The Winnipeg Jets close the books on October with a solid 4-3-2 record, a .556 points percentage, while sitting 3rd place in the Central Division.
Nashville does play tonight, and in theory could take the third spot from Winnipeg if they beat the Canucks in regulation.
But that is a minor detail when all is said and done.
The Jets have generally played well, as their record suggests. But, like any hockey team, they have their flaws, and some are more troublesome than others.
Here are the three most concerning things.
Oh, and since it’s Halloween, I guess I’m supposed to do something gimmicky and spooky here.
Winnipeg Jets special teams are a train wreck
The Jets’ special teams have been the worst we’ve seen in a while. A bright spot in last year’s team was a penalty kill that finished 7th in the league. One of my questions for the Jets this season was whether they could maintain that this year, and a few people scoffed at that question, wondering loudly why anything would change.
Well, honestly, I don’t know why things have been so challenging early on, but the departures of Kevin Stenlund and Saku Maenalanen could be contributing. Stenlund was particularly effective in the faceoff circle, an area where the Jets have been struggling.
So far, the kill just hasn’t been up to snuff. And even more so when you consider how much impact the timing of a great penalty kill can have on a game, which is top of mind after Brendan Dillon’s reckless penalty in the third period last night against the Rangers, and the ensuing game tying power goal against.
Winnipeg’s penalty kill is snuffing out just 71.9% of the opposition’s power plays, which puts them 29th in the league. If this was a 112 team league, that would be pretty good. But it’s a 32 team league. Which makes the Jets’ penalty kill awful and pretty concerning, given how good it was last season.
There’s lots of time for improvement, but the early returns aren’t returning much at all.
On the power play side of things, it feels even more bleak.
Mainly because the Jets’ first power play unit looks stagnant, lacking creativity, and uninspired. There’s not a ton of movement, and the opposing penalty killers aren’t being put in tough positions very often.
One of the simplest ways to harness the advantage of an extra man is movement. When defenders have to communicate, turn their head to track movement, or make difficult decisions on who the best option is to check, that’s when things open up. You have to make the defenders feel a little uncomfortable and stressed.
The Jets just aren’t doing that.
Even worse, is once a power play begins to struggle, the players themselves feel the pressure. Particularly the top dogs, who are paid and relied on to score at any strength, but especially on the power play.
The Jets haven’t scored a man up in four straight games, going 0-for-13 while averaging 6:21 of power play time per game in that span.
Perhaps Gabe Vilardi can reignite the unit when he returns to the lineup, as it did look excellent with him playing down low, but that’s likely still at least a few weeks away. And it’s not a good sign if a player (albeit a talented one) with 155 career NHL games is the only hope left.
The final, defining number of Winnipeg’s special teams struggle is shown when you add the Jets penalty kill and power play percentages together. An average team on special teams will have a number somewhere around 100.
With the Jets’ 11.8% power play (28th) and 71.9% penalty kill (29th), the Jets’ sum is 83.7. Only two teams, the Minnesota Wild and Florida Panthers, have a lower sum than Winnipeg.
The Winnipeg Jets’ top three forwards need to play like them
Through the first half of this young, nine game season so far, I thought the Jets’ top duo of Mark Scheifele and Kyle Connor were really good. They were gaining the blueline in possession and using their deft puck handling abilities to work the zone and create quality chances.
The last week or two have been decidedly worse. In the last six games, Scheifele has controlled just 42.1% of the shot share when the game is “close” (no more than a one goal difference in the score line), while Connor isn’t much better, at 43.7%
I don’t think anyone expects the Jets top line to be among the best in the league. They’re too defensively shaky to earn that distinction, and there are plenty of players leaguewide that are a tier above them. But they do need to be somewhere close to even in goal differential, or the pressure ramps up on the Jets’ depth to contribute more.
I’ve thought Scheifele has generally been pretty good this year so far, to be honest. But Connor is really making poor decisions near the opposing blue line, and it’s giving Winnipeg far too many scrambling back checks to deal with.
Ehlers, meanwhile, has been finding his footing since missing camp with a nagging shoulder injury, and thankfully is trending in the correct direction.
He’s been the usual Nikolaj Ehlers: great in transition yet difficult to read off as a teammate, and he’s been missing the net so often it’s outrageous. According to moneypuck.com, he’s 12th in the league with 17 shots that have missed the net. Four players are tied for first, with 20.
It was nice to see him bury a wrap around against the Rangers last night; it’s impossible to sail those high and wide.
The possession stats like Ehlers’ game, though, and have him at a rather eye popping 61.4% SAT Close%. He’s been shooting lots too lately, with at least five shots in his past three games.
Overall, I’d say his game is trending in the right direction. But he needs more than 4 points in 9 games if this team is going to have any type of reliable secondary offense.
The Jets’ second pairing of Neal Pionk and Brendan Dillon is iffy
The Jets have a good top pairing in Josh Morrissey and Dylan DeMelo. According to fancy stats, they have an excellent third pairing in Dylan Samberg and Nate Schmidt.
But Dillon-Pionk as the second pairing hasn’t been doin’ so hot, and I’ve noticed Dillon in particular having a challenging start to the season. He’s not paid to get generate offence, but he does have zero points in 9 games so far, the only Jet yet to find the scoresheet while playing every single game. Neal Pionk has three.
Other stats tell you similar tales.
Pionk’s SAT Close% is 47.3, Dillon’s is 48.4. The other four regular defencemen are above 50.
Plus/minus is outdated as a stat that tells you anything about the league. In that context, it tells you more about the team than the player.
But in the context of the team, it can help tell a bit of the story, and Pionk’s -3 and Dillon’s -4 support the idea that they’re defending more than attacking, and particularly thriving at the defending side of.
Honestly, I don’t really see this improving. The second pair is below average just like our top line is relative to Stanley Cup contending teams.
If Jets management decides they’re a buyer at the trade deadline, I’d imagine a top four defenseman would be first priority.
Bonus: Logan Stanley’s impressively unimpressive one game stat
Giveaways and takeaways aren’t a stat I put a ton of stock into, given the discrepancy in counting them. They’re definitely up for interpretation.
But I was amused to find that Stanley had four giveaways counted in 14 minutes of ice time.
Dylan Samberg has four in 131 minutes of ice time.
Neal Pionk has five in 189 minutes of ice time.
Brendan Dillon has five in 170 minutes of ice time.
That should say enough.
And since it’s Halloween and I have to incorporate the word scary in here: boy it sure is scary that Stanley is employed as an NHL defenceman.
Here’s hoping to good health for the Jets’ current six defenders.