high goal-scoring totals despite not shooting as often as you would expect is that he’s also an excellent playmaker, and opponents have to be ready for him to slide a pass to Connor or another linemate in the slot at any time, not just play the shot.
Another thing that interests me about Scheifele is that among Jets forwards this season only Brandon Tanev and Kristian Vesalainen have received fewer passes in the slot, meaning than Scheifele hasn’t been set up for scoring success by the puck movement of his linemates at all, despite the Jets being an elite puck-moving team.
More than any of the Jets’ other top players, Scheifele is almost singularly responsible for creating his goal-scoring opportunities. This is likely a huge reason why he’s been able to continue his dominance despite Wheeler’s struggles to open the season, and a good sign for the Jets should they run into injury trouble down the road.
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.