The 2021 NHL season, if you can believe it, is just under one week away. No, I will not be referring to it as the 2020-21 season. The Winnipeg Jets look to improve on a season where they finished 37-28-6 giving them 80 points in 71 games. This ranked them 20th in points percentage. This is slightly deceiving, as just one more standings point in any of their games would have placed them 15th. With that said, it was quite an ugly season for the club.
The talented, but flawed Jets, at even strength, finished 25th in score and venue adjusted shot share, and as per Evolving-Hockey, finished 30th in score and venue adjusted expected goals share. This means they were getting severely outshot, and the difference in quality of shots they were able to generate versus what they gave up was even worse. Much of this was cancelled out by terrific goaltending by Connor Hellebuyck, the Jets’ ability to finish their chances, as well as their discipline. While Connor Hellebuyck was an all-world goalie last year, the goaltending in particular isn’t something the Jets should try and rely on since goaltending results are so unpredictable.
The Jets should look for an infusion of youth on their blue line, hope for bounce back seasons from a few veterans, and play a more aggressive game where they possess the puck more, and are able to generate more and give up less at even strength. They should also look to play more up-tempo and take advantage of the fact that they are one of the best finishing teams in the NHL.
The infusion of youth
The Jets have two excellent prospects on defence that are good enough to make an NHL impact right away. 21 year old Dylan Samberg, and 19 year old Ville Heinola.
The Jets should be looking to get Samberg into the lineup as soon as possible. He turns 22 on January 24, an age where players typically start approaching their peak.
He has great tools. He skates very well, can physically manhandle opponents, has good defensive instincts, and is better than you might expect with the puck. These are all things the Jets could use in their lineup. He is also listed at 6’4″, 216 lbs on Elite Prospects, which certainly doesn’t hurt. It would be mutually beneficial to the Jets and Samberg to have him start on the big club. If he doesn’t pan out to start, there is no issue in sending him down, but he needs to get up to NHL speed, and I’m not sure there’s much that can be gained by having him start in the AHL.
Players in training camp playing ahead of him on the left side of the defence include Derek Forbort and Nathan Beaulieu. While these are players who can certainly hold their own and may be decent third pairing guys, Samberg brings more skill to the table, and there’s no reason to believe he isn’t physically ready.
Luca Sbisa is a player who looks destined to start in the press box. For whatever reason, the Jets seem to be factoring the potential of losing him on waivers into their roster plans despite him being above replacement level in just 2 of his 12 seasons in the NHL. The Jets should be looking to Samberg and/or Heinola to earn a spot in the lineup and push Beaulieu and/or Forbort to the press box. This way when injuries happen, the Jets aren’t pigeonholed into dressing Sbisa, who unfortunately isn’t an NHL-level player. If he’s factoring into the Jets’ decision making in any way, they’re doing something wrong. They also get a defence corps with much higher upside by getting the prospects in the lineup.
Ville Heinola is coming off a stellar performance at the World Junior Hockey Championship. His ability to negate pressure in his own zone and seamlessly exit the zone with control of the puck was unmatched throughout the tournament. To be frank, he was probably the best defenceman in the tournament, despite the award going to teammate Topi Niemelä.
His play in Liiga, Finland’s top league, has been stellar as well. He has 14 points (1 goal, 13 assists) in 19 games and an outstanding 59.8% on-ice shot share. A 19 year old defenceman doing that is a men’s league is far from common.
The moment he steps into the NHL, he will be one of the smartest players in the NHL. His mind is just a step ahead of everyone else’s, and he has incredible passing ability, good hands, and ability to defend to go with it. He has a real chance to become an elite NHL defenceman.
He is only 19 right now, but he has very much looked NHL ready this season in Liiga and at the World Juniors. He will be subject to a seven day quarantine after arriving in Winnipeg, so he likely won’t be able to practice until Wednesday the 13th, a day before the Jets’ first game. As soon as he gets acclimated to the systems, he should be stepping into the lineup, at the very least for the six games before his entry-level contract slides. If he impresses, there should be no reason to keep him off the roster. His transition game in particular will be so valuable to a team who has struggled mightily in transition for the past two seasons.
