Playoff Post-Mortem: Winnipeg Jets
A reflection on the Jets' season and playoffs, and thoughts on what comes next.
In the regular season, the Jets had the expected goals edge in 25% of their games, the lowest in the league by a decent margin. In the qualification round, they outplayed the Flames a single time in four games. Now that’s consistency!
The Jets got worse and worse as the series wore on at 5v5, and got completely smoked by the Flames in games 3 and 4 at all situations. The absence of Mark Scheifele was definitely felt, and likely cost Winnipeg any chance of gutting this one out and beating the percentages. The team finished with 1.3 goals less than expected, a drop-off from the season overall that probably had something to do with losing two of their best finishers in Scheifele and Patrik Laine.
Almost the entire lineup finished in the red in terms of their on-ice scoring chance share, especially the set of depth forwards including Shaw, Bourque, Shore, and Harkins. Kyle Connor and Blake Wheeler weren’t on the ice for a single 5v5 Jets goal. The sole bright spots were the play of Andrew Copp, who led the team in xGF% by a wide margin among skaters who played more than one game, and Connor Hellebuyck’s valiant final attempt to keep his team alive in game four after a series that was unexceptional by his standards.
The Jets had three things going for them this season: finishing talent, a top ten powerplay, and elite goaltending. These strengths could be indulgently said to represent a husk of the uber-talented contender that this franchise was supposed to be for the next decade once things started to look up in 2018. The shooting above expected is indicative of the offensive forward talent this team still possesses, with players like Kyle Connor, Mark Scheifele, and Nik Ehlers capable of capitalizing on their chances. The powerplay shows how well this team can click with some extra space on the ice thanks to Blake Wheeler’s playmaking and Patrik Laine’s bomb from the circle. The Vézina (and in my mind Hart) calibre goaltending of Connor Hellebuyck should be the final puzzle piece that brings everything together.
But that’s not how things have gone for the Jets. Before fingers get pointed (at Maurice for his system, at Chevaldayoff for being too passive, at Byfuglien for keeping the team’s cap flexibility in limbo, etc.), let’s just start with the facts. The Jets got the percentages they needed to get to the top twenty-four, and they did that in large part because of skill and not luck. But behind that shiny facade, this team was rotten to the core. No team - not even the Red Wings - had a lower share of quality chances this season than the Winnipeg Jets did. No team out-chanced their opponent fewer times than the Jets either - setting goaltending aside, they were the better team in only 25% of their games this season. Their team defence ranked third-last in terms of preventing high quality scoring opportunities and their offence ranked third-last in terms of generating them. If you flipped on a Jets game at any point this season, chances are they were trapped in their own end.
There’s no doubt that the blueline does not look pretty on paper or on the ice. Out of ten defencemen who played over 200 minutes for the Jets this season, six of them grade out as below-replacement level by EvolvingHockey’s Wins Above Replacement model. That includes Josh Morrissey, who just two years ago was well on his way to being one of the steadiest defensive defencemen in the league. The team’s defence is not trusted to move the puck out of the defensive end, and for good reason. But the forward group deserves plenty of blame too. The Connor - Scheifele - Laine line was the league’s most porous defensively, exposing Hellebuyck to an alarming number of excellent chances against. Blake Wheeler continued to pile up non-5v5 counting stats while depressing play at even strength. And the depth, which had been a huge organizational strength in 2018, just could not keep up as former analytical darlings Perreault and Lowry struggled and guy like Shore, Bourque, Shaw, Luoto, Gustafsson, and Appleton played like AHLers.
It was a grim season for the Jets, and with so much of their talent in their primes some things have to change.
Where Should They Go From Here?
Sign Dylan DeMelo. EvolvingWild project him as probable to receive a 3 year contract in the ~$2.8M range. That’s a steal for a guy who’s proven that he can get the job done in top four minutes in a horrible situation. He might be a little pricier just because he led the team in ice time in the playoffs, but there’s a very real possibility that he could be the Jets’ best defenceman next season. As grim as that sounds, the alternative is far far worse.
Don’t sign Cody Eakin. He’s 29, plays centre, and is bad - a deadly combination in unrestricted free agency. A team desperate for a third line pivot will make the mistake of paying him for his percentage-driven fluke of a 18-19 season, and with Andrew Copp and Adam Lowry around there’s no need for it to be the Jets. He’s projected to receive the laughable sum of 4 x $3.4M.
Try a little harder to fill out the defence. No reason to have Luca Sbisas and Anthony Bitettos and Nathan Beaulieus out there every night. Sniff around at the Derek Forborts and Joakim Ryans of the world who will probably cost about the same amount. And maybe let them break the puck out once in a while?
See about moving a winger for a good defenceman. Emphasis on “good” - no Ristolainen trades please. Blake Wheeler is probably unmoveable because of his contract but hey at this point why not give it a shot. Kyle Connor would likely get the heftiest return, but moving Patrik Laine to a team desperate for anyone who can put a puck in a net could be a shrewd option. Minnesota being in the Central is an obstacle, but if they’re willing to move a defenceman…
Just try Andrew Copp as the second line centre. He wouldn’t have to carry the puck with Ehlers around, and considering he’s the Jets’ best defensive forward he might actually bring something resembling a defensive conscious to the lineup. Plus, resolving to give him the opportunity would rescue the team from doing something stupid and desperate in the offseason.
Emphasize team defence, for the love of god. Very few goalies in the cap era have maintained elite performance in consecutive seasons, and it is no guarantee that Hellebuyck will be able to rescue the Jets defence from themselves again. The whole team, especially the forwards, need to commit to tightening things up, or things could get even more ugly. Getting Scheifele in particular to play more of a two-way game could go a long way.