How the Winnipeg Jets became one of the NHL’s best, and three other trends to watch

Blake Wheeler explains why the Winnipeg Jets are excited about their team but understand it is still early in the NHL season.

We’re trying something new here this week.

We’re going to zoom out, bounce around the league, and look at four trends that warrant a closer look than they’ve been getting. First up..

1. This year looks different in Winnipeg:

After years of being tagged with the label of pre-season sleeper only to have those hopes fizzle out as soon as the games began, the Winnipeg Jets finally seem to be making good on all of their tantalizing potential. They currently find themselves in a dead heat atop the conference with the best the West has to offer — only the Kings and Blues sport a better goal differential than Winnipeg’s plus-17.

The thing with the Jets is that the skating talent, particularly up front where they boast arguably the best collection of firepower in the league outside of Tampa Bay, has never been in question. It’s impossible not to be infatuated by a team that can throw any combination of explosive talents like Blake Wheeler, Mark Scheifele, Nik Ehlers, and Patrik Laine out there, presenting opponents with the challenge of trying to figure who to match up with and how to best slow them down.

Those guys certainly haven’t disappointed. The Jets have been explosive on offence – they were sixth in the league in goals per hour last season, and they’re fifth this season.

The majority of their issues in the past have emanated from the other end of the ice, where they’ve had a difficult time keeping the puck out of their own net (as a frame of reference, only the Avalanche and Stars gave up goals more frequently than Winnipeg last season, which neutralized that sixth-ranked attack). Those types of back-and-forth, high-scoring track meets surely make for entertaining viewing, but also made it difficult for the Jets to string together enough wins to consistently be a playoff team.

It’s no surprise that the one time they qualified for the post-season since returning to Winnipeg was in 2014-15. That was the year Ondrej Pavelec got ridiculously hot in the second half of the season and marked the only time the team’s goaltenders didn’t finish in the bottom third of the league:

Season 5-on-5 Save % League Rank
2011-2012 91.22 24th
2012-2013 90.87 22nd
2013-2014 91.19 23rd
2014-2015 92.16 13th
2015-2016 91.53 23rd
2016-2017 91.01 27th
2017-2018 92.26 10th

This year has been much better and part of that is, of course, due to Connor Hellebuyck’s strong play. He was bizarrely ineffective last season considering how well he’d shown at each previous level, and that suggested his struggles were more an aberration than a lasting indictment of his ability to stop the puck.

But another factor to this season’s turnaround is the team’s defensive play in front of him. At five-on-five the Jets give up the sixth-fewest scoring chances against per hour on average, sandwiched between the Bruins and Blue Jackets. Of all 31 teams, only the Blues and Stars give up fewer high danger shot attempts than the Jets.

Taking it one step further, of the 32 qualified goalies with 700-plus minutes played this season (accounting for the majority of their team’s starts), only the Wild have done a better job of keeping the shots against to the outside and away from the high danger areas:

Player 5-on-5 Time on Ice 5-on-5 Shots Against High Danger Shots Against % High Danger Shots
Devan Dubnyk 991.72 527 71 13.47
Connor Hellebuyck 1019.85 485 67 13.81
Andrei Vasilevskiy 1089.70 592 84 14.19
Jake Allen 1014.67 496 80 16.13
Carey Price 752.85 387 67 17.31
Mike Smith 1129.52 598 104 17.39
Jonathan Quick 1026.13 522 91 17.43
Pekka Rinne 988.38 509 89 17.49

The ability to put goals on the board in bunches is there, as it always has been. The team’s possession game has finally come around as well over the past 10 games or so since Mathieu Perreault returned from injury. This all bodes well for their ability to sustain the winning ways moving forward.

But as always, it all comes back to the goaltending. If they can now rely on that too, then all of a sudden this might actually be the year the Winnipeg Jets finally take that next step.

Dimitri Filipovic provides entertaining and thoughtful dialogue about the game of hockey with an analytical edge. Not as nerdy as it sounds.

2. Jack Eichel’s lack of secondary support:

Let’s not mince any words here. The Buffalo Sabres have been shockingly bad this season.