What might the forward lineup look like and how good are they?
The Jets’ top six forward group has seen Nikolaj Ehlers playing with Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler, and Kyle Connor with Paul Stastny and Patrik Laine to start training camp. If the lines stay this way, this is a good thing for the top line. Over the past two seasons, as per Natural Stat Trick, The Ehlers-Scheifele-Wheeler line, in 483:31 of ice time, has posted a 52.40% shot share, a 50.48% expected goal share, and has outscored the opposition 29-20 (a 59.18% goal share). This is an overachieving goal differential, but the results have been quite good considering the team has struggled in the corsi and expected goals categories for back to back seasons, and the finishing ability of Ehlers and Scheifele has the potential to push their goal totals above their expected goals to some degree.
The iteration with Connor on the top line has been less successful. In 695:33 of ice time over the past two seasons, they’ve had a shot share of 51.06%, an expected goals share of 48.67%, and have been outscored 35-31 (a 46.97% goal share). It would be unexpected for them to continue underperforming their expected goals, but also unlikely for them to outscore their opponents enough to be any kind of a first line you’d picture on a contending team. The Jets are making the right call by having their best play driver, and best overall winger in Ehlers play on the top line.
The second line of Connor, Stastny, and Laine is intriguing, and may be a bit of a wildcard. Connor and Laine struggled together last season, mostly defensively on Scheifele’s line. They finished chances at a very high rate, but gave up so many chances that it more than cancelled out that line’s offence.
Connor is a player is particular who struggles defensively. Laine is improving in this area, but isn’t a great defensive player at this point either. Playing those two with a centreman who was consistently behind on the backcheck and has been very weak defensively for the past two seasons was probably not a great recipe for success.
Stastny is a guy who can play well defensively. If Laine takes another step defensively, I don’t expect it to be quite an average defensive line, but if Connor and Laine can continue to finish well in the offensive zone and Stastny can still drive some offence and create some chances for those guys, it could be a line that works well.
On the other hand, Paul Stastny is 35 now, and it’s very possible he gets worse results on a team that’s not as good as any he’s played on in recent years. It’s a line that has the potential to be good, but if it doesn’t work, Paul Maurice has to be ready to try some things aside from the trademarked swapping of Connor and Ehlers.
The third line will start with Andrew Copp and Adam Lowry together playing with one of Mason Appleton or Mathieu Perreault. In the past, Copp and Lowry have had great results together regardless of who the third player on their line has been. Last year the results were not so good. Adam Lowry had the worst year he’s had in a long time and he needs to have a bounce back year. If he has a rough start, Maurice will need to give more opportunites to guys like Jansen Harkins and David Gustafsson. Kristian Vesalainen may also be ready for an NHL opportunity this year.
The Fourth line throughout camp has seen Jansen Harkins playing with Nate Thompson. They started with Appleton on that line, but when Perreault got hurt, Appleton slid up to the third line, and Kristian Vesalainen stepped onto that line. The Jets should look for someone to replace Thompson on that line as quickly as possible. Trevor Lewis, who had a goal and an assist in yesterday’s scrimmage, may be a good option to do that, as he’s still been posting solid results over the last few years and could still be a good bottom six player.
The Jets, of course, are still trying to come to an agreement with disgruntled forward Jack Roslovic, who, if signed, would jump right into the bottom six, and would force them to place Thompson in the press box. The Jets have enough options, between veterans and young players trying to break into the league, that if they ice their best possible lineup every night, Thompson should not factor in. Unfortunately, with this organization, we’ve seen that being a drag on the team’s results is sometimes something they ignore when deciding who makes the team at the bottom of the lineup.
I’d imagine the opening day forward lineup will look something like this:
As a whole, this is a forward group whose top six has a lot of talent, but may be slightly overrated as they still lack play driving ability and ability to defend. With that said, this is a group who can outshoot a lot of their issues.
