Answer to Jets’ current woes is located in the slot

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After holding on to a playoff position, against all odds, for most of the season, the Winnipeg Jets limped into the All-Star break on a four-game losing streak, three points out of the last wild-card spot held currently by the Vegas Golden Knights.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 24/01/2020 (1041 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

After holding on to a playoff position, against all odds, for most of the season, the Winnipeg Jets limped into the All-Star break on a four-game losing streak, three points out of the last wild-card spot held currently by the Vegas Golden Knights.

The Jets do have a game in hand on Vegas, but losing the advantage that they’ve had for much of the season in banking points to stay ahead of the rabble looks like it might be really costly.

The ground falling out from under the Jets was something that many have predicted, as they’ve certainly punched above their weight for large portions of the season. It’s something they managed last year as well, especially the top line.

Not too long ago, the team appeared to be trending upwards, or at least levelling off at even-strength, hovering near 50 per cent in shot quality and quantity for a nearly 20-game stretch. So what’s happened since?

Charting Hockey’s Sean Tierney gives us a bit of a hint of what’s going on with his posts on each team’s rolling average percentages.

 

The Jets have gone from getting great shooting percentages and great save percentages to poor in both areas, with Connor Hellebuyck’s previously brilliant play starting to fall off. However, it’s a little unsatisfying to say that the Jets were getting lucky and now they’re getting unlucky, so let’s look at the data we turned to last time and see how much the performance behind the percentages has changed over time.

As it turns out, that dropoff in the shooting and save percentages wasn’t just luck; the Jets’ style of play completely collapsed for a stretch.

Over the last couple of seasons, the Jets have functioned as a team that hasn’t held the advantage over opponents in terms of shooting volume or shooting position, but they’ve managed to consistently outpace their expected performance by maintaining tight control of the passing game.

Kyle Robertson / Columbus Dispatch The Winnipeg Jets Mark Scheifele, left, and Patrik Laine, far right, look for a pass in the slot against the Columbus Blue Jackets last Wednesday.

They force opponents to shoot from stagnant positioning and they move the puck extremely well in the offensive zone, maximizing the results of their own few dangerous shots while cutting down the quality of opponents’ shots.

It’s a formula that isn’t very common in the NHL, but it has worked to keep the Jets in the playoff picture. Things were actually going very well in December, until the Montreal Canadiens rolled into Winnipeg in the last game before the holiday break. The Habs beat the Jets down in every area in a 6-2 win.

Coming out of the break, the Jets put in an incredibly gutsy defensive performance against the division-leading St. Louis Blues, not allowing a single shot on net from the inner slot, and limiting the Blues to just seven even-strength scoring chances, but lost the tight game in overtime. Losing that game seemed to be a breaking point in the team’s confidence, with a total defensive collapse occurring right after.

The Jets had a rough start to the season when it came to limiting slot passes in their own zone, allowing an average of 14.6 against per game. After that point though, they allowed more than 10 just six times in the following 31 games, and averaged just 7.7 against per game over that time.

Starting with the Dec. 23 game against the Canadiens, the Jets allowed more than 10 slot passes against at even-strength per game on nine consecutive dates, and in 11 of 12. The defensive lapses were accentuated by collapsing offensively at the same time, which only made everything worse.

This stretch is the first time in multiple seasons where the Jets have gone 10 games where they were outplayed by their opponents in slot passes, and they didn’t just drop slightly below even, they were controlling less than 40 per cent for nine games, which must have been a total shock to everyone who has been on that team for the last few years.

The club was still able to eke out a few wins over that stretch, and to give them credit, it looks like they found a way to avoid panicking, because even though the last four outings have been losses, the Jets have started to dig their way out of the gutter, and actually crawled up above 50 per cent of the slot passes over their last six games before the break.

Ironically, for a team that looked like it needed a break more than almost any other club, this eight-day hiatus may have come at the exact wrong time, since the team was just beginning to regroup and play cohesively again.

The challenge will be to recapture their identity after the All-Star break and bye week and not fall back into the bad habits that emerged over the holidays.

David Banks / the Associated Press Chicago Blackhawks right-winger Patrick Kane skates in unmolested on Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck.
Andrew Berkshire

Andrew Berkshire

Andrew Berkshire is a hockey writer specializing in data-driven analysis of the game.

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