Considering what the franchise has gone through in the recent past, it’s become the poster child for bottoming out in the pursuit of high draft picks. They lost, a lot, and over time it was easy to become desensitized to all of it. But this feels different, if only because this year was supposed to be different.

With a new head coach and general manager – each fresh off a Stanley Cup final appearance with their former clubs – and a series of seemingly savvy if not flashy additions to the roster, there was reason to be optimistic about the organization’s present day outlook.

Not only have they not made any discernible progress in their march towards respectability, but they’ve actually gone the other way instead, with their results rivalling the Sabres squads from 2013 to 2015 — those teams weren’t even pretending to be interested in trying to win games.

Buffalo has won just seven of their first 28 games of the campaign, with their 18 points and minus-36 goal differential both ranking dead last. In just under 160 minutes of 5-on-4 action where they’ve supposedly had the advantage of a power play, the Sabres have somehow only managed to score one more goal than they’ve given up.

There’s a lot of blame to go around for that, but any of it directed towards the team’s best player seems misplaced. Hockey is a game where it’s difficult for an individual to make the type of impact that a LeBron James can in basketball or a Tom Brady can in football.

In Buffalo’s case, there’s a solid argument to be made that no star-calibre player gets less help from his teammates than does Jack Eichel.

The Sabres have scored 17 goals at five-on-five in the 400-plus minutes Eichel has been on the ice, and he has personally either scored or made the pass that directly preceded the goal on 16 of them. He’s first in the league in:

a) The percentage of goals his team has scored while he’s on the ice that he’s registered a point on (of players who have been on the ice for at least 10 goals thus far):

Player On-Ice 5-on-5 Goals For 5-on-5 Points % Contribution
Jack Eichel 17 16 94.12
Paul Stastny 15 14 93.33
Nikita Kucherov 26 24 92.31
Mikael Backlund 11 10 90.91
Joonas Donskoi 11 10 90.91
Mat Barzal 18 16 88.89
Pavel Buchnevich 15 13 86.67
Evgeny Kuznetsov 21 18 85.71
Patrick Kane 20 17 85.00
Alex Ovechkin 23 19 82.61
Nathan MacKinnon 17 14 82.35
Filip Forsberg 18 14 77.78

b) The percentage of primary individual points, essentially stripping secondary assists from the equation (of players with at least a double-digit point total for the year):

Player 5-on-5 Points 5-on-5 Primary Points % Primary Points
Jack Eichel 16 16 100
Brian Gibbons 12 12 100
James van Riemsdyk 11 11 100
Michael Ferland 11 11 100
Mike Hoffman 10 10 100
Paul Byron 11 11 100
Joonas Donskoi 10 10 100
Alex Ovechkin 19 18 94.74
Filip Forsberg 14 13 92.86
Nathan MacKinnon 14 13 92.86
Jonathan Marchessault 13 12 92.31
Alex Radulov 12 11 91.67
Gustav Nyquist 12 11 91.67
Patrick Marleau 12 11 91.67

Eichel is currently on pace for 64 points this season, which seems like a disappointing total on the surface, but is actually an astonishingly high figure given how little help he’s received on a poor team. If he can start benefiting from power play production and cheap secondary assists, his raw point total should quickly rise up the leaderboard.

With his new lucrative contract set to kick in next year he’s set up financially, but unless he starts getting some support on the ice it’s going to be a long eight years for both himself and the Sabres organization.

3. Ken Hitchcock’s influence on the Dallas Stars:

When Ken Hitchcock was named head coach of the Dallas Stars this past summer, it raised some eyebrows around the league.

That said less about him and his abilities as a coach (his resume speaks for itself), and more about the seemingly odd fit between his style and the roster he was inheriting.

While Hitchcock-coached teams have enjoyed plenty of success over the years, they’ve done so playing a conservative, defensively responsible style that runs counterintuitive to the vision with which this particular Stars roster was assembled in the first place.

This led to reasonable questions about how the two styles would mesh. The unique combination of immense talent on the roster and the uncertainty on how it would be utilized made the Stars one of the more fascinating teams to watch heading into the year because of their wide range of possible outcomes.

