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Season Preview 2021-2022

NHL: Preseason-Winnipeg Jets at Calgary Flames Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

We’re in the middle of the start of the 2021-22 season. After a short summer, the Jets have made significant upgrades on defence, and there’s an air of optimism around the team coming into this season.

In just two days, the Jets defence went from a near certain position of weakness to potentially a position of strength with the additions of Brenden Dillon and Nate Schmidt. Head coach Paul Maurice has also said he will implement a new system where the team will be more aggressive in all three zones.

Running a system that allows the Jets to control more shot attempts and create more dangerous shots could be a more impactful change than any single player they brought in this year. They have a lot of scoring talent, and unfortunately the team last year opted to try and protect the weaker defence corps by playing passive hockey instead of allow their scoring talent to cancel out their weak defence. As a result (all referenced expected goal metrics are from Evolving Hockey, and all shot attempt, expected goal, and goal metrics are score and venue adjusted), at 5 on 5 they finished 22nd in shot attempts for per 60, and 20th in expected goals for per 60. Their finishing propelled them to 12th in goals for per 60, but one might call that a disappointing number for a team that’s said to have such a talented forward group.

As a whole, they finished 18th in shot share, 23rd in expected goal share, and 15th in goal share. One can easily infer that with a more aggressive system they would have likely finished closer to the top in goal share by being a more dangerous team offensively, especially considering they allowed the 7th most expected goals against per 60 even running a system where defending was their focus.

With a new system, it should allow the Jets to play in their own zone less often while simultaneously taking advantage of their talent offensively. There’s no question they have the horses on defence to do that now. Given that alone, it will very likely be a stronger season for the Jets at 5 on 5.

The questions for me have mostly to do with how the roster will be used, and whether Paul Maurice will get out of his own way when it comes to lineup decisions, notably his misuse of Nikolaj Ehlers, and his preference for playing veterans over young players even if the young players are outperforming the veterans, or there’s reason to believe they will.

Will Maurice stick with a top line of Connor-Scheifele-Wheeler for an extended period of time even if they struggle and Nikolaj Ehlers continues his dominance? Will Cole Perfetti and Ville Heinola play the majority of the season with the Moose, or will they actually get an opportunity with the Jets at some point? Let’s take a look.

Expected lineup (including Scheifele)

Kyle Connor Mark Scheifele Blake Wheeler
Andrew Copp Pierre-Luc Dubois Nikolaj Ehlers
Paul Stastny Adam Lowry Kristian Vesalainen
Jansen Harkins Riley Nash Evgeny Svechnikov
Dominic Toninato
Josh Morrissey Nate Schmidt
Brenden Dillon Neal Pionk
Logan Stanley Dylan DeMelo
Nathan Beaulieu
Connor Hellebuyck
Eric Comrie

I fully expect this to be the lineup when Mark Scheifele returns from his suspension. As much as I think the Jets will have a good season, it’s inevitable that lineup decisions will hurt them once again.

The Connor-Scheifele-Wheeler line has struggled to outshoot, outchance, and outscore their opponents for three years now, including a score and venue adjusted (SVA) shot share of 49.62%, a SVA expected goal share of 46.34%, and a SVA goal share of 46.51%. They generated offence at a roughly average rate and finished their offence efficiently, but when those three are on the ice together it’s an absolute tire fire in their defensive zone. Some might be quick to point out the difference in quality of defencemen the Jets have this year. I will point them to the 2018-19 season when they still struggled despite having Jacob Trouba, Dustin Byfuglien, and the good version of Josh Morrissey.

For Paul Maurice, that line is like a bad habit that he just can’t quit. There’s a chance that line plays even hockey this year on the scoreboard, but in order to contend for a Stanley Cup, the Jets will need more than even play from their top line this year. The focus of this hockey team offensively needs to shift away from that trio, and more towards Nikolaj Ehlers.

