The Sisyphean task of analyzing another Winnipeg Jets season is upon us. Much like the Greek myth, the Jets’ hopes crested and then tumbled back to the bottom of the hill. Laborious and futile as it might seem, a look back can help inform the Jets’ future – even one fraught with uncertainty.
But unlike Sisyphus, we don’t have to toil in misery. Hockey is a game that is intended to be fun – and nobody has more fun with hockey than Winnipeg Jets’ TSN color commentator, Kevin Sawyer.
Kevin’s unique brand of folksy colloquialisms and eternal optimism form the centerpiece of the Jets’ fan experience. Whether you consume it with contempt or esteem, Sawyer is one of a kind and will serve as the inspiration for a look back at the Jets season.
Kevin Sawyer quote: “Helle-BUCKS it out of the crease” – Nov.5, 2022:
The beauty of Kevin Sawyer is that he preloads Dad jokes into his commentary. That said, no analysis of a Jets season can begin without a breakdown of the Jets’ goaltending.
Connor Hellebuyck rebounded nicely from an “off” 2021-22 campaign that saw his Goals Saved Against Expected jump from 16.7 (8th) to 30.8 (4th). His statistical metrics improved ubiquitously, albeit not to the levels of his Vezina winning season. His only blemish came in the playoffs, where he was outplayed by his friend and former backup, Laurent Brossoit. Blemishes tend to fester, and this one contributed significantly to the Jets’ first-round loss.
More interesting is his future. Connor has openly stated his desire to play for a Stanley Cup-contending team. At his season-ending press conference, he eluded that his future in Winnipeg remains unsettled. Needless to say, any Jets’ attempt at a retool as opposed to a rebuild, will need to feature Connor Hellebuyck predominantly.
Kevin Sawyer quote: “But when you want to dance with the devil, you give them the puck for free” – Jan. 26, 2023:
Kevin Sawyer is the absolute King of the non sequitur. A true artist can draw conclusions from precedingly incongruent statements. Regardless, let’s use this as a metaphor for defense. The Jets made huge strides in this regard.
At 5 on 5, the team improved defensively (from the following year) specifically to: Goals Against/60 (2.24-2.36), Expected Goals Against (167-185), and High Danger Chances Against (147-169). Anecdotally, the Jets have surrendered the 2nd most Defensive Zone Giveaways (478-522) two years running – bridesmaids each year to the Montreal Canadians.
The Jets struggled to control scoring chances on the rush, a fact that separates them from the elite teams in the NHL:
Regardless, in addition to a much-improved penalty kill (6th best overall), Coach Bones turned a once leaky Jets defense into a competitive one. That deserves recognition.
Kevin Sawyer quote: “Dane-born players” – April 13, 2023:
“Dane-born” sounds like a cheap Jason Bourne knockoff, as the correct phrasing is “Danish-born” – but we’ll give Sawyer a pass here.
Danish star Nik Ehlers was seemingly at the epicenter of nearly every Jets conversation this year. Injured early, the Jets rallied and managed a record of 23-13-1 in his absence.
Upon his return, the gravity shifted to his playing time and overall player management. Ehlers ended the season averaging the 8th most ice time per game for forwards. Statistically, Ehlers was once again the Jets’ best forward (per 60-minute average) on the powerplay, but once again saw limited minutes. Simply put, there is no better driver of play on the Jets than Nik Ehlers.
Injuries and usage shroud the gifted forward heading into 2024. The Jets need to determine conclusively if Ehlers is the keystone species stat-heads purport him to be.
Kevin Sawyer quote: “Should give this fourth line a nickname like the Vitamin Line… or something, because they make everything better.” – Jan. 17, 2023:
I believe “Medicine Line” is the nickname Sawyer was searching for, but extemporaneously a commendable attempt. The fourth line, and all the forward lines for that matter, had an up-and-down season, as the Jets’ offense struggled down the stretch.
The Winnipeg Jets were once again bereft of scoring from their 3rd and 4th lines with a never-ending carousel of replacement-level players. Mikey Essyimont, Axel Jonsson-Fjallby and Kevin Stenlund catapulted their play intermittently, only to fall back down to earth. Essyimont resigning in Tampa Bay stings some, and losing AJF in free agency is warranted, but yet another organizational unforced error in player management (AJF needed one more game to become an RFA).
The Jets had 2 forward lines in the top 15 of Expected Goals playing a minimum of 100 minutes: Ehlers-Wheeler-Namestnikov (64.5%) and Ehlers-Dubois-Connor (64.1%). It doesn’t take Columbo levels of deduction to identify the constant in each. With Blake Wheeler consuming 2nd line minutes with 3rd line abilities, the Jets’ offense never quite found its footing. I posit that the Jets’ forward group is far too talented on paper to succumb to such mediocrity (more below).
Kevin Sawyer quote: “Watch the way Scheifele picks this puck up with his feet – he is like a spider out there” – Nov. 8, 2022:
Spiders having opposable digits is an anatomical anomaly I was not aware of, but the point is clear – Mark Scheifele is talented. After his season-ending press conference in 2022, it seemed like his path back to salvation was far from attainable.
Statistically, anyway, he rebounded nicely:
Defensive concerns persist but all of that was covered here.
Kevin Sawyer quote: “He (Bowness) does it with love, in some ways” – Nov. 25, 2022:
From whence there were vibes, lies the tattered ashes of relationships gone awry.
Coach Bones’ start to his tenure as coach of the Winnipeg Jets began as many relationships begin – rife with optimism and requited love. The vibes were all positive as he implemented his defensive scheme and stripped Blake Wheeler of his captaincy.
Line management issues and questionable gameplay brought the party to an end. His insistence on an offensive scheme that relies primarily on deflections from the point (which the Jets are not good at), and a heavy dose of Neal Pionk doomed the prodigal son.
All indications are that Coach Bones is back as the coach of the Winnipeg Jets for the 2023-24 season, but a divide exists between the players and their coach that will require Golden Gate levels of bridgework.
Kevin Sawyer quote: “That consistency piece may be the next stage in the evolution of the Winnipeg Jets” – Jan. 19, 2023:
Herein lies the fate of the Winnipeg Jets. Periods of brilliant play from stars like PLD, Scheifele and Connor were followed by swaths of sub-optimal effort. The Jets have failed for years to get consistent play from their best players. This year was no different.
Statistically speaking, the Jets’ Corsi rating actually improved precipitously over the second half of the season, but the corresponding results failed to materialize. Injuries aside, the consistency was not there – especially in the playoffs.
Kevin Sawyer quote: “Mark Scheifele and you get a look at this man when he’s in his underwear and he looks and is completely fit.” – Feb 21, 2023:
Absolutely, and categorically – no comment.
In all, the Jets season should be considered both a success and a failure. Relative to preseason expectations, the Jets fared better than most had anticipated. Compared to mid-season giddiness, the 2022-23 season ended in relative heartbreak, with Jets fans once again wondering what might have been.
Want your voice heard? Join the Jets White Out team!
Kevin Chevedayoff has a Herculean task at hand navigating the future of the Winnipeg Jets. The Jets GM must have some inclination of the general unrest brewing amongst Jets’ fans. Seemingly however, Chevy “hears nothing, sees nothing, yet he hears and sees everything” – which is yet another quote from the venerable Kevin Sawyer.