Now about one-third of the way through the year, we appear to have a definitive answer, as Hitchcock has come in and made quick work of the makeover. If we use shot rates for and against at five-on-five as a proxy for ‘pace’, no team has slowed down the pace at which they play more dramatically than the Stars.

The good news is most of that change is a reflection of improved play in their own zone, where they’ve tightened the screws and whittled down the opportunities they’ve been surrendering. The bad news is some of that has come at the expense of their formerly fearsome transition game, which has also ground to a halt as they opt for a more dump-in heavy neutral zone approach.

Season Shots For/Hour Shots Against/Hour Pace League Rank
2014-2015 53.83 49.00 102.83 1st
2015-2016 53.52 48.41 101.93 1st
2016-2017 50.34 50.24 100.58 3rd
2017-2018 49.45 45.19 94.64 27th

Whatever the process is, it’s hard to quibble with the results. Dallas currently sits in a playoff position, and their underlying numbers are promising. They’re seventh in shot share and third in expected goals for, and if Ben Bishop can even come close to living up to his contract there’s no reason to believe the wins won’t keep coming. At least for now, it seems like GM Jim Nill and the Stars are getting exactly what they signed up for when they hired Hitchcock.

It’s just a shame that it had to come at the expense of a remarkably fun, high-octane team from two seasons ago that took the league by storm and fell only one game short of beating Hitchcock’s Blues.

4. Charlie McAvoy’s heavy usage:

Here is a list of the most frequently used players at five-on-five this season:

Player Games Played 5-on-5 Time on Ice 5-on-5 Time on Ice/Game
Charlie McAvoy 25 485.32 19.41
Ryan Suter 27 523.90 19.40
Drew Doughty 29 552.70 19.06
Zdeno Chara 25 475.52 19.02
Erik Karlsson 21 399.02 19.00
Mike Green 27 512.23 18.97
Erik Johnson 26 492.03 18.92
Adam Larsson 25 471.48 18.86
Dmitry Orlov 29 546.35 18.84
Seth Jones 28 527.43 18.84
Dustin Byfuglien 26 485.65 18.68
Alex Goligoski 30 559.28 18.64
Darnell Nurse 28 519.18 18.54
Jared Spurgeon 23 426.00 18.52
John Carlson 29 536.17 18.49
Zach Werenski 28 517.02 18.47
Rasmus RIstolainen 19 349.13 18.38
Victor Hedman 27 495.80 18.36
Brent Burns 26 477.35 18.36

There are a bunch of notable names here, but let’s stick with the one that shows up at the very top. Charlie McAvoy hasn’t been getting as much buzz in Calder Trophy discussions as players such as Mathew Barzal, Brock Boeser or Clayton Keller, but McAvoy has been awfully impressive this season.

Paired up with a player twice his age and nearly twice his size in Zdeno Chara, the two have not only handled all of the heavy lifting for the Bruins on the back-end, but actually thrived under the stress. While the two are on the ice at five-on-five, Boston has 54.5 per cent of the shots taken and 61.2 per cent of the goals that are scored.

Above all else, the important thing for McAvoy is context. He’s still just 19 years old for another couple of weeks, and had a grand total of zero NHL regular season games played prior to this season.

While he’s obviously an extreme case because of both individual talent and Boston’s need at the position, the potential trickle-down effect of success stories such as this on the rest of the league are important.

There’s a widely held belief in hockey that defencemen develop more slowly than forwards and that as a result they need to be held down at the lower levels for longer periods of time to develop. However, there isn’t really any tangible statistical evidence to suggest this is true.

I suspect this theory largely comes from the fact that any mistakes young defencemen make typically result in easily perceptible scoring chances or goals against, which confirm the pre-existing beliefs that they’re not ready yet and too risky to be relied upon.

It’s that endless loop and flawed reasoning that leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy where defencemen typically don’t get a real chance to succeed until a later age, at which point a couple of potentially productive seasons have already been wasted.

It’ll take more than just McAvoy to buck that trend and fundamentally change the way the league operates, but if the NHL really is a copycat league, this development can’t hurt.

(All data in this piece via Corsica, and updated prior to Thursday evening’s slate of games)

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