Winnipeg Jets first half report: Jets among favourites to win it all

Jets head coach Paul Maurice discusses how his top line duo of Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele are "pretty much always wired" for the challenge of facing the other team's top line.

The Winnipeg Jets finish 41 games just one point behind Nashville for first place in the division with three games in hand. Their power play scores on 28 per cent of its opportunities, making it the second-most dangerous unit in the league, and their collection of high-end talent is on pace for career years.

Whether you think Winnipeg is Canada’s best, second-best, or third-best Stanley Cup hope, it’s clear that is the expectation for this team. Here’s a look at the Winnipeg Jets through 41 games.

Ryan Dixon and Rory Boylen go deep on pucks with a mix of facts and fun, leaning on a varied group of hockey voices to give their take on the country’s most beloved game.

THE GOOD

There’s a lot to like about one of Canada’s three legitimate Stanley Cup hopefuls.

Let’s start from the top, where Mark Scheifele (50 points) and Blake Wheeler (51 points) are on pace for career seasons. Wheeler, who really stepped up as one of the NHL’s premier set up men in 2017-18 is alreasdy 66 per cent of the way to his assist total from last year and sits only behind Nikita Kucherov and Mikko Rantanen league-wide. And his linemate, Scheifele, is a top-20 goal scorer on track for his first 40-goal season.

Some teams lack that strong secondary unit, but the Jets have one of the top snipers in the game on their second line. Patrik Laine has put together a slow start (just three goals in October) well behind him and is third in goals since Nov. 1 with 21, one behind both Jeff Skinner and Alex Ovechkin. After all the worry about his October struggles, Laine could very well hit 50 goals for the first time this season.

Backup Laurent Brossoit was picked up over the summer with little attention, but he has been a big addition to the Jets. If Connor Hellebuyck is to be healthy and rested for the playoffs he can’t be playing 67 games as he did last season. The Jets couldn’t count on their backups in 2017-18, but Brossoit has already played 10 games with a .939 save percentage. That kind of performance should give Winnipeg more confidence to rest their starter more often than they had in the past.

The mark of a great team, Winnipeg is remarkably consistent. Lucky to be mostly healthy to this point, the Jets have lost two in a row only twice — Nov. 21 and 23, and Dec. 27 and 29. Funny enough, in both instances the Jets lost to Calgary and Minnesota in sequence. Winnipeg has yet to lose three games in a row and hit the halfway mark winners of nine of their past 13.

THE BAD

With a 26-13-2 record that has them as the seventh-best team after 41 games, there’s not really a lot of bad to look at here. If there is one area that could use improvement, though, it’s five-on-five play. The Jets were a top-five offence in this category last season, but with 81 goals to this point they currently sit in the bottom half of the league as scoring goes up.

But even this can be offset with some good news as they don’t give up a lot at five-on-five either. Winnipeg is still plus-two in goal differential, which is 13th-best in the league, but still well behind the likes of Toronto (plus-26), Washington (plus-25) and rival Nashville (plus-20).

A key to turning this around will be adding more depth scoring. While the top two lines are elite, the offence falls off fairly rapidly after that. Mathieu Perreault’s 16 points are the most from a bottom-six player and only two others, Brandon Tanev (15) and Adam Lowry (12) have more than 10 points.

TRADE DEADLINE LOOKAHEAD

GM Kevin Cheveldayoff finally shook his reputation as a deadline day observer and jumped head-first into the market last season by acquiring Paul Stastny after striking out on Derick Brassard a few days before. Stastny’s addition moved Bryan Little down to the third line and gave opponents a heck of a lot more to worry about.

The question for the Jets is: who is this year’s Stastny? The Jets will start facing a cap crunch next season when Patrik Laine, Kyle Connor and Jacob Trouba (if he’s not dealt this summer) will all return with new, much bigger contracts. And Josh Morrissey is owed a new deal one year later.

So although Winnipeg is still on the younger side, the reality is tough decisions are ahead.

Cheveldayoff has been quiet more often than not on the trade market, but it’s time for him to be more aggressive to try and push this group to a championship. If they can add another second-line centre this year it’d be a huge win.

On top of that, Winnipeg may also be interested in some experienced depth up front and for the third-pair on defence. Some of the kids such as Mason Appleton and Sami Niku are just about NHL-ready, but it may be more helpful to pick up a couple of semi-cheap players who have been there before.

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MOST IMPORTANT STORYLINE OF THE SECOND HALF

Things haven’t been as easy for Hellebuyck this season, but for Winnipeg to have any chance at the Cup he needs to be in prime form.

In 2017-18 every month was a good one for Hellebuyck, with a .911 save percentage in February being the low point. This year he hits the halfway mark with a .910 save percentage that ranks 20th in the league, mostly due to a slow start by his standards. He has a .757 high danger save percentage that is nothing special at all — Hellebuyck has allowed the third-most goals from this area of the ice league-wide.

The good thing is that he’s gotten better as the season has gone along. His performance is something to watch in the second half. But make no mistake — this team is very much one of the top favourites to win it all.

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