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How the Winnipeg Jets are bucking analytics...and winning

Ken Campbell
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Alexander Burmistrov goal (Photo by Graig Abel/NHLI via Getty Images) Author: The Hockey News

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How the Winnipeg Jets are bucking analytics...and winning

Ken Campbell
By:

The way the Winnipeg Jets play the game is not supposed to be a winning formula. Just ask the analytics community. What has developed into conventional wisdom states that in order to have success, teams have to enter the offensive zone with possession of the puck. Chip and chase is supposed to be dead.

Except it’s not entirely and the Jets are a good example of that. You watch the Montreal Canadiens play and they are now entering the zone with the puck because they’re a team that’s built for success playing that way. But sometimes you watch the Jets and you’d swear it was throwback night to the early 2000s.

Because that’s what works for them, and it was on full display in their 4-2 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs Wednesday night. For most of the night, the Jets were more than content to dump the puck into the Maple Leafs zone and give up possession, then use their speed and size to get the puck back. As a result, they won the shot attempts game by a fairly significant margin, 69-57.

The truth is, the Jets are a middling possession team. In fact, they’re right at 15th in that category. Their percentage of shot attempts in close games is under 50 percent and they’re in the bottom of the league in offensive zone faceoffs and 18th in shots per game. But they’re also sixth in the league in goals per game and are hanging in third place in by far the toughest division in hockey. Something must be working here.

“I don’t put much stock into analytics,” said Jets right winger Blake Wheeler. “I put stock into winning hockey games. We’re not a puck possession team. We’re not a team that’s going to slice and dice you and create offense that way. We’re a team with a lot of size and a lot of speed and when there’s not a lot of space out there like there wasn’t tonight, you don’t have a choice. It’s either get in on the forecheck and try to create something that way or do a lot of backchecking.”

But the numbers don’t lie. Analytics people will tell you that entries off carries generates between two and three times the number of shots that dumps do. But Winnipeg is one of those big, heavy teams, along with the St. Louis Blues and Los Angeles Kings, that can make something out of a dump-in by using its size.

“Last year we had a much higher percentage of retrievals on dumps than other teams,” said Jets coach Paul Maurice. “We still had a higher percentage (of success) with puck possession, skating it in and carrying it in. That being said, tonight we knew there wasn’t going to be anything off the rush. That’s the most we’ve dumped the puck all year and I think we did a good job of recognizing that was the game that had to be played.”

Unfortunately, we can’t validate Maurice’s theory until the NHL institutes player tracking, but it makes sense. The Jets are one of the heaviest, tallest and youngest teams in the league. They have a team that is built to buck analytics and still be able to have success.

“We don’t encourage dumps, except for tonight,” Maurice said. “We want to skate it in every chance we can. If not, we just don’t want to slow down while we’re doing it.”

REDEMPTION FOR BURMISTROV When Alexander Burmistrov scored the game winner with 2:05 left, he and Maurice were seen having a laugh at the bench. Burmistrov had taken two of the Jets three minors, one for holding and another for holding the stick, the first of which led to the Maple Leafs goal that tied the game 1-1. His goal, however, came when he was sprung from the penalty box. “That is a perfect example of the doghouse to the penthouse,” Maurice said. “That is classic. We’ve put him in a different role and he’s excelled at it. I know their plus-minus and their stats aren’t good, but he played head-to-head against (Anze) Kopitar and (Jonathan) Toews, so it hasn’t allowed him to cash in or take chances.”

The play started when Bryan Little dumped the puck out just as Burmistrov was leaving the penalty box. After gaining the zone, Burmistrov made a drop pass to Wheeler and went to the net, with Wheeler giving him the puck back for a tap-in. “I think everyone in the building knew I wanted that puck,” Wheeler said. “I might have woke my kid up back in Winnipeg. I was slamming my stick pretty hard.”

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How the Winnipeg Jets are bucking analytics...and winning