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A Recipe for Fixing the Jets

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Winnipeg, at 32-16-2, needs a lot of work before the post-season.

NHL: Winnipeg Jets at Philadelphia Flyers Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

From my recent recaps, and your own personal observations, you can probably tell something isn’t quite right with the Winnipeg Jets. On the ice, the offensive production at even-strength has been spotty at best, barren at worst. Off the ice, the players seem frustrated and accurately assess that the team isn’t doing enough to threaten opposing netminders. Even the once-magnificent power play has sputtered in recent times, and it can’t be completely blamed on the injury list.

How could a division-leading team with a sterling 32-16-2 record be struggling, you ask? Well, the bitter truth is that the process for creating a win should occasionally take precedence over the outcome, and Winnipeg hasn’t been good in this department. Is it the line-up, tactical adjustments, or something else entirely? All of the above, if we’re being honest. There may be a recipe to extend this season come playoffs, though.

Arrange the Ingredients

Right now, Winnipeg’s list of ingredients is fairly good. You have a mixture of high-end scoring talent, some strong defensive forwards to bolster the bottom-end, and a host of elite playmakers sprinkled throughout. Unfortunately, the recipe calls for an elegant, decadent chocolate cake, and the Jets have baked a slightly burnt, bitter brownie. To get the most out of the strong ingredient list, careful consideration needs to be given to how those ingredients are integrated into the mixture.

The top line has largely been driven by Mark Scheifele, who continues to lead Winnipeg’s offense in a class of his own. Few players in the league combine Scheifele’s passing, vision, release, and work ethic in such a dynamic package. Joined at Scheifele’s hip is Blake Wheeler, one of the top offensive wingers around. Or at least, Wheeler was prior to the past few seasons. Blake has seen a downturn in his ability to create separation against opposing skaters, and his defensive coverages have been a far-cry from his halcyon days. For a guy who could carve through enemy lines with a muscular, towering frame and powerful edgework, Wheeler has looked far less potent as a pure power play passer.

It’s time to split the dynamic duo up. Wheeler can still do some driving from the right side, and Winnipeg’s top-6 desperately needs an injection of playmaking skill on the 2nd line. The current unit has largely been anchored by Bryan Little and Patrik Laine, neither of whom have had the kind of seasons you’d hope. Laine has gone through some extreme goal-scoring droughts, and it’s clear he’s fighting himself at this point. Is this on Laine, or is there something else going on?

Player style results based on passing and scoring chance data. Visualization by Sean Tierney (@ChartingHockey), data by Corey Sznajder (@ShutdownLine) and Ryan Stimson (@RK_Stimp).

From the data visualization above, you can get an overarching view of how a team roster contributes to the sum total. Using data and analysis from Corey Sznadjer and Ryan Stimson, Sean Tierney has constructed an overview of player archetypes, including the primary Playmaker and trigger-happy Shooter. Balanced players promote strong results in both ends, and those classified as Dependent require a Playmaker to generate positive outcomes. The graphic is from last year’s team, but only a few things have really changed.

The most troubling development is that Kyle Connor has largely become a Dependent passenger. It’s obvious that Connor possesses immense individual scoring talent. From Kyle’s Youngstown Phantoms days through his current NHL career, few have the sheer one-on-one ability to score highlight reel goals like he does. In recent times, however, Connor has virtually vanished from even-strength play. He doesn’t win puck battles along the boards, neglects defensive responsibility to drift in Winnipeg’s end, and fails to make effective use of his linemates during breakout sequences. Anyone who suggests Connor is the one driving play on his lines is likely reading too much into his scoring record and reputation. He’s been scuffling just as much as Laine has, but receives none of the blame.

Data sourced from Natural Stat Trick (link).

The graphic above is a data-set sorted by CF%, which presents on-ice events for a player as a proportion of events for and against. Connor and Laine have been among the worst skaters on the team, rocking 47.44 CF% and 45.99 CF% respectively. It’s probably no surprise that these two players have been struggling when paired together. Little has often centered the two talented scorers, and his results are just as underwhelming. All three are shooters who require someone else to shoulder play-driving responsibilities in both ends of the ice.

