July 16, 2019

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From sizzle to fizzle: What's behind the Jets' struggles on the power play

Winnipeg Jets' Bryan Little (18) looks on as Ottawa Senators goaltender Anders Nilsson (31) and Brady Tkachuk (7) smother his shot during second period NHL action in Winnipeg on Saturday, February 16, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods</p>

Winnipeg Jets' Bryan Little (18) looks on as Ottawa Senators goaltender Anders Nilsson (31) and Brady Tkachuk (7) smother his shot during second period NHL action in Winnipeg on Saturday, February 16, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

The Winnipeg Jets have been facing their fair share of adversity this season — from injuries to Nikolaj Ehlers and Dustin Byfuglien to Patrik Laine scoring on just four per cent of his shots on goal in an unprecedented cold streak.

The latest issue the team is struggling with is the disappearance of its most powerful weapon — scoring on the power play.

Last season, the Jets’ power play was ranked fifth in the NHL, scoring on 23.4 per cent of their opportunities. It was built around the playmaking prowess of Blake Wheeler, who tied with the Flyers' Claude Giroux for the most scoring chances created per minute on the man advantage.

The Jets’ power play looked even more deadly this season, scoring on 28.6 per cent of their opportunities in 2018, bested only by the Tampa Bay Lightning at 29.8 per cent. Since the calendar has flipped to 2019, however, the Jets have gone from the second-ranked power play down to 18th, scoring on just 18 per cent of their power play opportunities in the New Year.

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The Winnipeg Jets have been facing their fair share of adversity this season — from injuries to Nikolaj Ehlers and Dustin Byfuglien to Patrik Laine scoring on just four per cent of his shots on goal in an unprecedented cold streak.

The latest issue the team is struggling with is the disappearance of its most powerful weapon — scoring on the power play.

Last season, the Jets’ power play was ranked fifth in the NHL, scoring on 23.4 per cent of their opportunities. It was built around the playmaking prowess of Blake Wheeler, who tied with the Flyers' Claude Giroux for the most scoring chances created per minute on the man advantage.

The Jets’ power play looked even more deadly this season, scoring on 28.6 per cent of their opportunities in 2018, bested only by the Tampa Bay Lightning at 29.8 per cent. Since the calendar has flipped to 2019, however, the Jets have gone from the second-ranked power play down to 18th, scoring on just 18 per cent of their power play opportunities in the New Year.

An 18 per cent power play isn’t disastrous, it’s only two per cent lower than league average. However, the Jets power play has long been a game changer, with opponents fearing it and sometimes forcing them to avoid matching the Jets’ physicality and intensity to avoid allowing power play goals.

For most teams, a slightly below league average power play isn’t a big issue or even notable. For the Jets, a 10 percentage point drop in effectiveness is a cause for concern. So what’s changed to cause it?

Unfortunately for the Jets, it seems like there isn’t just one thing going wrong; they’ve taken a hit absolutely everywhere in their offence-creating process. High-danger chances is the area where the team has taken the biggest hit, with the rate they’re getting them dropping by over 46 per cent, but the Jets have also faced 16 to 19 per cent declines in scoring chances overall, passes to the slot, and turning their passes into scoring chances off the cycle.

Combine that with the Jets’ ability to beat opponents one-on-one with offensive zone dekes in open ice to create better shooting angles dropping by over 25 per cent, and it’s a wonder that they’re still making good on 18 per cent of their opportunities.

The first instinct in seeing these numbers is to examine the individual players and see who has dropped off significantly in 2019, but the reality is that everyone has. It’s tough to stand out individually when you’re rowing upstream. Something has changed at the team level to make the Jets’ less effective on the power play.

Surprisingly, the Jets have increased their puck-possession time in the offensive zone on the power play, controlling the puck there for 20:06 every 60 minutes in 2019 as opposed to 19:35 in 2018, but I don’t think that’s statistically significant. If anything, it may show the Jets are hanging onto the puck a little too long.

Similarly, the Jets have been doing a better job of winning puck battles in 2019 than they were in 2018, coming out on top in 38.7 per cent as opposed to 32.8 per cent while the power play was scoring at will.

One area where the Jets have experienced decline is in their ability to enter the offensive zone with control. Previously, they carried the puck in 58.4 times per 60 minutes. They are now currently only carrying it in 53.2 times per 60 minutes. However the reason for that isn’t a shift towards dumping the puck in, because their dump-in rate has dropped from 23.4 per cent to 18.2 per cent. It’s because they’re simply getting fewer entries overall.

So the Jets are getting slightly more offensive zone time off of fewer zone entries, and producing much fewer dangerous opportunities that create goals. What are they doing with the puck in the offensive zone? Passing. A lot.

In 2018, the Jets attempted 550.3 passes in the offensive zone per 60 minutes on the power play, while in 2019 they’ve attempted 582.8, rising from the 21st-most passes to the eighth-most. At the same time, their pass completion rate has risen from 80.6 per cent to 82.1 per cent. That may sound good, but the type of pass you’re making carries an expected completion rate, and easier passes are often less dangerous, so tendencies matter.

It doesn’t look like huge changes here, but remember we’re dealing with a play that occurs 550 to 580 times per 60 minutes of power-play time, so small changes can have big ramifications.

Notice that the Jets have been moving the puck around the perimeter more often than before, at the cost of passing to the slot in particular. There are two other main areas where the passes have increased, as well.

East-west passes are a good thing overall — they force goaltenders to move laterally and, if executed either quickly or from close enough to the net, can create dangerous one-timer opportunities. The problem is that most of the east-west passes on the power play are just defencemen passing the puck back and forth to find another outlet to cycle the puck lower. They’re usually support plays more than ways to create offence. That’s not necessarily bad, it’s just not great either.

If we limit the sample to forwards, we can get a better picture of how many of those east-west passes are creating opportunities. When we do that, it becomes clear it is just defencemen passing the puck back and forth, as Jets forwards are completing four fewer east-west passes per 60 minutes in 2019, with their tendency to go for an east-west pass dropping from 14.1 per cent to 13.5 per cent.

The other increase has been in north-cycle passes, which involve defencemen at the point sending the puck down to the half wall or into the corner for forwards to make a subsequent play.

Essentially what’s been happening of late is Jets' defencemen are handling the puck too much and making too many safe plays, instead of going for the high-risk, high-reward plays that have paid off so well for Winnipeg in the past.

Whether this is deliberate or just a slump, the Jets will want to add that risky flair back into their power play as soon as possible if they want to win the Central Division.

Andrew Berkshire

Andrew Berkshire

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

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