Connor Hellebuyck and Blake Wheeler Image by: Darcy Finley/NHLI via Getty Images
Winnipeg's top-scoring offense, rock-solid goaltending and near-automatic power play has propelled them to the top of the league. So, are these Jets the real deal?
A few days into the season, following respective 7-2 and 6-3 losses at the hands of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Calgary Flames, there was a certain here-we-go-again feeling around the Winnipeg Jets. The defense seemed shaky, the goaltending again an issue and the offense, while producing, didn’t look as threatening as those they had come up against. There’s a reason we can’t truly pass judgment on what a team is through the first week of the campaign, however, because since their third game of the campaign on Oct. 9, there’s not a team in the NHL that has been as hot as those same Jets.
That’s not in the figurative sense, either. The Jets as the NHL’s best since Oct. 9 is fact. Over their past 25 games, Winnipeg has accumulated 38 points, two more than the Tampa Bay Lightning, and have dropped fewer games in regulation than any other team. The Jets boast the most effective offense in the league, with a remarkable 88 goals for over the past several weeks. And that once shaky defense? Well, only one team, the San Jose Sharks, has allowed fewer goals against since the Jets hit the ice for their third game of the season.
But as the Jets continue to blast through their opponents as they did Sunday night with a 5-0 victory over the visiting Ottawa Senators, it’s worth wondering two things. First, what has driven Winnipeg to its success for the better part of the past two months? And second, are these Jets honest-to-goodness contenders in the Western Conference?
When it comes to the former, maybe the most impressive thing about Winnipeg thus far is there isn’t a lone reason why this team has been successful. Other organizations rely heavily on their goaltending or all-star offense, but the Jets' ability to win and win often has been predicated on a few things. The most evident, of course, is the offensive firepower coach Paul Maurice’s bunch has been able to showcase. Case in point: Sunday night’s defeat of the Senators marked the 14th time this season the Jets scored four or more goals. The only teams with offensive output matching that are, coincidentally, the two New York teams. The Rangers also have 14 four-or-more goal games, while the Islanders’ 15 lead the league.
As one would expect, the familiar faces are driving the offense in Winnipeg, too. Mark Scheifele’s transformation from supposed draft reach to perennial scoring stud is all but complete at this point, and his 14 goals and 34 points in 27 games are proof enough that he can hang with the league’s best point producers. Meanwhile, Patrik Laine’s 13 tallies put him on pace for another near 40-goal campaign and he’s picking up steam with nine goals in his past 16 games. Nikolaj Ehlers is transforming into an even greater offensive threat, his 11 goals putting him on pace for his first 30-goal season. Even rookie Kyle Connor, who started the season in the AHL, is scoring at a near point per game clip with nine goals and 17 points in 21 games.
The cream of the crop right now, though, is Blake Wheeler. It has flown somewhat under the radar given he’s the quiet leader of a group with plenty of young talent, but Wheeler’s four-point night on Sunday boosted him to seven goals and 34 points on the campaign, good for fourth overall in league scoring. More impressive than that, however, is that there are few players having a season quite like Wheeler when it comes to offensive influence. Sunday’s game marked his league-leading third four-point night and, despite having seven goals and a mere 21-goal pace, he’s currently in line to exceed 100 points and doing so with a boatload of primary points. Of the 35 points he’s scored this season, Wheeler has been a primary point-getter 27 times, his 20 first assists three more than the next-best puck distributor, the Colorado Avalanche’s Nathan MacKinnon. The only player with more primary points than Wheeler is Tampa Bay Lightning sniper Nikita Kucherov, who has 19 goals to his name.
Allowing Wheeler to excel offensively, and also boosting the point totals of his mates, is Winnipeg’s supreme play on the man advantage. Slightly below average last season at 18.2 percent, the Jets' power play has rocketed up to 27.4 percent on the season and has been exceptional over the past month, especially. Since Nov. 1, Winnipeg has found pay dirt on 21 of their 58 power plays, which translates to a 36.2-percent success rate. That’s nearly a full three percent better than the next-best power play, which is that of the Detroit Red Wings, at 33.3 percent. It should come as no surprise that Wheeler, Scheifele and Laine all find themselves in the top 20 for power play points, particularly because Winnipeg is getting their chances. The 58 power plays over the past month-plus is more than any other team over the same span and the Jets’ 95 man advantages are the 10th most in the league.
This is to say nothing of Connor Hellebuyck’s play, either. Hellebuyck’s Sunday shutout was his first of the campaign and, frankly, a long time coming. Through 22 appearances, Hellebuyck has been stellar with a .925 save percentage and 2.31 goals-against average, marks that rank 10th and eighth, respectively, among goaltenders who have played at least 10 games. At 5-on-5, Hellebuyck has been outstanding, boasting a .939 SP, according to Corsica. Only Vezina Trophy frontrunner Sergei Bobrovsky has been better.
All of the above only answers the first of the two important questions facing Winnipeg, however. It tells us nothing of where these Jets could be heading. So, let’s briefly dive in. Per Corsica, Winnipeg ranks 21st in Corsi for percentage (48.8), 16th in expected goals for percentage (50.6) and has a 101.9 PDO at 5-on-5, all three of which could be reasons this team comes back down to earth at some point. The Jets also rank 18th on the penalty kill and have been shorthanded 97 times, the seventh-most in the NHL. That’s an area where Winnipeg needs to improve to be as complete a threat from top to bottom as any other group in the league.
Now, that said, Natural Stat Trick indicates the Jets are already taking some much-needed defensive strides. Only three teams have allowed fewer high-danger chances against per 60 minutes at five-a-side, while Winnipeg also boasts the 10th-best defense in terms of stifling 5-on-5 scoring chances. The Jets have also been great at stopping shot attempts from actually getting through. Only seven teams have a lower 5-on-5 shots against rate. And when you consider the positives — the offense, goaltending and lack of high quality attempts against — they seem to far outweigh the few negatives that could hold this team back.
It may be too soon to declare the Jets a playoff favorite considering where many believed they’d be ahead of the campaign, but let’s just say this: things are going better, and looking brighter, than ever in Winnipeg. So bright, in fact, that Maurice has been able to joke in his post-game pressers, recently picking up a dropped dime while reminding the media that he’s been fired three times. The way things are going for the Jets, he won’t have to worry about a fourth firing any time soon.
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