The impact of having three shooters on the same line has been especially noticeable for Laine, who hasn’t scored much at 5v5 this season. Without someone to create offensive zone entries or space, Laine has taken on a lot of the responsibilities and been rendered ineffective. He’s still the same slow, lumbering presence he was before, but no one is feeding him the puck and he’s being asked to do things that his build doesn’t favor. This is hardly the ideal state, and it’s killing Winnipeg’s offense.

To better balance the lines and derive more scoring value from the top-9, I’d like to see the Jets try the following lines:

Perreault-Scheifele-Laine

Ehlers-Little-Wheeler

Connor-Lowry-Roslovic

Petan-Copp-Appleton

The top line needs someone other than Scheifele to handle puck distribution and zone entries. He’s starting to look gassed, and the Jets cannot afford for him to be ragged by the time the playoffs roll around. Scheifele’s one of the best value-creating skaters in the league, and that’s especially true for the Jets. He is, quite simply, irreplaceable. Adding Mathieu Perreault to his flank would provide a dynamic space creator who can chaperone neutral zone transitions and offensive zone entries. Perreault can also use his slight frame to escape opposing skaters, and Scheifele could use another outlet during extended defensive zone sequences.

Having Laine on Scheifele’s right is a no-brainer. Pair your best puck distributor with your best goal-scorer, and good things will happen. Having the defensive security of Perreault to back you up allows for a fearsome top-line that should eat through most opponents. It will also give the Jets a better opportunity to cut open the low slot area. Perreault’s added defensive value should also reduce the load on the defenders behind, a necessary attribute when Winnipeg’s blueline depth is so thin.

NHL: Vegas Golden Knights at Winnipeg Jets James Carey Lauder-USA TODAY Sports

The second line obviously requires Ehlers to be healthy, but could do some serious damage once the gang is back to full-strength. Nikolaj provides the high-end zone entry rushes the Jets are currently lacking, and he has a pair of soft mitts to go with them. Little’s not particularly good, but he can score, so that’s a thing. That means a fair bit of space-creating responsibility and distribution duties will fall to Wheeler. I don’t know that this is an ideal situation, but the Jets don’t have a choice until they acquire another 2C. This is more of a band-aid than a long-term fix, but it should provide a bit more stability to the top-6 than the current line of Connor-Little-Laine.

The third line will essentially serve as an additional second line, with Lowry handling all of the defensive and playmaking details. Connor and Roslovic both have high-end offensive skillsets, so getting somebody in the middle who can support that with an aggressive forecheck is paramount. Lowry is basically a closet 2C, and the offensive growth in his game leads me to believe he’s well-suited to this role. I’d have placed him alongside Ehlers and Wheeler if I wasn’t convinced Roslovic and Connor desperately need anyone other than Little to feed them. Again, this isn’t my ideal situation, but it’s what Winnipeg has to work with for the time being.

There’s not much that really needs to be said about the fourth line. Brendan Lemieux is a defensive liability, and you don’t need stats-tracking to see that. He’s consistently behind the play, struggles with puck recoveries, gets drawn into bad stick penalties, and has limited defensive zone awareness. It’s a volatile mix, and the Jets could use someone like Petan to aid defensive zone exits. Nic has an innate ability to work his lines out of trouble, and he adds some unbelievable passing flair to create dangerous scoring chances. With Petan’s creativity, Copp’s two-way excellence, and Appleton’s versatile skill, you should have a very good shutdown line with scoring upside.

I didn’t address the defensive line-up because I don’t think much can be changed. The only thing I’d like to see is Niku paired with Byfuglien. Morrow is not an NHLer, and consistently looks lost in defensive coverage. He’s been especially atrocious with Niku in tow, and I don’t know why he gets ice-time. So long as Kulikov stays healthy, the Jets should have a strong back-end with Morrissey-Trouba, Niku-Byfuglien, and Kulikov-Myers. What will likely happen is that Niku is demoted and Maurice runs two of Chiarot, Morrow, and Kulikov for the rest of the season. That’s not great, all told.

Baking with the Right Instructions

The lines above, unrealistic as they may be, would give Winnipeg more tactical flexibility than they currently have. The Jets also need to make some internal changes in how they attack the offensive zone. Winnipeg’s even-strength offense has been inconsistent, if not downright bad. The primary issue is that the Jets aren’t getting to the slot area in front of opposing goalies. For the most part, they’re shooting from the perimeters and the point.

