The Winnipeg Jets have finally arrived.
A favourite breakout pick over the past few years with their mix of young, emerging players and quality, experienced vets, Winnipeg always fell short. Sometimes it was the defence, mostly — especially last season — it was the goaltending. This season, led by Connor Hellebuyck and his .926 save percentage, there’s plenty of reason to believe why their early-season surge will stick over 82 games.
And it’s not only because of the goaltending.
“I don’t think the defence gets enough credit for this turnaround,” Sportsnet’s Jets reporter Sean Reynolds said on the Tape to Tape Podcast this week. “I don’t think there’s as many outstanding errors as there have been in past years that have hung goalies out to dry.”
According to Corsica, Hellebuyck has faced 61 high danger shots this season, which is the fewest of any goalie with at least 18 games played (Hellebuyck has 20). So don’t let that 32.8 shots against number (tied for sixth highest in the league) fool you.
The team defence didn’t start out as such a good story, though. Winnipeg’s first game of the season was an ugly 7-2 loss at home to the Maple Leafs, which was followed by a tough practice and bag skate the following day. Maurice wasted no time blasting his team publicly, saying that before the franchise would be able to move forward, its players needed to learn how to play defence.
“You can put all the talent in the world on the ice, and you’re not winning a damn thing until you’ve got a real good comfort level to defend,” he said.
Reynolds said the team took that message to heart and has allowed two goals or less in 16 of the 24 games since. They’re 15-5-4 in that span and are one of four teams in the top 10 in goals for and against per game (St. Louis, Chicago and Tampa Bay are the others).
They are indeed taking that step forward Maurice was challenging them to accomplish.
But look around the salary-capped NHL and you’ll notice every team has a built-in weakness. The Chicago Blackhawks, after years of dominance, may finally have a depth issue, particularly on the blue line. The rising Maple Leafs, who are in the conversation with Winnipeg as Canada’s best to this point in the season, have struggled with their own defensive play. The two-time defending champion Penguins have only 44 even-strength goals — third-fewest in the league.
But with Winnipeg getting bonafide No. 1 play from its goaltender, the team defence appearing to come together, and the top line of Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler and Kyle Connor exploding as an elite unit, where is the Jets’ weakness?
Right now, it’s probably coming from an unlikely place. The second line has been relatively quiet and a bit inconsistent on the production front given the heights they were expecting to hit. It’s not that they’re playing poorly, but none of Patrik Laine, Nikolaj Ehlers or Bryan Little is on pace to best the offensive totals they put up last season.
Growth, so far, is coming from everywhere in the lineup except on that second unit.
“It seems like the chemistry is an issue on that line right now,” Reynolds said. “They’ve worked together in the past, but it doesn’t seem to be happening right now.
“Prior to the Ducks game (a 4-1 Winnipeg win last Friday)…Ehlers and Laine had scored a combined 19 goals and Little had assisted on just two of those goals. So that says a lot about that line and what they’re getting done. Basically those two players, they’ve continued to score, but they were scoring when they escaped that second line. So if they can get that line going and producing this team could be a juggernaut.
“They have not been generating the type of offence that we would expect, which says a lot about the team’s success that they’re doing it without those big names firing on all cylinders.”
Laine has already come out this season and challenged himself to be better, which was immediately followed with a five-game goal streak. He’s scored just twice in the nine games since that run ended — the same amount of goals that Little has in his past two games.
Still, Laine is on pace for more than 30 goals and Ehlers is just one behind him with two more points. So if this is the biggest weakness on the Jets right now, it’s not really one that will hold them back from a full-season breakout.