How do Winnipeg Jets stack as much as Vegas Golden Knights?

It has been rare for the Jets to be pushed out of a game this season, even in a loss.

Sure, poor stretches of play made games against Washington, Columbus and Minnesota unwinnable in the past month, but the Jets have always managed to bounce back.

The Golden Knights are the only team to beat Winnipeg twice this season, controlling both games from start to finish. In some ways, it felt like a declaration of Vegas’ excellence. Those early October games marked the first time in a long time that Vegas was healthy and new coach Bruce Cassidy seemed to be taking full advantage of having Jack Eichel, Mark Stone, Alex Pietrangelo and Shea Theodore — among others — playing at the height of their powers.

For Winnipeg, both their Oct. 20 and Oct. 30 losses to Vegas were their third game in four nights. The first of those was a back-to-back. Rick Bowness was not behind the bench for either game. David Rittich played the first, while Connor Hellebuyck was spectacular in the second, but there was a sense that the Jets — still a work in progress, even today — were a world away from the height of their powers.

On Tuesday, the 18-8-1 Jets — who lead the Western Conference in points percentage — will take on the 20-9-1 Golden Knights, who lead it in points. The season is long, Colorado will get healthy someday, and teams like Dallas, Seattle and Los Angeles are close behind them, but Vegas and Winnipeg are the current class of the Western Conference.

How does each team stack up?

Who has the better forward group, top four defence and starting goaltender?

And what about when each team gets its stars — Eichel, Pietrangelo, Theodore and Nikolaj Ehlers, just to name a few — back at full health?

It’s too soon to tell what the playoffs might look like but here’s how the Jets look compared to the top team in the Western Conference.

Golden Knights overview

The Golden Knights season started out brilliantly, as they raced out to a 13-2-0 record powered by their top line of Eichel, Stone and Chandler Stephenson, and arguably the best overall team defence in the NHL. The group adjusted quickly to Cassidy’s zone defence that pushes opponents to the outside and makes shots from inside the slot incredibly hard to come by. Rookie goalie Logan Thompson has been surprisingly consistent, posting excellent numbers behind the strong defence.

However, Vegas has cooled down to a mediocre 7-7-1 record in the 15 games since and the defensive structure has slipped. The Golden Knights have still maintained their lead atop the Pacific Division, but haven’t played their best hockey since mid-November. Now without their best forward in Eichel, and their two best defencemen in Pietrangelo and Theodore, they’re just looking to keep their heads above water until their stars return. – Jesse Granger

Jets overview

Winnipeg’s season started just poorly enough for Jets fans to feel a haunting sense of deja vu. As Winnipeg dropped to 2-3-0 courtesy of a 4-1 loss to Toronto on “Hockey Night in Canada,” it seemed to some that the Bownaissance and training camp hype was overblown. Soon, however, Hellebuyck re-established himself as a Vezina calibre keystone, Josh Morrissey started chaining dominant performances together and Mark Scheifele and Pierre-Luc Dubois gave Winnipeg the one-two punch down the middle that it had hoped to acquire two seasons ago. Bowness’ health faltered and then returned, coinciding with Winnipeg’s on-ice improvement. In short, Winnipeg started winning.

The Jets are 16-5-1 since their cold start, riding Hellebuyck’s excellence when necessary but mostly playing an improved, defensively sound, and most of all connected 200-foot game. Blake Wheeler could have pouted when his captaincy was removed. Kyle Connor could have let his early season scoring slump get the best of him. The defence could have bristled as Winnipeg’s forwards learned to play down low and help them protect the middle of the ice and Winnipeg’s forwards could have bristled as Jets defencemen learned to become the second attacking wave that last season’s club was sorely missing. The Jets stuck together and have played just well enough to win — even without Ehlers — in enough games to be worthy of their 18-8-1 record.

Head to head

Unfortunately for Winnipeg, two of its worst performance came against the very Golden Knights they chase.

