Yes. The Jets health may have caused some negative effects to their roster and in turn the results.
It seems counter intuitive. Some of the Winnipeg Jets better players have returned to health and have been performing well in their return. Zach Bogosian and Tobias Enstrom for example have been two of the Jets' top three defenders - based on Corsi percentage - since their return and have combined for nine points in six games. Evander Kane has the Jets second best Corsi percentage for forwards and three goals in six games.
Despite these positive contributions the Jets results have fallen from their previously celebrated elite levels back to slightly above average, as can be seen in this rolling 5 game average for shot attempt differentials:
If you don't like or believe in shot attempt differentials (despite it still being one of the best statistical predictors of future success), then you can see the numbers follow a similar trend for five game rolling sets of scoring chances differentials:
So what gives? Why are the Jets experiencing a drop with three very legitimately good players returning and performing well since their return?
The Terrible Five
Well, there are five players who's results stick out like a sore thumb. They have been a real pain in the literal sense.
SAC is team's Corsi percentage adjusted for score situations with player on ice, while relSAC is SAC with player on ice minus with player on the bench. SASC uses shot location, rebounds, and rush/sustained-pressure data to estimate scoring chances.
This is very very bad, almost embarrassingly so. To be fair, fourth lines and third pairs tend to garner complaints due to being the worst players on the team (hence why they are on those line/pairs in the first place), but this is bad beyond the norms. The average AHL call-up or press box forward posts a 46 Corsi percentage, while the average replacement level defender is not much better at 48 percent.
In the minutes with both Mark Stuart and Jay Harrison on the ice at the same time, the Jets have averaged 34.9 percent Corsi. For some perspective, the worst modern era possession team is this year's Buffalo Sabres, who are currently 37.5 on average. In other words, with Harrison and Stuart on the ice at the same time, the Jets have played worse than the Buffalo Sabres have on average.
Of course, shot metrics can never be divorced from the contextual and situational nuances that surround them. These numbers are affected by team strength as well. The issue for the Jets is somewhat minimized by the fact that, every other Jet falls between the 52-55 percent range in these numbers and some of those numbers were accumulated while playing shifts with the terrible five!
Were they always playing this bad?
No, they aren't and this points to another contextual nuance - chemistry.
"Numbers folk" are often thought to disregard the concept of chemistry, but that is only because chemistry is rarely used in correct context. Chemistry should be thought of as a pair (or trio) of players who's skill sets compliment each other to the point that their on-ice results are better than either player can achieve apart. Sam Page recently showed how this works by elegantly breaking down why Ryan Suter's and Shea Weber's numbers have crumbled since being separated from each other.
With this in mind, look at the "terrible five" again and ponder which defender defaults in breaking out the puck? Which forward gains controlled entry into the offensive zone? Which player sustains pressure in the offensive zone?
None of these five players excel in these areas. Sometimes you hear about the whole being greater than the sum of their parts; the opposite is also possible. Weaknesses can compound and multiply.
Both Mark Stuart and Jay Harrison were just slightly negative when paired with Grant Clitsome and Jacob Trouba. They had somebody to defer to on breakouts.
The defensive issues impact the forwards too. The Jets fourth line will be given a better chance to succeed when they are iced with a defensive pair that can break out of the defensive zone.
Of course it is important to remember that poor play on the bottom of the roster carries less impact that issues at the top. The biggest reason for this is simple - they are playing the fewest minutes. Still, poor play on the bottom does have domino effect that impacts the other lines. Poorer play means the other lines need to take tougher minutes in order to shelter the weaker lines more. Poorer play means more shifts end in the defensive zone more often, causing other lines to start with defensive zone draws.
Is there an answer to the problem?
Well, for one, Jacob Trouba is coming back soon - maybe even Wednesday. Trouba is an impact player who is capable of carrying a defensive pair. This likely sends one of Harrison or Stuart into the press box, with the more probable candidate being Harrison.
The Jets didn't need to wait for Trouba's return though. They had some relief available in the press box via Paul Postma. Postma has posted a 55 percent SAC and 52 percent SASC so far this season as well as a positive goal differential. Historically Stuart performed better with Postma than he currently has with Harrison, resulting in a a better Corsi percentage and a positive goal differential.
For all complaints about the Adam Pardy - Paul Postma pairing, that duo also performed better than Stuart and Harrison in every measure from whether by Corsi, Fenwick, Scoring Chances to Goals.
There is a case to be made that sitting both Stuart and Harrison, when the defense core is healthy, is actually the Jets' best option. A top six of Tobias Enstrom, Jacob Trouba, Dustin Byfuglien, Zach Bogosian, Ben Chiarot, and Paul Postma would be ideal - Grant Clitsome would have also been an option but is obviously out of the picture with the back injury.
Yes, that is four right-handed shooting defenseman I am quite comfortable saying that one of the Jets' top three RHD to be better left side options than either Stuart or Harrison.
The fourth line is also an issue, but internal answer are limited. There isn't a ton of talent available in the press box and the St. John's IceCaps are struggling to score and per the fancy stats.
What about intangibles like grit, physicality, leadership, etc.?
More often than not when media and fans say intangibles, they are actually talking about latent variables (add that to the list with mixing up statistics and analytics).
Intangibles cannot be perceived by the senses; in the real world, these are value items like intellectual property, patents, copyrights... A latent variable on the other hand is something that impacts results or models but cannot be directly measured; in the real world, these are value items like happiness, morale, confidence...
The reason why we care about "hockey intangibles" is because they are suppose to impact the results. If they do not, there is no reason to fuss over them.
You want physicality because it can wear down the opponent and may cause them to second guess entering a puck battle. You hit because you want to separate the player from the puck and cause them to lose possession. You play gritty because you want to win possession board battles and gain advantageous positioning over your opponents. You want leadership so players are in-tune to the coaches and their systems. You block a puck because you want to reduce the chance of a shot becoming a goal against.
Hockey "intangibles" are attempts to improve the team in the shots and goals columns. Their effective impact is real and theoretically measurable, even though it is (at least currently) impossible to track them directly.
I always like to use the Jets' captain Andrew Ladd for an example for these situations. Andrew Ladd is not an overly "skilled" player in the traditional sense. Despite all this, Ladd is tied with Blake Wheeler for even strength scoring per minute and falls only behind Mathieu Perreault and Kyle Wellwood for Corsi percentage since the Jets move to Winnipeg. Why? He gets excellent results from these "intangibles".
The Jets may (or may not) gain some value from the "intangibles" of Chris Thorburn, Jim Slater, Mark Stuart, or Jay Harrison.
Still, you have to ask yourself some questions:
Does their value of their intangibles off-set their poor on-ice results?
Even if you think it does, the on ice results are relevant. Could you not find similar intangible with better on ice results?
Are the rest of the Jets so fragile that the room would collapse without these bottom players intangibles? (If so, the Jets have bigger problems than these fourth line and third pairing players)
In addition, what do you do when the eye-test conflicts with the numbers? Do you assume one is right over the other, or do you reevaluate both, investigating the cause for the distinction.