Wheeler stepping it up down stretch

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With five teams vying for two wild-card spots in the Western Conference playoff race, the playoffs are far from a guarantee for the Winnipeg Jets.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 06/03/2020 (1069 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

With five teams vying for two wild-card spots in the Western Conference playoff race, the playoffs are far from a guarantee for the Winnipeg Jets.

One of the biggest reasons the Jets have been able to stick around in that pack pushing for the playoffs has been a resurgent second half of the season from team captain Blake Wheeler.

Before the season began, I wrote about troubling signs in Wheeler’s game — identifiers that showed things were slowing down for him offensively and his on-ice impacts were falling off as well.

Jason Franson / The Canadian Press FILES When Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler is on the ice the team controls nearly 61 per cent of the slot passes.

In the first half of the season that trend seemed to be holding steady, but since the calendar switched to 2020… let’s say things have changed.

Control of slot passes has always been a big part of Wheeler’s game, but it had fallen off in each of the last two seasons. It remained positive in the first half of this season but since then has gone from very good to spectacular, with the Jets controlling nearly 61 per cent of the slot passes while he’s on the ice.

As great as that increased control of slot passes has been for the Jets, the biggest difference maker and trend buster has been how heavily the Jets have controlled the shot metrics while Wheeler has been on the ice — especially from the inner slot.

A 17 percentage point increase in on-ice inner slot differential is a colossal change from among league-worst impacts from the most important area of the ice to among the league best. So has Wheeler found the fountain of youth?

Looking at the individual offensive contributions that Wheeler has made in the first and second halves, he has made a few changes in his tendencies with the puck, but I don’t think it explains why the differentials have skyrocketed into such incredible territory.

Wheeler is shooting less often but from closer to the net on average. He’s also completing more passes to the slot and off the rush. All of the differences are relatively small; for example Wheeler was involved in creating 6.82 scoring chances every 20 minutes at 5-vs.-5 in 2019, and 6.86 in 2020. So where is the change coming from in Wheeler’s game?

Looking through Wheeler’s individual plays, the areas of big change that stand out are in two areas that are fundamentally intertwined.

In the first half of the season Wheeler removed possession from opponents 1.8 times every 20 minutes of ice time at 5-vs.-5, whereas in 2020 he’s completed those plays 2.35 times every 20 minutes, which may not seem like a lot but represents a 30.6 per cent increase in frequency.

Similarly, in the first half of the year Wheeler was recovering 6.46 loose pucks in the offensive zone every 20 minutes of ice time, and since the calendar flipped to the new year that number has risen to 8.16 every 20 minutes, which is a 26.3 per cent increase in frequency.

Combining those two areas you get a nearly 30 per cent increase in the effectiveness of Blake Wheeler’s forechecking in the second half of the season, stifling opponents’ breakout schemes and creating better and longer offensive zone possessions for his team.

Even if he’s not directly creating a lot more scoring chances, he’s creating the opportunity for his linemates to take advantage and create them, often with his opponents now out of position and scrambling because he’s forced them into mistakes.

That forechecking pressure also has a defensive impact even that far from the defensive zone itself, since disrupting clean possessions while defending players are trying to initiate breakouts prevents clean zone exits with control, which in turn cuts down controlled entries going against the Jets, which then cuts down the number of rush chances opponents can create.

Little changes in a player’s game can create ripple effects that change everything for them, but even with this change in Wheeler’s forechecking, the impact on his on-ice differentials is too extreme to lay at the feet of just that.

There’s likely more going on that we can’t quantify directly, whether it’s a different level of intensity or simply being in the right spots at the right time. The fact is whatever is happening for Wheeler beyond his increased focus on forechecking, it’s working. If the Jets are going to make the playoffs, or even surprise a team once they get there, their captain finding a level he hasn’t had since 2016-17 is going to be a big reason why.

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

Andrew Berkshire

Andrew Berkshire

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

History

Updated on Friday, March 6, 2020 9:23 PM CST: Adds graph

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