Winnipeg’s third game of the season was in Vegas on the second half of a back-to-back and the Jets’ third game in four nights and, to put it plainly, the Jets were outclassed. Despite a fairly even shot clock, the Golden Knights were able to generate plenty of their offence from the middle of the ice that Winnipeg was learning to protect. Vegas got two goals from Eichel, plus one each from Stephenson and William Karlsson — all in the first period — and was able to cruise to a 5-2 home win. It wasn’t just the quantity of goals that was a bother; Eichel’s first came after an aggressive pinch from Dylan DeMelo that wasn’t covered off by a Jets forward. Karlsson’s came after a simple dump-in that Michael Amadio was able to steal from Nate Schmidt. Stephenson’s goal was a fortunate bounce, as his centering pass went in off Brenden Dillon’s skate, while Eichel’s second was the result of a horrible Rittich giveaway instigated by a confusing, soccer-esque pass from Neal Pionk back to his goalkeeper. Dubois would strike back in the second period and Pionk would score in the third but Winnipeg was never a threat to win.

The Jets got much closer to a win in the Oct. 30 rematch but it took Hellebuyck stopping 41 of 43 shots in a statement, watch-out-world-I’m-elite-again, performance to do it. Vegas outshot Winnipeg 33-8 through two periods before Adam Lowry scored on a Pionk rebound just 13 seconds into the third period. Stone equalized on a controversial turnover that saw Morgan Barron pulled down and Eichel won it by turning the corner on an exhausted Scheifele in the dying seconds of overtime but the story was the Hellebuyck highlight reel.

Since then, the Jets progressively improved their quality of play through a 9-3-0 November.

Now, the Golden Knights are missing Eichel, Theodore and Pietrangelo — treading water, as Granger says. Winnipeg gets its shot at redemption on home ice and won’t be playing its third game in four nights. But the Jets are without Ehlers and Mason Appleton and just found out that Logan Stanley and Saku Maenalanen are out for at least a month each.

How do the Jets stack up against the top team in the West, then, right here, right now?

What the model says

Let’s start the dreaded model discussion with a few items I hope everyone familiar with hockey can understand.

  • Not every shot is equally dangerous.
  • Not every assist is equally impressive.
  • Stuff outside of goals and points matters, whether that’s drawing lots of penalties, blocking shots, taking the puck from people, etc.
  • None of us watch all 82 games by all 32 teams.
  • And even if we did, our memories aren’t perfect, so it’s useful to count some things.

I don’t expect everybody to see eye to eye on exactly which items matter or how much they matter but my guess is, for the most part, our internal models of “how good a player is” go well beyond counting up goals and assists and calling it a day.

Dom Luszczyszyn’s “Game Score Value Added” (GVSA) model is one person’s quite public attempt to estimate how valuable various little pieces of hockey are toward winning. While that’s obviously a difficult feat to pull off, it looks deeper than traditional points metrics by including:

  • More weight for primary points (goals and first assists).
  • Impact on expected goals, both offensively and defensively.
  • Penalty differential.
  • Small adjustments for quality of teammates and competition.

Read a critical review of the model’s performance here.

For now, it’s clear that Game Score is more informative than, say, just using points. It should also be clear that, from time to time, our eyes and our ears give us reasons why we might argue with Dom’s robots, no matter how successful they might be in the aggregate. For example, once you understand that most models (Dom’s included) look at the most recent two to three seasons and weight the most recent seasons most heavily, a few items become clear.

A player with a two year (or longer) track record of greatness may not look as “bad” if they suddenly have one down year.

A player with a two year track record of poor numbers may not look as “good” if they suddenly start playing well.

This means we need to trust our eyes. For example, I went to bat for Morrissey in October 2021, arguing that I’d seen the explosive, dangerous version of Morrissey at training camp that we’d seen go missing for a couple of seasons. I knew it would take a fresh, more impressive track record for it to catch Morrissey’s return back to excellence. Morrissey delivered that (and then some) and now, GSVA grades Morrissey out as a top pairing defenceman worth roughly $10 million per season.

Why bother with this preamble?

I know that Dom’s model has its critics and I know that I’ve had some success arguing with it. I still find tremendous value in digging into GSVA, especially when comparing a team whose context I know quite well — the Jets — and one like Vegas who I don’t follow on a day-to-day basis. I might trust myself to tweak Dom’s Jets projections based on my knowledge of the team but my attempt to do that for all 31 of Winnipeg’s rivals would be a joke. And, since I know that GSVA has a long and successful track record when competing against other publicly available data, I find it to be a good starting point.

Enough. Let’s go.

Current Jets lineup

The Jets, as built, suffer from Ehlers’ injury. They’re also held back by a group of defencemen who look quite pedestrian by these numbers.