One typical offensive sequence begins with a zone entry, where the puck is distributed to the far left or right. A skater will drop below the goal-line and carry the puck behind the net, where another Jets skater will hang out near the closest face-off circle to support the carrier. The two may pass the puck to each other a few times as the defending skaters activate and pressure the puck-carrier. Eventually someone will free the puck up and either reverse it to the other side, turn it over to the other team, or pass it back to a Jets defender at the point, who smacks it towards the net. Most of these shot attempts fall harmlessly to the side of the goalie, and are recovered for a counter breakout from the opponents.

NHL: Winnipeg Jets at Boston Bruins Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

It’d be one thing if the Jets only did this once or twice, but increasingly, this has been every offensive zone possession. Winnipeg continually distributes the puck to the wide areas along the walls and goes for a point shot, but that isn’t a way to consistently create dangerous scoring opportunities. On Kyle Connor’s second goal against the Bruins, the Jets used rapid puck movement behind the net and across the crease to catch the Boston defense napping. This is the sort of distribution Winnipeg should be using on the regular, but they’ve shied away from it in recent times. It seems like Maurice expects the perimeter passing to stretch opposing defenses and create more passing seams, but the opposition hasn’t been biting. Maurice needs to adjust, then, and find more ways to create cross-crease offense.

The Jets are also struggling against neutral zone traps, whether it’s the dreaded 1-2-2 or the 1-3-1. The Wild and Bruins have both opted to use these schemes at times, and the Jets looked completely incapable of getting through the neutral zone without expending a ton of energy. By the time Winnipeg got offensive zone possession, the team was too tired to do anything meaningful with it. When considering the Jets aren’t getting any low-slot penetration, it’s not surprising that these zone traps are especially frustrating to Winnipeg’s skaters.

All of this seems to be taking a toll on the team’s psychology and morale. The injuries are hurting as it is, but Winnipeg frequently seems unengaged and worn out. The players have also expressed frustration in post-game interviews, correctly diagnosing that the offense is drying up in the most dangerous areas. Why, then, is no one doing anything to fix it? The Jets shouldn’t keep pushing the boulder up the hill, lest they be crushed by it. Make some adjustments that don’t involve swapping Connor’s line deployments every 5 minutes. It’s going to take more than that to kickstart Winnipeg’s scoring.

The Icing on the Cake

Winnipeg’s roster is pretty strong, but there are definitely some weaknesses that will need to be addressed through trades. I’d like the Jets not to have an early playoff exit, so acquiring a second-line center of considerable quality would be ideal. Matt Duchene’s name will surface a lot, but I don’t think he’s the fix I’m looking for, especially for the price he’ll command. The Flyers have suggested they’re open for business, and if Winnipeg is willing to pay a premium, I would adore Sean Couturier. I’m sure this is little more than a pipedream, but the Jets have fairly accomplished young wing prospects to offer. Couturier is under contract control and provides incredible value. Would a deal involving Connor get you across the line? Who knows!

A less dream-like scenario might involve the Jets acquiring someone like Mark Pysyk to fortify the blueline. Missing on Jake Muzzin was a bit of a gutpunch, but the Jets can certainly find a serviceable alternative if they look hard enough. Pysyk is a skilled right-handed defenseman who can eat up minutes and provide good top-4 value. He might not be all that expensive either, and if Winnipeg acquires him and a skilled center from somewhere, life may be a bit easier going forward.

NHL: Florida Panthers at Vancouver Canucks Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

The Jets also need to determine what Trouba’s future is, whether it’s in Winnipeg or elsewhere. His status impacts so much of what the Jets aim to do, meaning an extension or trade is critical at this juncture. If Trouba’s traded, the return will need to be very, very good. Getting someone like Cholowski or Hronek, plus one of Mantha or Athansiou, would be in the neighborhood of the ask. This situation isn’t particularly stable, so figuring out the top-pairing right slot as soon as possible would be best.

From this point on, everything the Jets do carries extra weight. A Cup is the ultimate prize, and it’s within Winnipeg’s grasp if they take a moment to consider some needed adjustments. The Jets are a lot better than they’ve shown, and they need to prove it going forward. Make some tactical switches, adjust the line-up, and look for good value trade deadline assets. Perhaps Winnipeg will finally bust the Canadian Cup drought.