This hasn’t been quite the start any of us Jets fans thought we were going to get. Most were optimistic with an offensive team now transitioning to a system that will allow them to generate more offence.
The transition has been sloppy, but the Jets still have talent. That talent needs to be used properly and using talent properly has been an issue that has plagued the team for years.
Here’s some things the Jets could do going forward to try and right the ship:
Fix the Special Teams
This is a really small, almost insignificant sample, but the Jets have given up the 4th most expected goals per 60 (per Evolving Hockey) with 12.68 and the 6th most goals per 60 with 15.56 on the penalty kill this year so far. When I say the sample is insignificant, I mean one cannot draw any conclusions from this sample in terms of how good or bad the penalty kill will be for the rest of the season.
My main concern is regression from last year. The Jets actually allowed the 10th fewest goals against per 60 on the PK last year, but allowed the 6th most expected goals against. Connor Hellebuyck was so good that it didn’t even matter. We as Jets fans just got used to him making great saves and perfect positioning look so easy.
I expect Hellebuyck to be really good, but I’m not sure we’ll see the absolute dominance of the last two years. As such, the Jets will need to change up their system or their personnel. Neither of these things are likely to happen under Paul Maurice, so the penalty kill is likely doomed to fail unless Connor Hellebuyck gets back to being superhuman.
On the power play, the Jets had a pretty good thing going last year specifically with their second unit. It had Ehlers running things from the left, Copp in the slot, Dubois down low, Perreault on the right, and Pionk at the point. This unit misses the combo of Dubois and Perreault on puck retrievals, and Perreault specifically in terms of creating space for the rest of the guys out there.
Perreault is gone, but rather than do the obvious and put the young high end talent Cole Perfetti in his place, Paul Maurice has made the inexplicable decision to play two defencemen on the power play. Morrissey has always been a below average power play guy, so putting him there makes zero sense, especially when there’s a high end talent who needs to develop sitting right there.
The top power play was okay enough last year and I’m not ready to write that group off yet, but maybe the Jets should try putting Dubois back with Ehlers’ unit and throw Perfetti on the right side (who should be really good at creating space and making plays) and play them as the top unit. They could also swap Copp and Scheifele if they want to load up on a top unit with their two best offensive players. Two things are certain though; Ehlers needs to play far more, on the power play, and two defencemen on the power play in 2021 just isn’t it.
Break up the Connor-Scheifele-Wheeler line and give Ehlers as many minutes as possible
This one is just flat out obvious. How many other teams keep trotting out a line that constantly gets out-chanced and outscored as their top line while keeping their best player on the second line? It’s flat out crazy.
That top line has been outscored 48-41 since the start of the 2018-19, while being similarly beat in the expected goals battle (no matter whose model you look at). Wheeler is losing his ability to create offence, and Scheifele isn’t capable of carrying two players who aren’t strong play drivers themselves to positive results. There’s room for both Connor and Scheifele up there, but it needs to be with a third guy who can help Scheifele drive play.
I think Perfetti would be worth a try. I’m not terribly confident he’d be real good right away, but the development opportunity in that spot would be so valuable for the 19 year old. In the meantime, he likely wouldn’t be worse than Wheeler in that spot. He could create extra space for Connor and Scheifele offensively which would help them a lot.
On a positive note, Nikolaj Ehlers and Pierre-Luc Dubois have looked very nice together to start the season. I liked the idea of Andrew Copp on that line, but the reads and smart plays he used to make that made him a really good player a couple of years ago just haven’t been there. Still, I’m not sure you can promote Paul Stastny to that line, as he’s been invisible out there to start the season. Sticking with Copp may be the way to go for now, as they’ve still been by far the Jets’ strongest line to start the season.
Bottom line though, whatever line Ehlers is on needs to be the top line.
Move Paul Stastny to Centre
Paul Stastny is a smart hockey player who at this point in his career doesn’t have a ton of skill. He needs help in the transition game, and on the wing — where typically a player would be more relied upon for their speed in transition or their ability to retrieve pucks — he’s just not very effective.
As of last year, he was still good enough to create space for his wingers in the offensive zone, so maybe putting a Harkins on one wing for transition help, and Wheeler on his other wing as two guys who can (hopefully) read off each other in the offensive zone and play close to even hockey on the scoreboard.
Call up Ville Heinola and Play Him
Heinola had a strong camp that sort of went under the radar with Perfetti’s outstanding camp. He was the best Jets defenceman on zone exits, and the Jets were far more dangerous offensively with him out there in the preseason. He won’t be improving much, if at all, in the AHL this season, and there’s no doubt he can grow into a top 4 defenceman. The Jets haven’t produced much offence at 5 on 5 this year, and Heinola could be a big help.
The Jets defence corps has gotten off to a bit of a rough start this year getting adjusted to making reads quicker in the Jets’ new system, and perhaps the best example of this so far is Logan Stanley. Stanley might win more one on one battles, but the Jets might be better off putting in Heinola who can read the game quicker and add more offence, while keeping Stanley around as a good 7th defenceman and waiving Nathan Beaulieu (they would add a tiny bit of cap space by doing this too).
Call up David Gustafsson
Gustafsson had a great camp that also went under the radar. Despite playing with AHL players the whole time, Gustafsson finished 2nd behind Nikolaj Ehlers in on-ice shot share among all Jets skaters in the preseason. He is a strong defensive forward who is underrated in transition, and I believe he could bring more to the game than either Kristian Vesalainen or Riley Nash.
It’s early, but Paul Maurice does not seem to trust Vesalainen, and as good as Nash is defensively, the Jets will have trouble generating any offence with him on the ice.
Gustafsson is a very smart player who at his best will be able to play with just about anyone and have a strong impact in the possession game.
The Sad Reality
Sadly, all of these decisions are up to Paul Maurice, who typically doesn’t get lineup decisions right unless they are forced by injury. He treats Nikolaj Ehlers like he’s just a decent 2nd line player, and despite bad results (especially for a top line), thinks of Connor-Scheifele-Wheeler as a line that can be relied upon consistently.
He looks for reasons to demote young players and is completely blind to any instances where his veterans are costing him. The reality is, as long as he’s the coach, none of these things can be expected to change, and the team will likely have to overcome having a poor 1st line for the majority of the season.
Perhaps the real change this team can make is a coaching change. They’ve suffered through bad shot shot and expected goal shares for years now and been absolutely carried by Connor Hellebuyck, and still haven’t made a change though, so why would I think they will now?
It’s difficult as a fan, because there’s potential solutions, and obvious solutions in some cases that just don’t get tried.
We’ll see if any of the things I proposed as solutions happen, but I’m not holding my breath.