Winnipeg Jets quarter mark report: Biggest tests still to come

The Calgary Flames scored five goals in the first period again and defeated the Winnipeg Jets.

With 12 wins through their first 20 games the Winnipeg Jets have the same amount of wins as they had at this point last season and with an average goals per game difference of plus-.55 that ranks fifth in the league, it’s hard to be too critical of one of Canada’s best hopes for the Stanley Cup.

You could argue these Jets have failed in all three of their big-stage or statement games, dropping one to Nashville and two to Toronto in October and getting outscored 10-4 in the process. But that’s not to say they haven’t had some big wins.

Still, the Jets’ early-season schedule stands out for how relatively soft it’s been. They’ve met a playoff team from last season seven times in 2018-19, and only two of those teams had home-ice advantage in Round 1. Outside of their trip to Finland against Florida, the Jets haven’t had a road trip last longer than two games until this week, while they’ve had two long home stretches already. The biggest tests are still to come.

And maybe that’s how it should be for a Cup contender looking to build off last season’s Western Conference final appearance. Knowing what it takes to almost go the distance, the Jets don’t need to kick into high gear until the grind starts to wear on less-seasoned teams and key points can be accumulated.

With a quarter of their season in the books, we have a good idea of what’s working and what will maybe need a bit of help between now and April.

Senior Writer Ryan Dixon and NHL Editor Rory Boylen always give it 110%, but never rely on clichés when it comes to podcasting. Instead, they use a mix of facts, fun and a varied group of hockey voices to cover Canada’s most beloved game.

Most Encouraging Development

Kyle Connor is elite: “Super lines” are a thing around the NHL this year. From Boston to Colorado to Dallas to Edmonton and beyond we’ve seen teams unafraid to load up their top trio and leave the rest of the lineup a little light on offensive stars. The Jets have used the same idea with Mark Scheifele between Blake Wheeler and Kyle Connor in the past, but as they’ve tried to kickstart a couple of their other young shooters and get some secondary scoring going, Connor was moved back to the second line. Paul Maurice has lauded his rise as a line-driver and he’s been the key element in getting that second line going.

“His pace, his ability to beat people down walls, to be on pucks,” Maurice said recently. “He got so much better over the course of one hockey season. The directness of his game makes him an easy player to play off.”

Remember: although Connor scored 31 goals last season as a rookie, he didn’t make the Jets out of camp. He was recalled in mid-October following an injury to Mathieu Perreault, worked his way up to the top line immediately, and had five points in six games by the time the month was out.

With Connor on the second line opposite Patrik Laine, the Jets can now surround Bryan Little with two elite scorers, an advantage not many teams have across two lines. And the fact Connor did everything on the development track — spending nearly his first full pro year in the AHL, starting his second year there, and now becoming a primary line driver in Year 3 — is a great example for other young Jets whose path up the lineup may not be obvious. Connor’s former AHL linemate Jack Roslovic, playing mostly fourth line NHL minutes this season, can look up to what Connor’s done and strive to follow a similar path.

Most Concerning Development

5-on-5 scoring: The Jets have the NHL’s No. 2 power play converting 31.7 per cent of its opportunities, which is key in an era where PPs are way up across the league. But at evens, Winnipeg could stand to see some improvement.

The Jets have given up three more 5-on-5 goals than they’ve scored and have a 5-on-5 goals for/against ratio of 0.92 that is tied for 20th in the league. The good news is there is reason to believe luck will begin to turn in their favour. Winnipeg gets more shots than it gives up at even strength (50.94 CF%, 11th in the league) and has a 6.97 shooting percentage that not only ranks 25th in the league right now, but is well off where they finished last season (8.53 per cent, fifth in the NHL). Their current rate would have ranked 28th in the NHL last season.

There are a few reasons for the slow start here, including Patrik Laine who, yes, is streaky just like any goal scorer is. And now he looks to have turned a corner with five goals in two games.

But more concerning over the long haul may be the lack of scoring from lines three and four. Of the 55 goals scored by Jets forwards this season, just nine have come from bottom-six players. It’s an area the team wants to get more offence from, especially when you consider rival Nashville has gotten 20 of its 61 forward goals from bottom-six players.

Most Surprising Development

Brossoit the backup: Remember at the start of last year when Steve Mason was Winnipeg’s starter? That lasted all of two games before Connor Hellebuyck took over, didn’t look back, and finished as a Vezina Trophy finalist. Mason never really settled and the Jets had to lean on Hellebuyck for a league-leading 67 games. It was just his second full season at 24 years old so he handled the load well, but it’s not ideal to have to use your starter that often all season.

So the fact Laurent Brossoit has played so well early on is a big plus for the Jets. He’s only started four games but has allowed more than one goal only once — and he still got the win. The only loss he’s sustained in a start so far, in fact, was a 31-save 2-1 defeat in a shootout against Arizona. He has earned the confidence of the players in front of him.

Brossoit’s previous team, the Edmonton Oilers, also needed a capable backup to spell their overworked starter, but they let him go after an .883 save percentage season. If the 25-year-old keeps up a level of play even remotely close to what he’s started the year with (1.65 GAA, .951 SP), the Jets would feel far more confident in resting Hellebuyck more often and keep him fresh for the playoffs. The only one who may have a problem with this is Hellebuyck himself who would play in every game if they’d let him.

MVP of first quarter

Blake Wheeler: Lots of strong choices here. Mark Scheifele is the most significant primary point producer at even strength and is second on the team with 11 goals. Connor’s contribution to this team was noted above, while Josh Morrissey is quietly catching Dustin Byfuglien as the most-relied upon Jets blueliner, though he’s not there quite yet.

But our MVP is Blake Wheeler who, despite getting less than 50 per cent of his points at even strength, leads the Jets in scoring. There are a number of reasons to pick Wheeler, not least of which is that his 13 power play points leads the league, a major factor in why the Jets are so effective with the man advantage. He’s already had a team-high 12-game point streak this season and he’s the voice that challenges and holds everyone on this team accountable. With more 5-on-5 scoring likely to come, Wheeler could take a run at 91 points again.

What to watch for in second quarter

More scoring from the blue line: Overall Winnipeg has eight goals from its defencemen this season, which is about the same pace as the 33 they scored last season. But look at who is doing the scoring. Ben Chiarot has the most, already setting a career-best with three goals this season, while Dustin Byfuglien is the only other blueliner with more than one goal. With the way Morrissey is trending, he’s a good bet to surpass last season’s career year of seven goals while Tyler Myers, who is in a contract year and usually good for six-to-nine goals, has only one so far.

Again comparing them to their top divisional rivals, the Nashville Predators were the highest-scoring blue line last season and get an advantage from all the offence their dynamic defencemen can put together. Expect the odds to swing around in the second quarter and for the Jets to get more scoring from the back end.

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