Jets plugging along despite injuries, off-season departures

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 27/12/2019 (959 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Winnipeg Jets center Mark Scheifele (55) and Minnesota Wild Nico Sturm (7) battle for the puck in the second period of an NHL hockey game Saturday, Dec. 21, 2019, in St. Paul, Minn. (AP Photo/Andy Clayton-King)

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about how the Jets’ overall season statistics were hiding the fact that in recent weeks they had started to turn their season around. The squad had started to produce similar underlying numbers at even-strength compared to the season before. That, along with Connor Hellebuyck’s phenomenal goaltending appears to have them headed towards another playoff spot despite losing more than half of last season’s defence core.

Since that turnaround started around mid-November we can break things down even further and see which players on the roster have been driving that change in performance. We’ll split forwards from defencemen and include all players who have played at least 100 minutes since Game 20 of the season.

Forwards

Interestingly, the current top line of Mark Scheifele centring Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor is performing in a very similar way to past years where Blake Wheeler was on that line instead of Laine — outplayed pretty significantly in the shots department but keeping complete control of the dangerous passes and, as a result, producing some decent results.

The shot shares that line produces is a bit troubling, but this has been something that Scheifele, in particular, has been able to do for years now, and whether it’s his pure talent level or something that statistics haven’t accurately measured yet, he continuously outperforms his on-ice expected goals-for percentage.

The next line of Nikolaj Ehlers, Wheeler and Jack Roslovic are faring much better overall, controlling shots and shot attempts while exerting even more control of passes than the top line does. They also struggle to control those net-front shots that produce the highest-quality shots.

Despite not controlling that area of the ice, the control they exert over slot passes and shots overall has them performing at a really nice clip, and according to Sportlogiq’s data, they have a 52.1 per cent expected-goals percentage while on the ice together at even-strength, which is pretty excellent considering Wheeler has played limited time at centre in his career.

With Andrew Copp and Mathieu Perreault currently injured, the Jets’ top line by expected goals this season is actually incomplete at the moment, but we should take a moment to highlight them. With Adam Lowry at centre, the Jets’ third line is breaking even in shots and shot attempts while those three share the ice together, but they have an absurd level of control over the inner slot and slot passes, which gives them an extreme shot-quality advantage despite being a line that most wouldn’t see as particularly skilled.

Copp and Lowry, in particular, have been two cogs in a great depth line for every season that the Jets have been a playoff team, their consistency — no matter what role they’re put into — makes them truly valuable despite what could be seen as relatively expensive contracts for what many would classify as “fourth-line guys.” The fact is, they keep proving themselves to be much more than that.

The last forward to hit the 100-minute mark is Logan Shaw, a callup from the Manitoba Moose to fill in because of injuries, and it’s fair to say he has struggled mightily. Unfortunately, there’s not much to be done there aside from getting healthy, unless the Jets are looking to make a trade to add a depth piece, which likely won’t be the case until closer to the trade deadline.

Defencemen 

The defencemen are a bit tougher to evaluate than the forwards, but as I pointed out in late November, Neal Pionk is performing much better than many people (including myself) had realized before really looking into it.

Pionk has had slightly better results with the injured Dmitry Kulikov than he has with Luca Sbisa, but he has allowed those two players, who are primarily defence-focused and usually not very good by the on-ice differentials, to put up pretty solid overall numbers compared to the rest of the team.

Pionk’s offensive and transition ability has been a nice complement with two players who are best without the puck, which also insulates his own defensive foibles to a certain extent, and it has allowed the Jets a bit of versatility from the back end.

Surprisingly, Josh Morrissey has really been struggling of late, far below expectations by all the shot metrics, but still maintaining a decently strong level of control of slot passes. Morrissey has shown that he’s a strong play driver from the back end over several years now, so my read of this situation is that Tucker Poolman just isn’t able to play in the tough minutes that Morrissey has to play in order to make the Jets’ defence workable.

Nathan Beaulieu and Anthony Bitetto appear to be doing yeoman’s work on the third pairing against weak competition, despite the “Beaulieu debacle” as coined by a colleague in the game against the Montreal Canadiens Monday night.

Not to take anything away from those two, but I have a feeling that playing a majority of their ice time behind the dominant Lowry line is likely a big reason for their numbers looking so strong. Neither player has been able to demonstrate a consistent level of play-driving in recent years, so the credit should probably once again go to the underrated Jets’ grind line.

Looking at how things are going for the Jets’ roster as a whole like this, if there’s anything they could add in the new year to improve their prospects for the playoffs it would be a top-pairing defender to share the ice with Morrissey and insulate some of the weaknesses of the top line, but everyone following the team already knew that.

The other area of need is depth at the forward position, where prospects on the Manitoba Moose such as Kristian Vesalainen don’t appear to be quite ready, and the veterans don’t look like viable options, either. That should be a relatively easy thing to address if the Jets decide to do so, but the defensive need is a much bigger ask.

History

Updated on Friday, December 27, 2019 3:19 PM CST: Adds lead image

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