Keep in mind that coaching can have an outsized impact on defensive metrics like expected goals against. We also know that the model lags — it will probably take at least a season’s worth of Winnipeg’s improved defensive play for Dillon, Pionk, DeMelo and Schmidt’s numbers to improve. The same applies to Lowry’s offence. Long memories can be a good thing: We’ve all seen GMs reward players for big seasons in contract years and I’m pretty sure I even saw comments at this site that advocated for Winnipeg to expose Morrissey in the Seattle expansion draft.

Instead, Morrissey is among Winnipeg’s biggest strengths — a star calibre defenceman who helps elevate the Jets’ core beyond that of Vegas.

For our purposes, each team’s “core” is defined as their top four forwards and top two defencemen in terms of ice time, along with their starting goaltender. Morrissey is thus augmented by Pionk, Hellebuyck, Connor, Scheifele, Dubois and a resurgent Wheeler. Pionk is the weakest link — swap him for peak Dustin Byfuglien and these Jets are a wagon — but they’re still more impressive than what Vegas runs with Eichel absent.

Current Golden Knights lineup

Even without Eichel, Theodore and Pietrangelo, the model prefers Vegas’ forwards and defence. That said, the Golden Knights’ injury woes are ongoing: Zach Whitecloud was put on IR as we compiled this piece. Without him, Vegas’ defence is gutted, particularly on the right side.

Stone still grades out as a superstar thanks to his track record as a player who improves underlying numbers at both ends of the rink. He’s scored 22 points in 30 games this season, falling off the point-per-game pace he maintained through the heart of his career, but still creates tons of chances for himself and for his teammates. Interestingly enough, it’s been easier to get chances against Vegas when Stone is on the ice this season compared to years past. The model treats that as a blip, leaning on Stone’s defensive track record prior to this season. Otherwise, Stephenson excels, while Michael Eyssimont is a 0.0 thanks to a lack of track record in Winnipeg and Paul Cotter is the same for Vegas.

Without Eichel, Theodore, Pietrangelo and Whitecloud, it’s easy to see why Vegas is treading water as opposed to stretching its lead in the standings. Any individual hockey game is close to a coin flip but you have to like Winnipeg’s odds of avenging its two losses in these teams’ third and final meeting of the season on Tuesday.

But what about when everybody returns to full health? How would these teams stack up in a playoff series?

When the Jets get healthy

With the Jets back at full health — for our purposes, at least — I’ve been forced to make some roster decisions. Eyssimont and Sam Gagner sit so Ehlers can take a spot on the top line and Wheeler can stay in the top six. Now, Hellebuyck’s superstardom is augmented by a forward group that should be able to go toe to toe with most teams — including Vegas, even when Eichel returns to full health.

The Jets’ defence continues to let it down — on paper, anyway — and if you could trade three jacks for an ace you’d be more than happy to. Instead, Winnipeg will continue to preach fundamentals and defend better in five-man units than the metrics think they should be able to do.

Even if they come back to earth, Hellebuyck is there to help.

How does that stack up?

When the Golden Knights get healthy

Eichel’s impact on the Golden Knights this season has been nothing short of sensational. With 29 points in 27 games, his offence is as good as it ever was, while the line of Eichel, Stephenson and Stone has been utterly dominant at both ends of the rink. The Golden Knights’ second line of Karlsson, Reilly Smith and Jonathan Marchessault also continues to star, controlling 60 percent of expected goals. It’s too soon to talk about playoffs but watching Scheifele and Dubois go toe to toe with Eichel and Karlsson would be fascinating (and Lowry would have his say, too — you just know Bowness is going to use him as a shutdown cornerstone when the going gets tough).

Where the model likes Vegas to break away is on defence; instead of running one player of Morrissey’s quality, the Golden Knights get two. Pietrangelo and Theodore give the Golden Knights a top four that should be able to contend with anyone, all while contributing plenty of offence from the back end.

Of course, as Jets fans will remember quite well, sometimes a spectacular goaltending performance can erase the flow of play and lead a scrappy bunch of underdogs past a superior team in five games if things bounce just right. Again, it’s too soon to guarantee that either of these teams will make the playoffs, let alone meet there, but it’s fun to think about Hellebuyck and company trying to avenge their 2018 Western Conference finals loss. If Hellebuyck was great, Marc-Andre Fleury was beyond greatness, and Marchessault and company refused to be denied.

(Photo of Mark Scheifele and William Karlsson: Lucas Peltier / USA Today)

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