Connor Hellebuyck buys Jets time, but underlying problems cause for concern

Paul Maurice talks about the less than impressive showing the Winnipeg Jets had against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

In the first week of the season, the Winnipeg Jets allowed 15 goals over the span of just three games. It was a wretched start that reawakened all kinds of familiar questions about the team’s defence, goaltenders and the men entrusted with assembling that group.

Three games and two wins later, it is deceptively easy to pile the blame on the broad shoulders of Steve Mason, the surely now-former Jets starting goalie.

Mason has started three games and allowed 16 goals. His .846 save percentage would have been near the bottom of the league in 1987 and is utterly out of place in the modern game. In contrast, partner Connor Hellebuyck is 3-0 with a save percentage almost 100 points higher.

We warned you that blaming the goalie was going to be easy.

“Hellebuyck good, Mason bad” has the virtue of being simple, direct and easy enough even for a sportswriter to remember. Even better, it’s actually part of the answer. Unfortunately, alone it’s not nearly enough to justify this column and far more importantly it misses a lot of what’s happening in Winnipeg.

That brings us back to all those familiar questions about the Jets, which aren’t likely to go away any time soon.

Winnipeg has run three primary defence pairs at even-strength this season, although there has already been plenty of mixing and matching. The Jets’ three right-shot defencemen all play on different pairings, but they’re also the only three defenders on the team averaging more than 20 minutes per game; Winnipeg’s coaches do all sorts of things to mostly keep them on their strong side and get them on the ice a lot.

The Jets’ three primary pairs break down like this:

Left Right TOI Corsi- CA/60 Goals- GA/60
Josh Morrissey Jacob Trouba 69.1 73 63.4 6 5.21
Tobias Enstrom Byfuglien/Poolman 60.3 56 55.7 3 2.99
Dmitry Kulikov Tyler Myers 50.2 53 63.3 1 1.20

The goal numbers should be mostly ignored this early because over an hour of play basically anything can happen. The shot totals are dicey, too, but because there are more of them (we’ve used Corsi here for the largest possible sample to include all shots directed at net by the opposition) they’re at least useful as an early indicator.

We don’t usually think in terms of 5-on-5 shot attempts against/hour, though, so what do they mean?

The best defensive teams in the NHL flirted with only 50 events against/hour last year and the median was 55 against. The Arizona Coyotes were the worst team in the league at keeping shots away, allowing 63 per hour.

Clearly the Jets have a big problem here. They have one pairing that is doing OK in terms of shots against, and two that would have been just below the team average in Arizona last season. So far only Morrissey/Trouba have really paid the price in terms of goals against, but we’re just six games into the season. There’s a reckoning coming for the Myers pairing, too, if things don’t change immediately. That pair will have a new look for the near future, with Tucker Poolman filling in for the injured Kulikov.

This is a team-wide problem as opposed to just an issue with the defencemen, of course, but it’s more than mildly troubling that the only pairing not getting hammered on the shot clock is the one that can remember the exact same thing happening when they played together in Atlanta.

The thought this is an overall team issue is reinforced by the fact it’s happening on the penalty kill, too.

The Jets have mercifully made strides in the Department of Dumb Penalties. After being the second-most penalized team in the NHL a year ago, they focused on improving in their discipline, going so far as to bring retired referee Paul Devorski in at training camp. Now they’re a little better than the league average in terms of the number of power plays they give their opponents.

That helps cushion the blow of allowing 78 shot attempts against in just 38 minutes of time shorthanded. On a per-minute basis, only Florida and (wait for it) Arizona have allowed their goalies to be so assailed. Matt Hendricks might help reduce that when he gets healthy but a) he’s one guy and b) he’s 36, so his impact is diminishing.

The team has only been able to survive because of some early magic from Hellebuyck — and that probably won’t last.

The suspicious reader might take one look at that chart and think something funny has been done with the y-axis, but that’s not the case: Every NHL goalie who has played at least 100 games between 2012 and the present fits on that scale. Jonas Hiller and his .826 shorthanded save percentage brings up the rear; Anton Khudobin and his .906 number leads the pack. Among regular starters over that span, Ben Bishop’s .898 save percentage is the outer marker.

Hellebuyck has been Winnipeg’s best penalty killer through three games, but it’s hard to imagine this performance lasting. Both he and Mason have been somewhat below the NHL average on their respective teams in this discipline over the past few years. Given that Hellebuyck is currently soaring 36 points above the league average, we’re talking about quite a jump.

Hellebuyck’s numbers are similarly ridiculous at even-strength, as Mason’s own performance has not been great. However, in the end, this isn’t really about the goalies. Hellebuyck has given the Jets a much-needed respite, allowing them to claw their way to a 3-3 start on the season and giving them the opportunity to work through their defensive difficulties without falling hopelessly behind the rest of the league.

It’s not like Winnipeg is the only team with these troubles. Calgary and Pittsburgh have been similarly porous, but obviously it’s still early. The key difference is that those two teams can afford to sacrifice some offence as they try to button things down. The Jets can’t. They’re quite bad at generating shots, and while they have enough skill in the top-six to compensate to some degree, no forward outside their top-six has more than one point yet.

Hellebuyck has bought the Jets some time, but he cannot fix those fundamental problems. If Paul Maurice and his skaters can’t pull things together fast, their goaltender’s heroics aren’t going to matter and disappointment will set in once again.

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