Jets fall­ing short of ex­pec­ta­tions early in sea­son

Winnipeg Free Press - - SPORTS / NHL - AN­DREW BERK­SHIRE

E’RE about 20 per cent of the way through the 2018-19 NHL sea­son, and while the Jets are in a wild-card spot with a win­ning record, I think ev­ery­one who watches them reg­u­larly can see they haven’t hit their stride yet.

An un­der­whelm­ing start from sev­eral key play­ers both in terms of play and poor puck luck has the Jets look­ing like a team imi­tat­ing the dom­i­nant Cup con­tender they were last sea­son. But there’s so much tal­ent on the ros­ter that de­spite a poor start, they’re not re­ally be­hind where they should be by much, only a hand­ful of points away from sec­ond in the di­vi­sion and home-ice ad­van­tage in the play­offs.

Mak­ing bank in the stand­ings even when you’re not play­ing your best is huge for any team that wants good seed­ing in the play­offs, but the ques­tion re­mains: what has changed in Win­nipeg that has caused the Jets to look less than dom­i­nant? Let’s com­pare the team at five-on-five to last sea­son in a va­ri­ety of cat­e­gories.

There is no area where the Jets are as dom­i­nant in this young sea­son as they were in by the end of last sea­son, which is a lit­tle con­cern­ing, but what is a bit more con­cern­ing is that they’re only out­play­ing their op­po­nents in two of these cat­e­gories. For­tu­nately for the Jets, the high-dan­ger chances and con­trol of passes to the slot are ar­guably the two most im­por­tant cat­e­gories for scor­ing goals, but that hasn’t led them to outscor­ing their op­po­nents at five-on-five so far.

Ac­cord­ing to var­i­ous ex­pected goals mod­els, the Jets have been fairly un­lucky in that de­part­ment based on not only their play, but also the shoot­ing tal­ent avail­able on the ros­ter. Pa­trik Laine, for ex­am­ple, has zero five-on-five goals de­spite 13 shots on net from the slot and 14 from the perime­ter; when based on his ex­pected shoot­ing per­cent­age, he should have about four goals on those shots.

Dis­re­gard­ing the ac­tual goal dif­fer­en­tial due to poor shoot­ing luck, in most of the cat­e­gories the Jets are close to even, or at least close enough that af­ter 15 games you shouldn’t worry, but the big­gest hits have come in an area they were al­ready weak in.

In a league that is con­sis­tently get­ting faster, the Jets are a bit of an out­lier be­cause they’re not a great rush team. They have play­ers who are ex­cel­lent off the rush, namely Niko­laj Eh­lers, who is a top-five player in the league in that area, but as a team they’re not as adept as most at cre­at­ing chances off the rush, or de­fend­ing off the rush.

WOp­po­nents at­tempt to en­ter the Jets’ zone with pos­ses­sion 40.7 times per 60 min­utes at five-on­five, which is very close to the league av­er­age, but while the av­er­age team de­nies 46.5 per cent of those at­tempted zone en­tries, the Jets have de­nied only 42.8 per cent, the fourth-worst mark in the league. That leaves the Jets de­fend­ing at­tacks off the rush a lot more of­ten than they want to, and they don’t hap­pen to be very good at it, ei­ther.

Ex­am­in­ing the num­ber of con­trolled en­tries the Jets give up gives us part of the pic­ture, but the de­tails are even more im­por­tant. Across the league ev­ery team gives up lots of en­tries, and gen­er­ates a bunch of their own, but the Jets are fairly poor at both cre­at­ing of­fence off the rush and stop­ping it. The Jets get a scor­ing chance on 30.4 per cent of their en­tries, which is ex­tremely close to the league av­er­age of 30.5 per cent, but they com­plete a pass on only 19.3 per cent of their en­tries, where the league av­er­age is 24.7 per cent, a huge gap.

De­fen­sively, things look worse, where the Jets give up a scor­ing chance on 33.6 per cent of the en­tries they al­low, and their op­po­nents com­plete a pass on 28.5 per cent of those en­tries.

Com­bine these two ar­eas and you get a sit­u­a­tion where the Jets are al­low­ing far more dan­ger­ous chances off the rush than their op­po­nents, and the en­tries they do get for them­selves are far less dan­ger­ous. That’s a good way to get outscored.

Off the cy­cle and off the forecheck, you’d be hard­pressed to find a more suc­cess­ful team than the Jets over the last cou­ple of sea­sons, but be­ing por­ous off the rush leaves them par­tic­u­larly vul­ner­a­ble to come­backs against in­fe­rior teams that have some speed, which is some­thing the Jets are go­ing to have to game-plan for.

One is­sue that could be ad­dressed in sea­son is the acquisition of a strong neu­tral-zone de­fence­man. It doesn’t need to be a star player. I think the loss of To­bias En­strom is the big­gest fac­tor in why the Jets look so ex­ploitable in this area, as he was an ex­cel­lent de­fen­sive de­fence­man who wasn’t a star, but he pos­sessed qual­i­ties the Jets need: a de­fence­man who can skate with op­pos­ing for­wards, has good gap con­trol, a good stick and isn’t afraid to chal­lenge at the blue line.

Un­less things re­ally start to go off the rails, this isn’t ur­gent, but around trade dead­line, if the Jets can’t find a so­lu­tion in­ter­nally, they’ll need to look to the trade mar­ket to shore up this area. Then again, maybe Paul Mau­rice and his staff can work some coach­ing magic.

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