Speaking of Ehlers, the Jets second line of Copp-Dubois-Ehlers has looked very good throughout the preseason, and the majority of it is due to the 25 year old superstar. He’s looked absolutely dominant throughout the preseason, and looks primed to take another step and cement himself in the conversation with the best wingers in the NHL.

The only thing that might keep him from that conversation is his usage. Players of his skill level are typically playing 19-20 minutes per game, but he’s averaged just 16:29 TOI in his career, with a slight bump to 16:55 last year. This is a legitimate NHL star playing mid-level second line minutes. Last saw him finish 15th in Evolving Hockey’s wins above replacement with 2.4, and he played less minutes than all but one player above him. Whatever line Ehlers is on is not one the team will need to worry much about.

Pierre-Luc Dubois will be looking to bounce back after a season which he didn’t perform like the second line centre they thought they were getting, and Andrew Copp will look to be the defensively responsible winger who can also drive some offence. If the Copp-Dubois-Ehlers line stays together, I have little doubt it will be the Jets’ best line (unfortunately at the expense of a good top line).

The Stastny-Lowry-Vesalainen line is one of intrigue, but one has to wonder, with a training camp where he showed some flashes but didn’t do a lot, could the Jets do better than having Kristian Vesalainen on the 3rd line? I think the answer is yes, and it should be a relatively obvious yes.

If you’re someone who believes in players needing to earn a roster spot with their play in training camp, there’s no reason you would think that Cole Perfetti shouldn’t make this roster. He was the main driver of his line with Harkins and Svechnikov in the preseason game they played together, and had a huge effect on the other games he played. He looked dangerous on the power play, and he simply makes everyone around him better. I believe he would help this team far more than Vesalainen right now.

I’m not the coach, but running a line of Harkins-Perfetti-Svechnikov would have the potential to create much more offence, and it would give the Jets a great 4th line with Lowry centring Stastny and Nash, and Vesalainen as an extra. Maybe swap Vesalainen and Harkins once in awhile and give them both some looks throughout the season. If Perfetti wasn’t working out after 9 games, the Jets could simply send him down to the Moose with no harm done.

Vesalainen could do much better than I think in that position on the 3rd line, but taking Perfetti out sacrifices some big potential offensively, and almost certainly weakens the 4th line by moving Lowry off of it, all while sacrificing a valuable development opportunity in the NHL for Perfetti.

Regardless, I expect a line of Stastny-Lowry-Vesalainen to play roughly even hockey.

That leaves a line of Harkins-Nash-Svechnikov for the 4th line. Svechnikov has had himself a solid camp and cemented his position in the lineup. He’ll add more offence than most of the 4th line guys we’ve been accustomed to seeing in recent years. Riley Nash is a strong shutdown centre who has struggled to generate any offence in recent years, but is definitely a better overall player than Nate Thompson or Matt Hendricks were. Jansen Harkins had a decent camp as well, but I wonder if some of his good results earlier on came from playing with Perfetti.

Another issue I have with this construction of the bottom 6 is the exclusion of David Gustafsson. Gustafsson had a very impressive camp and no one is talking about it. Whatever line Gustafsson has been on in the preseason has dominated possession, and he’s played mostly with the likes of Mikey Eyssimont, Austin Poganski, Jeff Malott, and Kristian Reichel. I mean no disrespect to those guys, but they aren’t exactly NHL players. I believe Gustafsson could successfully centre the 3rd line this year if that was something the Jets were interested in making happen.

With all that said it’s likely a fine bottom 6, but in order to be a true Stanley Cup contender, they need to be looking at improving wherever possible, and playing the best players regardless of whether or not they’ve “paid their dues” with the Moose. I feel pretty strongly that the Jets are really missing out on a lot by keeping both of Cole Perfetti and David Gustafsson off of the big club, and that if both played on the Jets this year, they certainly wouldn’t be worrying much about depth, and would also be upgrading their team.

