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This article was published 22/3/2018 (844 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The Winnipeg Jets and Toronto Maple Leafs are two young National Hockey League teams that — for at least a couple of reasons — will be tied together for a long time.
It’s been more than a year since I compared the two organizations and boy, what a difference a season makes.
Back then, both clubs were filled with terrific young talent, but the Leafs were flourishing using a high-octane offence that was able to outscore their mistakes. It took the Washington Capitals six games to finish them off in the playoffs.
Meanwhile, the Jets never got it together when it counted — they could score, but had far too many holes in their armour.
While blame, excuses and reasons lay in many areas, it’s already been rehashed many times.
Today, the Jets are rated as having the best chance at winning the Stanley Cup by moneypuck.com, with the Leafs sitting around eighth.
After Winnipeg’s 2-1 overtime victory Tuesday against the Los Angeles Kings, they’re ahead of Toronto by five points. It’s clear the Jets have not only closed the gap between the two teams but may have surpassed them.
How the heck did that happen so fast?
The statistics speak loud and clear.
The Leafs' workhorse goalie Frederik Andersen played 66 games last season and had a .918 save percentage. This year he’s at .918 in 59 games.
Connor Hellebuyck was .907 in 56 games last year — he’s .925 in 60 so far this season.
So while Andersen has remained strong, Hellebuyck went from not very good to phenomenal.
As far as special teams go, last year the Leafs had the second-best power play in the NHL — this year they’re fourth. The Jets have gone from 18th to third.
Toronto penalty killers were tied for ninth last year and are ninth this year. Winnipeg’s were 26th last year and sit fifth this year.
While the Leafs have remained a good team, the Jets have turned these areas upside down in their favour.
The Leafs' Corsi numbers have dropped from 13th last year to 18th. The Jets have gone from 21st to 11th.
While Toronto has dropped in the five-on-five metric, the Jets have improved their defensive play with a steady, calm commitment to playing the same way every night.
While breaking down their full lineups would be a column in itself, it’s the young guns that grab my attention as we watch them grow.
Both forward groups contain exciting threesomes — Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander are all high-end talent.
The Jets hit back with Patrik Laine, Nikolaj Ehlers and rookie Kyle Connor.
Matthews versus Laine and Nylander versus Ehlers — also drafted back-to-back, eighth and ninth in 2014 — will make for interesting comparisons for the next 10 to 15 years.
Laine lost the Calder Trophy to Matthews last year, being outscored 40-36, although missing nine games with a concussion.
This year Matthews has been hurt for 20 games, still posting a line of 28 goals and 22 assists for 50 points in 52 games. Laine is 43-25-68 in 72 games.
Matthews’s goal numbers project to 43 over 82 games — Laine’s to 48, although he has recently been intimidating the heck out of opposing netminders. We’ll have to see how that foot heals.
Earlier this season I thought Matthews was a possible Hart Trophy candidate, while Laine struggled.
With Laine now gunning for the Rocket Richard Trophy, times have changed. If he continues to compete for that over the years, he’ll obviously figure in many most valuable player votes as well.
They’re both already great players who have changed their team’s fortunes significantly.
Ehlers has 27 goals and 28 assists (55 points) thus far, while Nylander stands at 15-37-52.
Both are good at creating space — Ehlers with his blazing speed and puck handling, while Nylander is more deceptive, but excellent as well. I wish I had a dollar for every time the electric Ehlers "almost" scored.
It’ll be interesting to see these careers move forward, but I’m not trading with the Leafs here.
That leaves Connor to take on Marner.
Marner’s stats are 19-42-61 in 73 games while Connor is 27-19-46 in 67 played. Marner basically runs a power-play unit, using his tremendous vision and passing abilities. They both have their moments defensively.
Connor is a sniper first but passes well and has good vision. It’s not a knock on the rookie to say he’s not yet at Marner’s level, as he’s had a terrific rookie season.
When you take a quick look at goals, the Leafs lead the Jets 246 to 242, so the group has had a decent year, especially James van Riemsdyk (33 goals, 49 points) and Nazem Kadri (28 goals, 50 points).
The Jets, of course, hit back hard with Blake Wheeler’s 81 points and Mark Scheifele’s 53 points in 52 games.
While Jake Gardiner (43) and Morgan Rielly (44) have more points than any Jets defencemen, the weakness in the Leafs is their defence.
When the Jets are healthy they have a superior top three, and better top six if you want to go there. To be fair, Jacob Trouba, Josh Morrissey and Dustin Byfuglien are a tough match for a lot of teams.
While the Jets' rebuild took a lot longer, they are both looking good today.
Two teams built for the future but expecting good things this year, there’s now a legitimate possibility of a Stanley Cup final between them.
Until then, enjoy the ride.
Chosen ninth overall by the NHL's St. Louis Blues and first overall by the WHA's Houston Aeros in 1977, Scott Campbell has now been drafted by the Winnipeg Free Press to play a new style of game.
Scott was a member of Winnipeg Jets 1.0 for a couple of seasons and also played for the WHA Jets team that won the last Avco Cup in 1978-79.
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