December 8, 2019

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Opinion

Breaking up once-dynamic duo correct move for Jets

With the loss of Bryan Little, Blake Wheeler has been moved to centre. (Lynne Sladky / The Associated Press)</p>

With the loss of Bryan Little, Blake Wheeler has been moved to centre. (Lynne Sladky / The Associated Press)

The Winnipeg Jets have faced more than their fair share of adversity early this season — injuries, slumps, salary-cap related losses and Dustin Byfuglien’s ambiguous situation.

Despite all of that — and having a negative goal differential — the team has somehow muscled its way into a playoff position for the time being, sitting third in the NHL's Central Division.

From the coaching staff to the players, the Jets have been grinding out wins the tough way. The latest calamity has taken Bryan Little out of the lineup indefinitely, a blow to their depth at the centre position. The Jets have responded the same way they did when Mark Scheifele was hurt two years ago, by moving Blake Wheeler to centre. Ahead of the Jets’ loss to Colorado Tuesday, superstar Nathan MacKinnon said he felt the Jets were tougher to play against with Wheeler in the middle.

Is that true?

There isn’t much for the Jets to lose in making the move. Despite the point production in recent seasons, I don’t think the pairing of Scheifele and Wheeler is as dominant as the team would like them to be and the Jets need a centre who can drive some offence on the second line with Little out.

But if splitting up the two pillars of the first line and moving the captain to centre creates a better situation for both, maybe it’s something that should continue after Little recovers from his head injury.

Let’s look at the early results:

Looking at both Wheeler and Scheifele before and after the change, it looks like Wheeler is shooting from in closer to the net, but getting fewer opportunities overall. He hasn’t, however, managed to connect on a pass to the slot yet at even-strength.

Meanwhile, Scheifele has taken off like a rocket — taking more shots from the slot and nearly tripling his pass-to-the-slot numbers.

Playing with Nikolaj Ehlers has increased the amount of attacking Wheeler is doing off the rush, while Scheifele, Kyle Connor and Patrik Laine have shifted into more of a dominant cycling style with a drop in attacking off the rush.

Overall, Scheifele has seen his involvement in creating scoring chances go from 6.53 per 20 minutes played at even-strength to 10.9. Wheeler may look like he’s fallen off a little bit, but has, in fact, gone from 5.85 to 6.86 scoring chances created for his teammates every 20 minutes.

It’s a small sample to be making judgments, but at least in the short term it appears that this move has sparked the offence for the top two lines in a pretty significant way.

But what about controlling play overall?

We know that Wheeler’s on-ice differentials have been dropping for a couple of years — and the duo of Scheifele and Wheeler together tend to get outplayed in both shots and chances, but outscore opponents due to their passing. What do they look like split up?

We have two different stories to look at here with a small sample size to decipher. On Wheeler’s end, every single shot-based metric improves when he has been split from Scheifele and given the responsibilities of the centre position. The biggest improvements have come in the statistics with the largest cumulative sample sizes; shots and shot attempts.

As for Scheifele, all the shot-based metrics have improved, as well, with the same pattern of the bigger, more reliable samples improving by a greater amount when he’s apart from Wheeler.

However, with the two split apart, both players have seen a drop in their ability to control passes to the slot while they’re on the ice. With Wheeler, that drop has been marginal, not something to be worried about, while Scheifele has gone from a positive impact player on slot passes to a negative one.

Interestingly, the entirety of the change to Scheifele’s slot pass differential has been defensively, where he’s struggled a bit more without Wheeler’s presence. It’s still a small sample, but it shouldn’t be too surprising to anyone that Wheeler was a big defensive presence on that line, and they may struggle to cope in that area without him, especially when you consider that neither Connor or Laine have a big defensive impact, so the load falls entirely on Scheifele.

Meanwhile, Wheeler has to change up his style at centre, but he also gets to play with a more rounded player in Nikolaj Ehlers to help maintain that ability to control passes on the defensive end.

It’s too early to make definitive statements, but the early returns on this move by Paul Maurice are pretty excellent, and I think even if Little were back in the lineup tomorrow it would be worthwhile to continue the experiment and see if these results continue, because two of your most important players each seeing their on-ice shot-attempt differential jump up nearly 20 per cent is a tough signal to ignore. It might be time to keep them apart permanently.

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.

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