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Opinion

Jets have weaknesses, but are playoff bound

The biggest problem area for the Winnipeg Jets this season has been the inner slot, where the team has struggled to control play. (Paul Sancya / The Associated Press)</p>

The biggest problem area for the Winnipeg Jets this season has been the inner slot, where the team has struggled to control play. (Paul Sancya / The Associated Press)

The Winnipeg Jets are nearly 40 per cent of the way through their 2019-20 regular-season schedule and remain solidly in the playoff picture.

Connor Hellebuyck deservedly gets the lion’s share of the credit for that, since the Jets have been outshot, out-chanced, out-passed and outplayed both at even-strength and overall.

That the team keeps gutting out wins and rarely seems to be out of games is a credit to its effort level and mental fortitude, but is there more going on there? Season totals can give us an understanding of how a team has played overall, but it’s tough to see trends in them.

The Jets certainly started the season on a relatively poor note when it comes to outplaying their opponents, but since then, how much have things changed? Is this a team that was allowed to get its wobbly legs under itself while Hellebuyck held them up straight and is now improving down the stretch? Let’s find out.

The quickest way to see trends is to create a five-game moving average for certain metrics — meaning each point on a graph will include five games of data. As we move through, the oldest game will be dropped for the newest game. This evens out the randomness of single-game performances and gives us an idea of how a team is playing in short stretches and how much that play changes over time.

To measure the Jets, we’ll use their inner-slot shots, scoring chances or shot attempts from the slot, shot attempts and slot passes for and against at even-strength only. So what does this look like so far?

The first five games of the season for the Jets were not very good, to say the least. They were controlling less than 45 per cent of the play in scoring chances and slot passes and less than 40 per cent in inner-slot shots — mostly due to lack of defensive coverage.

However as you can see, it didn’t really take that long for the Jets to start to flex their muscles in a familiar area; dominating slot passes. Since the seventh game of the season, there has only been one stretch in the entire season where the Jets haven’t been controlling 50 per cent or more of the slot passes, with extended periods where they’re controlling more than 60 per cent.

That’s an area that the Jets have excelled in for many seasons now. It's clearly something the roster is adept at and an area that head coach Paul Maurice focuses on. Controlling those passes gives the Jets the opportunity to score on a higher percentage of their shots than you would normally suspect, while making things a little easier on Hellebuyck by clamping down on the passes in their own end.

The Jets aren't a dominant team at controlling scoring chances overall, but are hovering around a 50 per cent shot share from the slot. (Fred Greenslade / The Canadian Press files)

The Jets aren't a dominant team at controlling scoring chances overall, but are hovering around a 50 per cent shot share from the slot. (Fred Greenslade / The Canadian Press files)

The biggest problem area this season has been the inner slot, where the Jets have really struggled to control play — especially during a disastrous period near the end of October and beginning of December. There was a three-game stretch where they were outshot from that area 17-5, with the Jets recording zero inner-slot shots on goal at even-strength in two of those games.

With all that said, things appear to be looking much better from that area, as the Jets are hovering closer to even over the last 10-15 games and they have worked hard to minimize the importance of that area by restricting access to it in their own zone.

In an average NHL game this season, both teams combined produce just over 10 shots on goal from the inner slot at even-strength. The Jets’ average game is hovering below nine, with the only lower-event teams in that area being the Arizona Coyotes and Dallas Stars.

The Jets’ strengths as a passing team also lend credence to the strategy of attacking from the high slot instead of the inner slot, as well. There’s more space to work with in the inner slot, both to get free and accept a pass, and to get a shot off without a stick, skate or shinpad in the way.

The Jets are still, by no means, a dominant team at controlling scoring chances overall, but being able to hover around an even 50 per cent shot share from the slot overall and add their superior playmaking skills to the mix, it makes sense that they’ve been able to hang around and beat teams when they aren’t expected to.

Their break-even play in scoring chances also isn’t a new thing; they’ve been at or around 50 per cent from the slot since games 4-9 and haven’t really had a period of big struggle from the slot since then.

The total numbers may look a little underwhelming, but when you break things down into segments of the season, they look pretty similar to last season. Not necessarily a contender, but a team that can make the playoffs, and maybe keep surprising.

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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