August 8, 2020

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Opinion

Slight difference in the differentials

Flames have a bit of an edge in the fancy stats, but Jets still stack up well in play-in series

Hockey has returned and the Winnipeg Jets are set to begin their play-in series against the Calgary Flames on Saturday.

After nearly five months off from hockey, it’s tough to know how much of the regular season’s play will translate to the these games, but in order to give us at least somewhat more recent data to pull from, we’re going to limit today’s analysis to only games from January 1 onward.

Since that time, how do the Jets stack up against the Flames? To start with, let’s break down the differentials.

Following the Winnipeg Jets this season, it’s been obvious throughout that even-strength has been a struggle. For the most part, the Jets have been startlingly outplayed from the most important areas of the ice, and depended on the exemplary play of goalie Connor Hellebuyck and the high-end talent of their top forwards to swim upstream and battle for wins.

All season long, it worked well enough to keep them in the playoff hunt, if only just, and here we are.

The one area where the Jets maintained an advantage over opponents was in rush chances, where they were able to pounce on the counterattack often and effectively, a nice positive result that occurs when a team is stuck on the defensive more often than not.

On the face of it, the Flames have a pretty severe advantage overall at even strength, enjoying positive differentials in most areas while the Jets don’t. But the Flames have struggled with consistency all season when it comes to converting on that control of play, and the area that killed them in last season’s playoffs remains a big issue.

It just so happens that the Flames are weakest off the rush, the area where the Jets are strongest. That, along with an advantage in goaltending, should be enough to make this play in round a lot tougher on the Flames than it may look on paper.

Hellebuyck didn’t appear to be even a little rusty in the Jets’ exhibition game against the Vancouver Canucks, stopping 37 of 38 shots in a decisive victory. Excellent news for a Jets team that needs him to be nearly perfect every night.

Outside of the differentials though, how do these teams stack up against each other in detail? Let’s look at things from an offensive and defensive perspective.

Despite poor differentials overall, the Jets are pretty strong in a few areas offensively. Along with producing chances off the rush, they’re a top team off the cycle, move the puck well through the middle of the ice, and get good screens on their shots a large amount of the time.

The Flames meanwhile are about a league average offensive team. They don’t crack the top-10 anywhere at even strength, but their powerplay does great work.

Both teams in fact have deadly powerplays, with the Jets and Flames holding the first and second highest expected goals per minute with the extra man in 2020.

Overall on offence, the Jets are slightly better, due to the superior puck movement and a significantly more successful transition game, but for the most part the offence side of it is almost a wash in this series.

On the defensive side of the puck, you can see where the Jets’ struggles have been. Keeping opponents out of their slot area has been nearly impossible this season, and even areas of former strength like preventing slot passes have turned into big weaknesses. The one area where the Jets have been strong defensively at even strength has been in making sure Hellebuyck sees the puck. The Jets fight off screens effectively, and do their best to keep sightlines clear for their keeper.

The Flames defensively are much better than average, clamping down on opposing cycles better than almost anyone in the league thanks to stalwart defensive presences like Mark Giordano, and preventing passes through the slot very effectively, but their ability to defend their own blueline from controlled entries and stop rush chances once opponents gain their blueline are real weaknesses that can be exploited.

At even strength the Jets have the offensive advantage, while the Flames have the defensive advantage, and the two have relatively equal and deadly powerplays. Hellebuyck is a potential turning point for the series, which could hurt the Flames’ average even strength offence and compensate for the Jets’ poor defence, but aside from him, there’s another area where the Flames are weak; killing penalties.

If the Jets can get in on the forecheck while shorthanded, they’re good at turning teams back and stopping transition plays, but once the puck exits the defensive zone, they struggle to stop entries, and they’re exceptionally poor at both protecting the slot, and keeping their goaltenders’ sightlines clear.

Combine that with the Jets’ deadly powerplay, and you have a situation where the Flames could be in a lot of trouble if things get chippy.

The Jets’ penalty killing isn’t that great either, but they’re still a lot more effective at preventing high-end chances than the Flames are, and they’re specifically good at denying entries by opponents, an area the Flames already struggle in on their own powerplays.

On top of all that, Hellebuyck’s influence doesn’t disappear while shorthanded, so if he’s able to maintain his performance while his team is shorthanded, making this a physical series filled with infractions looks like a big benefit to the Jets.

Overall, I firmly believe the Flames are the better team heading into this series, but the way the strengths and weaknesses match up head to head, I don’t think that means the Jets are in for an automatic loss. They have a very good chance of pulling out a win here.

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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