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This article was published 1/2/2019 (599 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
With Nikolaj Ehlers out, Patrik Laine struggling to score and looking exposed defensively, and Mark Scheifele on a bit of a cold streak at 5-vs-5, the secret sauce from the Winnipeg Jets has come from the unlikeliest of places over the last two months: their fourth line.
At the beginning of the season, the Jets’ prospective fourth line was Adam Lowry between Brandon Tanev and Andrew Copp, though some would say it was the third line and that’s entirely fair — that line was excellent at grinding out the bottom end of teams’ lineups and chipping in the odd goal.
As injuries and struggling players have started to eat away at the Jets’ lineup, that grouping has been split up for awhile, and for the last two months or so, the fourth line has consisted of two young wingers in Brendan Lemieux and Mason Appleton, centred by Andrew Copp.
Appleton had made a good impression earlier in the year and has had a great season in the American Hockey League, while Lemieux got himself into hot water with a suspension in November, and is only now starting to win fans over.
That line, since being put together, has easily been the Jets’ most dominant at 5-vs-5 in terms of pushing the play into the offensive zone and keeping the puck there. They're not being asked to play top competition, but beating up on the bottom half of opponents while banking on the most talented Jets to make the best of their opportunities is not a bad strategy.
According to Corsica.Hockey’s player ranking system, which can be seen on Daily Faceoff, the Jets’ fourth line is currently rated as the best in the entire NHL. There’s a reason for that, and it’s clear when you look at performance statistics.
Comparing each member of the Jets’ fourth line to how the Jets as a team has performed when they’re not on the ice since the start of December shows some clear evidence of why their performance is so strong.
Copp is the most established player of the trio, and he’s easily the biggest factor on the line defensively. He’s the one driving the overall possession game, and he’s had a ludicrously strong two-month period in preventing slot passes against. Only Ehlers has been on the ice for fewer passes to the slot against than Copp in that time.
The result has been a fourth line that is uncharacteristically excellent at moving the puck into dangerous areas, and that’s where Lemieux becomes a key piece. His impact during high-danger chances seems to be the least of the three, but that’s because he can be a little bit of a liability defensively, especially in covering passing lanes. Offensively, he and Copp are second and third, respectively, on the Jets in high-danger chances since the beginning of December, both topped only by Adam Lowry.
What is interesting about how this line functions is that because they seem to be so trusted to get back defensively, the Jets’ defencemen activate more aggressively while they’re on the ice and have provided more passes to the slot than the forwards have, which is a strange dynamic that has worked very well in confusing opposing teams' coverage strategies and pulling players out of passing lanes.
Meanwhile, when the puck is up for grabs in the offensive zone, Lemieux and Appleton have been extremely aggressive on forechecks, winning the second and fourth-most puck battles on the team over the last couple of months, leading to a bunch of turnovers Copp has pounced on, which makes it no surprise that he leads all Jets players in scoring chances generated off of forechecks.
Defensively, Appleton and Copp produce the fewest and fourth-fewest turnovers, respectively, in the defensive zone on the Jets, with Lemieux being a bit more hazardous with the puck. Appleton is producing the third-most controlled exits per 20 minutes on the Jets behind only Ehlers and Tanev, while Lemieux is average and Copp struggles.
None of these players are perfect forwards, but it seems like for each area of the game, one of the three forwards is particularly strong to make up for weaknesses in one or both of the others, and they have found a synergy that’s working extraordinarily well.
Even if this doesn’t end up being the ideal fourth line for the Jets when everyone is healthy, seeing how well they’ve meshed in a short time gives the team options come playoff time when things get messy and people get injured.
Andrew Berkshire is a hockey writer specializing in data-driven analysis of the game.
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