On defence, the top 4 will consist of a Morrissey-Schmidt pairing and a Dillon-Pionk pairing. We’ll likely be able to call them 1A and 1B pairings, and we could see either pair lead the team in ice time in any given game depending on the game script. In games the Jets are ahead, they might rely on Brenden Dillon and Neal Pionk more to shut things down, and in games the Jets are behind, they might rely on Josh Morrissey and Nate Schmidt to put on the pressure and give them some more opportunities offensively.

The Dillon-Pionk pairing has looked okay throughout training camp, but I’ll be looking for improvement from them going into the regular season. I think the Morrissey-Schmidt pairing has looked better and better as camp has progressed. Morrissey is looking for a bounce back season, and I like the fit with Schmidt as a strong transition player that likes to get involved offensively.

The third pair will almost certainly feature Logan Stanley and Dylan DeMelo. Stanley had a decent showing last year — better than just about anybody expected — as he solidified himself as a legitimate NHL player when many were questioning whether he’d ever make it coming into the season. DeMelo bounced around between the third pair (often with Stanley) and the top pair, and he succeeded in both roles. He was quite easily Winnipeg’s best defensive defenceman. He helped drag Josh Morrissey to positive shot and expected goal shares. something neither of Tucker Poolman or Neal Pionk were able to do.

One thing that needs to be kept in mind for Stanley is he was heavily sheltered last year. He played mostly with arguably their best 5 on 5 defenceman in DeMelo, and against a low quality of competition as Paul Maurice kept him away from other teams’ top 6 forwards as much as possible.

Stanley might be a solid 3rd pairing defenceman, but Ville Heinola has the potential to be much better than that, and he’s shown that throughout training camp. He has outperformed Stanley, making zone exits look incredibly easy, and adding a ton of offence. Stanley is probably a better in-zone defender than Heinola, but will be limited in terms of offence and transition play.

Ultimately having Stanley play on the 3rd pair and sending Heinola to the Moose won’t be a huge deal in terms of the product the Jets have on the ice this year. I think Stanley can get the job done there and play above replacement level hockey, but I think Heinola gives them more upside, especially offensively. The real problem I have with it though, is the development process for Heinola.

Heinola is the top prospect on defence for the Jets, and has arguably been ready for the NHL since the start of last season. He will almost certainly be a good top 4 defenceman in the NHL based on his skill, and has a top 2 ceiling with the right development. For a guy like that who just had a really strong camp, they should be looking to give him every reason to make the team and develop his game at the NHL level, especially considering they’re not getting worse by subbing him in for Stanley. The AHL is very overrated as a developmental league, and he no longer needs to develop physically to have success at the NHL level. He can do that with his brain, his skating, and his puck skills.

Overall though, this defence corps should be solid, and that’s the first time we’ve been able to say that since the 2018-19 season.

In goal, the Jets have arguably the best puck stopper in the world in Connor Hellebuyck. The question here is their backup. They look prepared to go into the season with Eric Comrie backing up Hellebuyck. Based on his track record and a less than stellar showing in the preseason, the Jets ought to be looking elsewhere.

Aaron Dell was placed on waivers on Wednesday but the Jets did not make a claim. There will likely be more backup goalies on waivers in the coming days. Not picking one up would certainly be a faux pas for the Jets. It should be a relatively easy position to upgrade.

If the Jets do what I think they’ll do, I think they’ll be a pretty good team this year, but not a Stanley Cup contender. If they break up the Connor-Scheifele-Wheeler line and give Cole Perfetti and Ville Heinola regular spots in the lineup at some point, I think they could be a very good team. Adding Perfetti in particular would allow the Jets to slide somebody down the lineup in addition to him upgrading the top 9, and that’s a great way of improving depth. It also can’t be understated how much better it would be for these players to develop their game in the NHL.

Unfortunately though, I don’t see that happening. I predict the Jets will finish 3rd in the division and win one playoff round this year, while finishing near the middle of the pack in shot metrics. So they’ll be good, but not great. It will still be a much more fun team to watch than last year.