This season has been going better for the Winnipeg Jets than most experts expected. The team has rallied around its signature playing style to insulate a relatively unremarkable defensive group and Connor Hellebuyck has papered over most of the defensive weaknesses that remain.
Until the last five games, the Jets were trending upwards by most measures and, although they’re in a bit of a rut at the moment, their season-long outlook is much more positive now than it was coming out of training camp.
For the most part, things have worked out for the Jets, but there is one area where they have really struggled: killing penalties.
Currently the Jets are killing just 71.5 per cent of the power plays they’re giving opponents, the worst mark in the league this season and the worst penalty-kill percentage in the NHL over the last 10 seasons. It’s unlikely it stays that low, since the worst penalty kill other than the Jets over the decade was last year’s Chicago Blackhawks at 72.7 per cent — and the Blackhawks over the last few years have been the single-worst defensive team in the league.
Luckily for the Jets, their league-worst penalty killing isn’t hurting them nearly as much as you would expect because they’re the league’s most-disciplined team. Allowing just 2.49 powerplays against per game has stopped the bleeding while short-handed to the point where they’re only giving up the sixth-most power play goals against per game in the league; tied with the Toronto Maple Leafs at 0.71.
However, the Jets’ poor job on the penalty kill represents a source of extreme danger to their playoff hopes, because if their discipline evaporates for an extended period, or officiating just doesn’t go their way, things could get ugly quickly.
Even a 10-game stretch where the Jets take a league-average number of penalties per game (3.09) would see the Jets give up an extra two goals over that period, and when you consider how thin the margins are for the team, that could turn potential wins into losses.
So what exactly is going wrong on the penalty kill, and can it be corrected?
Looking at the Jets’ penalty kill compared to the rest of the league, they give up more shots from the slot and from the perimeter than the average team does. In fact, they allow more shot attempts and shots on goal overall than any other team aside from the New York Rangers.
Luckily for the Jets, their league–worst penalty killing isn’t hurting them nearly as much as you would expect because they’re the league’s most–disciplined team.
Giving up those extra shots and scoring chances is clearly a bad thing, but strangely, they remain about an average team in defending passes.
The Jets are right near league average at preventing passes through the middle of the ice on the PK, and that allows just a fraction more one-timers against than the average team does. They’re nowhere close to the most porous team in allowing pre-shot movement; that would be the Florida Panthers, who allow 44.2 one-timers against every 60 minutes while short-handed, five more than the next worst team and 15 more than the Jets.
So the issue isn’t getting beat by great passes or failing to get in lanes to prevent those passes, but the shots from dangerous areas are still occurring and the Jets’ penalty killing is still leaky as a sieve. Where are the breakdowns coming from?
Looking at the usual suspects that can kill teams defensively, it’s not mental mistakes causing turnovers; the Jets rank 11th-best in the league with a low defensive turnover rate while shorthanded, and they’re even better in the neutral zone, ranked ninth.
It’s not that the Jets are being beat down on the forecheck; they’re league average at recovering the puck on opposing dump-ins and sending it right back out of the zone.
And it’s not being particularly porous at their own blue line, either. The Jets are the third-best team in the league at forcing attempted controlled entries by opponents offside while short-handed, and they’re dead-on league average at allowing the entries that are successful to turn into a scoring chance.
The issues the Jets have on the PK essentially come down to two areas: attempted dump-outs and faceoffs.
At even-strength you want your players to move the puck with control, avoid dumping it off the glass and out as much as possible to maintain possession, but while short-handed when you can’t ice the puck, it’s a viable option a lot more often. However the Jets are successful on only 69.2 per cent of their attempted dump-outs while down a man, the second-worst mark in the league, which often means they’re not just failing to relieve pressure, but also often out of position after attempting the clearance, and tired as well.
That can create some odd-man situations down low that result in goals against and amplifies their bigger issue, faceoffs.
The defending team on the penalty kill doesn’t win an even number of draws in their own zone. The league average for the defending team is around 44 per cent, but the Jets are the third-worst in the NHL, winning just 36.4 per cent of those draws.
When the Jets do win those draws, they’re a top-10 team at maintaining possession long enough to exit the defensive zone, but when they lose them they’re among the worst at retrieving possession back from their opponents, which leads to longer possessions for opponents, more tired defenders and better chances against.
These kinds of things cascade on teams in short-handed situations, but at the same time the Jets aren’t posting the worst defensive results in the league while short-handed. They aren’t posting good numbers by any stretch, but there’s a bit of bad luck in a small sample size at play here, as well.
The penalty kill should improve on its own by a slight margin, but the Jets are really going to have to focus on faceoffs and clearing the zone if they want to clean this area up significantly.
Andrew Berkshire is a hockey writer specializing in data-driven analysis of the game.