What’s wrong with the Winnipeg Jets power play?
The question has been raised on numerous occasions during the past season-and-a-half, with plenty of suggestions on how to fix it being offered by faithful fans on various platforms, including social media.
When a fan base is used to seeing the Jets finish in the top five in power-play efficiency in consecutive seasons (2017-18 and 2018-19), it’s natural for questions to start populating the timeline.
It’s also a stark reminder as to how difficult it is to operate at that high a level on a consistent basis, especially when you consider the personnel changes that transpired going into last season and how that related to the man-advantage.
Among those who either left in trade, free agency or retirement were Dustin Byfuglien, Jacob Trouba and Tyler Myers, all of whom were right-handed and provided a big shot from the point.
This isn’t to suggest for a second that the guy who took over that spot is to blame for the dip to basically the middle of the pack (15th overall, 20.5 per cent) last season because that simply wasn’t the case.
In fact, defenceman Neal Pionk led the Jets in power-play points, so he did his part.
The unusual development was that the Jets didn’t move the puck quite as crisply and opponents didn’t respect the shot from the top as much as in seasons past, which meant teams were more aggressive in taking away the one-timer for Patrik Laine and the slot shot from Mark Scheifele.
Part of that meant Laine’s production with the man-advantage was down considerably — to eight goals and eight assists compared to 20 goals and 11 assists in 2017-18.
These days, the Jets power play looks different, with some significant alterations made to the structure and another one related to personnel after the departure of Laine in the trade to the Columbus Blue Jackets.
But as the Jets get set to try and rebound against the Vancouver Canucks on Monday after losing consecutive games in regulation for the first time this season, Winnipeg currently sits seventh in the NHL in power-play efficiency (operating at 25.8 per cent through 31 games).
One of the big reasons for that spike in proficiency has been the ability for both units to produce, with the first unit scoring 14 goals and the second chipping in nine.
That’s a stark departure from last season, when the first unit not only delivered the bulk of the production, but also frequently took most of the ice time.
It may not be a 50-50 split these days, but there’s an acknowledgment from the top grouping that if things aren’t going smoothly, the guys behind them deserve a shot.
“You say second unit, it’s been a real emphasis for our team that whoever starts on the power play you get a minute and if you’re on the zone and you’re snapping it around, there are going to be times where you’re over a minute on the power play,” said Jets captain Blake Wheeler.
“But if the puck gets cleared around a minute, we have a ton of respect for the guys that are on the other unit and justifiably so, they’ve gone out there and got the job done for us. It’s such a great commodity to have two units that you have a ton of confidence in.
“If it’s not going for us one night, they can go out there and get the job done.”
Structurally, Wheeler was asked to make a big change, moving from his customary spot along the right-wing wall to down low on the left-wing side.
That meant Scheifele shifted into the Laine spot and Kyle Connor moved over into a one-timer spot on the right-wing side.
The other change saw Josh Morrissey take over from Pionk at the top of the umbrella and with the departure of Laine, veteran forward Paul Stastny is used in the high slot.
Although the puck still often runs through Wheeler because of his ability to distribute it so effectively, the realignment has meant more touches for Scheifele and far more shooting opportunities for Connor.
“It was a really important step for Mark and Kyle to take in their careers and be in those positions on our power play. They handle the puck a ton and they already are elite scorers in the league,” said Wheeler. “Being able to touch the puck that many times on the power play is going to put them into a different category in terms of their production. Those guys have done a great job jumping into those roles.”
Connor leads the Jets with eight power-play goals, while Wheeler and Scheifele each have 11 points.
The spike in second-unit production has been essential, with Nikolaj Ehlers delivering four goals and eight points while utilizing his elite zone-entry skills and regularly looking to generate offence with his shot.
In his new spot, Pionk has chipped in seven points and unleashed what looks like a more powerful shot from the point.
Now that Dubois has played 16 games with the Jets since the trade, he’s looking more comfortable in his spot on the right-wing side of the second unit as well.
That group got a goal from the slot from Andrew Copp in Saturday’s loss to the Edmonton Oilers, so that internal push doesn’t figure to be going away any time soon.
And that’s music to the ears of Jets head coach Paul Maurice.
“I think that’s the reason. You have to get enough from your so-called second unit that propels you into that top 10,” said Maurice.
“It can’t be just one. If you have one unit, you can set on that look. Usually teams that run one unit for the full two minutes has either an Edmonton setup where they have two or three really incredible offensive players, or you’ve got two units that you can spread it around a little bit.
“There is a comfort level with it now. They’re moving the puck a little differently. They’ve spent enough time. This has been an unusual year because we haven’t had a big run of power plays and we have no practice time. You don’t actually get to feel the puck or work on it as much as you like.
“I’m pleased with where it’s at, especially in that we haven’t had a big run of them yet.”
When you consider how many tight games the Jets have been involved in already this season, finding a way to keep the power play clicking on all cylinders could prove to be a valuable weapon to lean on during what figures to be an exhilarating ride through the second half.
Ken Wiebe covers the Winnipeg Jets for Sportsnet.ca and is a regular contributor to the hockey coverage on CJOB. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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