Where have we seen this before?
The Winnipeg Jets followed up two losses in a row with consecutive wins over the Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers, climbing back to the fake .500 mark with a 19-19-3 record — good for 41 points in 41 games as the team reaches the halfway mark in its National Hockey League season.
Instead of trying to pick which team — Jekyll or Hyde — we’ll see Saturday (when they’ll try, against the Buffalo Sabres, to win three in a row for the first time this season), let’s take a look at how this young Jets squad stacks up against another crew filled with youngsters.
The Toronto Maple Leafs are 17-12-8 for 42 points in 37 games, and while there’s been so much comparison made between young Jets star Patrik Laine and Leafs counterpart Auston Matthews, we’ll keep this to being about team concepts and overall play.
Heading into Thursday’s games, along with their overall record, the Leafs are also ahead in other numbers, some by a significant margin.
They were sixth (84.7 per cent) in the league in penalty-killing success, while the Jets were 26th (76.5 per cent). On the power play, the Leafs were 12th (20.3 per cent), while the Jets were tied for 19th (16.8 per cent). The Leafs hover around 10th spot, and the Jets around 20th in five-on-five play, when looking at possession statistics.
The Jets started rebuilding in 2011 (with the purchase of the Atlanta Thrashers franchise); the Leafs got serious about their makeover a couple of years ago when they brought in Brendan Shanahan to run things.
They both just drafted franchise players (Laine and Matthews) this summer, and both have a number of good young players in their lineup.
The Leafs lost Tuesday 6-5 in overtime to the Washington Capitals, halting their five-game winning streak.
(Wouldn’t Jets fans love getting even a sniff of five wins in a row?)
Going beyond the numbers, I’m most impressed with the Leafs’ consistency in systems play. They have those "young" moments but make up for it by being able to create clean puck movement that turns into good scoring chances. Sometimes this leads to bad defence, but they have been able to overcome this with high-end offensive talent and an overall adherence to the systems head coach Mike Babcock has in place. I almost always walk away from a Leafs game having watched a team that is improving. Win or lose, this is a team succeeding even with nine rookies in its lineup.
Of note, the goaltending play Babcock has received has been very good after a tough start to 2016-17 for Fredrik Andersen. The Leafs decided to trade for the veteran 27-year-old to hold the fort for the rookies; the Jets decided to go with 23-year-old Connor Hellebuyck and backup Michael Hutchinson.
It’s easy to see the Leafs have benefited the most in this so far because of the erratic play of Hellebuyck, although he slowly is showing he may be able to give the Jets what they need from him on a nightly basis.
Regardless, goaltending should never be an excuse for poor systems play. Players don’t forget how to play their system if the goaltending is weak.
You’re told what to do, and my coaches always said, "Don’t worry about anybody else’s job; just do yours." They were clear they were the ones who would address my teammates’ participation in systems and roles. The best way to keep your job was to give them nothing to complain about.
Of course, non-compliance in team play came with players being relegated to a lesser role or being benched — something Babcock has done a few times. He has a Stanley Cup and two Olympic gold medals among his many achievements — a US$50-million contract also helps to make those decisions easier. At the same time, he seems to encourage his club to play brave hockey.
Jets head coach Paul Maurice has a career winning record of just above .500 (575-553-99-97), but he did a good job with the veteran-laden Jets team in 2014-15 that produced 99 points and made the playoffs. However, despite the most recent two wins, he needs to get his best coaching hat on — it’s been 1½ years with a young lineup and no consistent, decent results, team-wise.
The Jets’ man-on-man defensive-zone play comes under fire at times — some players are just not quick enough in tight to the play and have poor body positioning or slow sticks when pursuing their check. If there’s even one weak link on the ice, there’s a wide-open opposition player, and we all know how that looks.
Oddly enough, one problem offensively may be that many players seem to be mentally stuck to their defensive commitments for too long and don’t break it off quickly enough to become a good offensive outlet for their teammates. This would create easier exits from their zone when their teammates get good pressure on the puck and would allow for more creativity through the neutral and offensive zones. This is an area the Leafs seem much better at to this point.
The Jets are at their best attacking the puck — they’re wasting offensive talent when they systematically play it safe. (Just look at Bryan Little’s two takeaways against the Panthers that turned into immediate goals by Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers.)
The Leafs have done well living on the edge by having a lot of action in both ends, depending on their talent and hard work to overcome any adversity.
The Jets might want to pick up the offensive pace by giving up a bit on the defensive side on a nightly basis. After all, they’ve got plenty of young talent too, along with some high-powered veterans. If they can’t put together a decent winning streak soon, they need to change something.
Why not copy what is working elsewhere?
Chosen ninth overall by the NHL’s St. Louis Blues and first overall by the WHA’s Houston Aeros in 1977, Scott Campbell has now been drafted by the Winnipeg Free Press to play a new style of game.