The bottom six has some good pieces. Andrew Copp is a great third liner, and until this past season Adam Lowry had been performing like one as well. Mason Appleton performed well last season, and Jansen Harkins showed some great things that would suggest he could be a high end bottom six forward. Mathieu Perreault can still have a positive impact on the game, and Trevor Lewis could prove to be a decent depth piece if he gets a contract with the team. David Gustafsson has played well in Sweden this year, and Kristian Vesalainen got off to a hot start, yet had since tailed off in Liiga. If Jack Roslovic signs, he’s another player who at times has been a good middle six forward.
The wildcard in the bottom six here is Adam Lowry. If he bounces back, the bottom six will be in good position to play an important role for the team this year. If he struggles again, the team will need to make some adjustments and give other guys opportunities.
What might the defence look like and can they hold their own?
An interesting wrinkle to this point throughout training camp is Josh Morrissey has been playing with Sami Niku, while Dylan DeMelo has been playing with Nathan Beaulieu. Tucker Poolman has been out with an injury, so many are speculating that he will step into the spot with Beaulieu, and DeMelo will move back up with Morrissey. This may be the case, but wouldn’t it be something if Morrissey and Niku ended up having some chemistry and made up a good pairing?
This is something the Jets were unable to do last season with Morrissey except when he was paired with DeMelo at the end of the season. It’s not what I’m expecting to happen, but if Morrissey and Niku are paired together and can perform well, that opens up their best even strength defenceman, Dylan DeMelo, to be the main driver on a second pairing, or even to have a 1A, 1B type situation with their top two pairings.
That other pairing could be DeMelo with Ville Heinola. DeMelo has spent the start of camp with Beaulieu to this point. If the Jets were using Beaulieu as a placeholder for Heinola, this could be very intriguing. DeMelo is a very good play driver from the back end, and is the type of player that could pair up with Heinola to make an awesome duo.
Derek Forbort and Neal Pionk is the other pairing that has been together since the start of camp. This could be a nice third pair for the Jets if the above scenario were to come to fruition.
I have heard people say things like “Neal Pionk is the top point producer among defencemen on the Jets, how can you put him on the third pair?” The answer to that is twofold. First off, 25 of his 45 points came on the power play. Secondly, the five most common forwards he was on the ice with were Scheifele, Connor, Wheeler, Laine, and Ehlers, which, had a large impact on Pionk’s point total at 5 on 5. His actual contribution offensively as per Evolving-Hockey’s WAR (wins above replacement) and xWAR (expected wins above replacement) was somewhere in the ballpark of replacement level. This means that he was not personally contributing to scoring chances and goals at a high level.
With all that said, Pionk did positively affect the team’s shot share, which in a more sheltered role, might be enough to make him an effective player at even strength, especially with a partner who is a solid defender like Forbort.
The alternative to this, and what I think is more likely, is that we see the following on opening night:
This would likely make for a better, and a clear top pairing, but the rest of the defence might struggle a bit more. The Forbort-Pionk pairing would no longer be able to be sheltered, and instead of being good depth guys in the press box, Beaulieu and Poolman are in the starting lineup.
These two pairings could end up being a bit better than I think, but their upside is relatively low. The good news, perhaps, is that this isn’t Anthony Bitetto or Luca Sbisa in the lineup to begin the season. These are all legitimate NHL players.
With that said, Ville Heinola will likely get his six game stint after spending a little time in the press box. Who he’s paired with and how he performs is yet to be seen, but he would instantly add more talent and upside to that lineup, and I would like to reiterate that there is no reason he shouldn’t be given a real chance .
Are the Jets a playoff team?
The Jets have talent. But the big question is, can they play the right way to take advantage of this talent. If they play to their potential by taking advantage of their high-end offensive players by playing an aggressive style of game and continue to get good goaltending, there’s no reason they can’t be a playoff team. On the other hand, if they struggle early and they continue to keep trying things that haven’t been working, as they’ve too often done in the last two seasons, and that’s paired with a goaltending performance that isn’t all that stellar, they won’t end up in a playoff spot.
The recipe is there for the Jets to have some success this year. The coach needs to follow it, otherwise it will be more of the same.