ANALYSIS: Winnipeg Jets at the half

It’s half-time for the Winnipeg Jets during this truncated 2020-21 NHL season. But by no means does this signal the team is getting a chance to head to the dressing room for a breather. That won’t happen until after Game 46 on April 17, when the Jets host Edmonton in the opener of their second-to-last homestand of the schedule.

Between now and then, the every-other-day regimen that began on March 9 — with three back-to-backs thrown in for good measure — will continue. And to this point, the Jets have more than held their own in the first half by putting together a very respectable 17-9-2 record that has them sitting second in the Scotia North Division, well within striking distance of front-running Toronto.

So let’s review some of the areas where Winnipeg has excelled, others where they have been decent, and then those that fall into the below-average category.

On the plus side, the Jets join Florida as the only teams to have avoided back-to-back regulation losses to this point, sporting a 7-0-1 mark when coming off an outright defeat. That determination and mental toughness to park failure and deliver the required response will be massively important come playoff time — which will eventually become reality if that trend is continued.

That streak will be put to the test for a ninth time on Wednesday night against Montreal after Winnipeg ended the first half with a 4-2 loss to the Canadiens, who would have to be regarded as the Jets’ arch-nemesis because of how they have continually frustrated Mark Scheifele and company — even though Winnipeg leads the series by a 3-2 margin.

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A 2-for-3 performance on the power play in Monday’s loss boosted the Jets to 26.5 per cent with the extra skater — good for seventh place in the NHL. Head coach Paul Maurice has two reliable units he can send over the boards and that has been a huge contributor to the team’s success.

Discipline is also deserving of a gold star. Only four other teams are averaging less than the 6.57 minutes Winnipeg spends in the box on a per-game basis. And they are literally a handful of seconds away from ranking in the top three in that category.

Maintaining good behaviour will be essential in going forward. But we’ll reserve an explanation for that when we get to the “needs improvement” phase of this report.

Forward depth — especially down the middle — is seen as the team’s second greatest strength. In the North Division, only Toronto can trot out four lines that compare to what Winnipeg possesses. But that center ice group of Scheifele, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Adam Lowry and Nate Thompson — with Paul Stastny available if needed — seemingly can’t be matched.

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And the emergence of Nikolaj Ehlers as a game-breaker, to go along with the more established Blake Wheeler and Kyle Connor, and some very impressive secondary scoring from Andrew Copp, Mason Appleton and Mathieu Perreault has allowed the Jets to bounce back from early or late deficits on multiple occasions.

There would appear to be no question that the Jets’ number one difference-maker, though, is Connor Hellebuyck. And don’t be fooled by his very pedestrian 2.80 goals-against average and .910 save percentage. The reigning Vezina Trophy winner has performed at a level to suggest he’d like to add a second consecutive piece of hardware in that category later this summer.

Sure, there has been the odd “strange” goal that has snuck by from time to time. But Hellebuyck’s overall body of work, which includes a degree of save difficulty other winning netminders simply don’t have to contend with every time they’re between the pipes, is what continues to set him apart.

And we can no longer avoid the parts of Winnipeg’s game in need of constant supervision. Grade A chances allowed was an area this team struggled with a year ago. And despite adding some defensively sound forwards to the mix, and a stated understanding from the returnees that this was a problem area that needed to be addressed, well, not much has changed. Hellebuyck and his backup Laurent Brossoit pretty much have to be one of the three stars if the Jets are to be successful.

As one of our resident hockey experts John Shannon pointed out last week on Global TV and 680 CJOB, the Jets shouldn’t need to apologize for having stellar goaltending. But that doesn’t mean the skaters should be let off the hook for their puzzling inability to guard that symbolic home plate area in front of their net, or fail to execute clean exits that result in more time spent defending — and creating the need for Houdini-type efforts from their masked teammates.

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It is no secret Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff will need to make a deal for a top four calibre defenceman to bolster this current collection for the post-season. But that much-maligned blue line corps would also be made to look less vulnerable with a little more help from the forward group.

We saw last Saturday in Toronto that it could be done — and against a quality opponent. But what we have also seen far too often is that those performances are more of an outlier than they are the norm.

Penalty killing remains an area that can be consistently exposed for Winnipeg. A 76.8 per cent success rate and 19th-place ranking despite the brilliance of Hellebuyck — and Brossoit when he has been given the chance — has to get better. And it’s not like one or two bad nights have skewed those numbers. The Jets have allowed at least one power-play goal in half of their games played this season. And that’s while averaging less than two-and-a-half kills per night.

And despite all that depth down the middle — supported by wingers like Stastny, Copp, Appleton, Trevor Lewis and Perreault, who have all played centre previously in their careers — Winnipeg is in the bottom third of the league at 48.4 per cent. What is even more troubling — and could potentially cost the Jets at the worst possible time — is their league-worst 43.4 per cent “success” rate on defensive zone draws.

From a hopeful perspective, the likes of Scheifele, Dubois, Lowry, Thompson and Stastny have the second half to improve on that number, along with the other subpar parts of the team’s game, to make sure they’ll not be as worrisome when it really matters.

And the good news is, so far, the strengths have out-weighed the weaknesses to the extent that getting to the second season appears to be much more reality than it is fiction.

 

 

 

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