August 23, 2019

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Opinion

Easy zone entries add insult to injuries on Jets' blue line

Tyler Myers (57) ranks 135th in neutral zone denials. (John Woods / Canadian Press files)</p>

Tyler Myers (57) ranks 135th in neutral zone denials. (John Woods / Canadian Press files)

With the Winnipeg Jets struggling a little bit over their last stretch of games, the team's few structural weaknesses have begun to get some attention.

The main weakness I’ve focused on this season has been the team's propensity to give up chances off the rush. The Jets have also struggled at times to generate chances off the rush, but with Nikolaj Ehlers back in the lineup and the addition of Kevin Hayes in the middle I don’t think that’s an area of deep concern at the moment.

There are plenty of factors that go into how many chances off the rush a team gives up. For example, the New York Islanders give up barely any because they play a dump-and-chase style to the extreme — generating less offence, but also carrying fewer risks of odd-man rushes against because of failed passes or a puck carrier being stripped in the neutral zone.

Limiting risk also limits reward, so for a team as offensively talented as the Jets, I don’t think that’s a solution that makes sense. The focus then shifts to how defenders handle controlled-entry attempts, and we can break that down by player.

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With the Winnipeg Jets struggling a little bit over their last stretch of games, the team's few structural weaknesses have begun to get some attention.

The main weakness I’ve focused on this season has been the team's propensity to give up chances off the rush. The Jets have also struggled at times to generate chances off the rush, but with Nikolaj Ehlers back in the lineup and the addition of Kevin Hayes in the middle I don’t think that’s an area of deep concern at the moment.

There are plenty of factors that go into how many chances off the rush a team gives up. For example, the New York Islanders give up barely any because they play a dump-and-chase style to the extreme — generating less offence, but also carrying fewer risks of odd-man rushes against because of failed passes or a puck carrier being stripped in the neutral zone.

Limiting risk also limits reward, so for a team as offensively talented as the Jets, I don’t think that’s a solution that makes sense. The focus then shifts to how defenders handle controlled-entry attempts, and we can break that down by player.

Looking at controlled-entry attempts where an opponent targeted each defenceman, you can make a few inferences based on the total number of entries attempted alone. Opposing attackers don’t like to attempt to enter the Jets’ zone against Dustin Byfuglien; the combination of his long reach and the possibility of being crushed by a bodycheck is likely enough to scare some players away. The order each defenceman is placed on the chart is no coincidence — by highest to lowest entry denial rate, from top to bottom.

 

That means that it’s not just physical attributes and reputation that drives opponents away from Byfuglien on entries — he’s also one of the toughest to get past in practical situations.

While he isn’t the most porous entry defender on the team, it’s clear that opponents mark Joe Morrow as someone who can be exploited defensively. Despite playing third-pairing minutes against weaker competition — something that lowers the number of entry attempts against for Tyler Myers and Sami Niku — he’s still the Jets’ defenceman that faces the most tries.

Newly acquired Nathan Beaulieu has the lowest denial rate on the team overall, which shouldn’t be a huge surprise given his reputation as a poor defensive player. One interesting thing is that his neutral zone denials are vastly higher than any other Jet.

In a perfect world, you would want to deny a controlled entry in the neutral zone instead of the offensive zone, because even if you knock the puck away in the defensive zone, it’s already crossed the blue line and there’s still plenty of risk.

Opponents mark Joe Morrow as someone who can be exploited defensively. (Hannah Foslien / Associated Press files)</p>

Opponents mark Joe Morrow as someone who can be exploited defensively. (Hannah Foslien / Associated Press files)

This season, aside from Beaulieu, the Jets just aren’t very aggressive when defending in the neutral zone, with Myers leading the pack at just 0.82 neutral zone denials per 60 minutes. To put that into some context, among 206 defencemen this season who have played at least 400 minutes, Myers ranks 135th in neutral zone denials. I think this might be part of the problem.

The Jets are relatively efficient at disrupting entries once the puck crosses the line, but because they allow opponents to access their zone so freely, they’re still susceptible to attackers recovering with the puck still in their zone.

If Beaulieu was a better defensive player in his own zone he might be able to make a small difference in that regard, but he’s too easily beat on passing plays and his man-to-man coverage isn’t great either.

As a result, despite being an aggressive neutral zone defender, he’s still the leakiest defenceman off the rush on the Jets’ roster.

Opposing attackers don’t like to attempt to enter the Jets’ zone against Dustin Byfuglien; the combination of his long reach and the possibility of being crushed by a bodycheck is likely enough to scare some players away

One reason why this weakness may be rearing its head a little bit right now is that the Jets are coming up on a month without Byfuglien, and he is clearly the biggest impact player on the roster in this area.

Not only does Byfuglien’s presence intimidate opponents into not trying for entries as often and dumping the puck in, but when he does break up an entry in the defensive zone, he has the highest rate on the Jets of recovering that puck and sending it over the blue line, with a full third of the entry attempts he faces being sent back into the neutral zone. That ranks 36th in the NHL, tied with Boston's Zdeno Chara, one of the best neutral zone defenders in the business.

The Jets’ next best player in this area is Dmitri Kulikov, who has been really solid of late and ranks 73rd in the league, but after that we drop down to Josh Morrissey at 140th, and he’s out with an injury as well.

So two of the Jets’ best at not just denying entries but denying them and sending the puck the other way are out of the lineup, and the team struggles in that area to begin with.

It’s just one facet of the game, but it’s one explanation of why they can get into trouble for stretches.

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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