“Everyone had a piece of it.”
Mark Scheifele was talking about Winnipeg’s 5-1 win against Dallas but he may as well have been referencing the Jets’ full season.
At 8-3-1, Winnipeg earned top spot in the Central Division and has a chance to keep that title until this weekend’s back-to-back against Calgary and Seattle. The Jets are 6-0-1 in their last seven games, their record is the best it’s been after 12 games since moving north from Atlanta and an overreliance on Connor Hellebuyck has begun to look like a temporary feature as opposed to a season-long bug.
Winnipeg’s performance even gave head coach Rick Bowness — who was notably critical of the team’s early-season performance — the confidence to say, “They’re starting to realize we’ve got a good team here.”
So who deserves the most credit?
Yes, I get it. Teams win together and they lose together. They certainly need to talk as if everyone is an equal contributor — if only for morale and decency’s sake.
We can be a little bit more exacting.
Twelve games into Winnipeg’s heretofore division-leading season, which Jets have done the most to help the team win and improve their own stock as individuals? Which players are underperforming and trending in the wrong direction?
It’s time for The Athletic’s early-season Jets stock watch.
The earliest reference to Hellebuyck deserving to win the Vezina Trophy that I can find in my work comes from Nov. 9, 2019. You may recall that Winnipeg was one of the league’s worst defensive teams that season, parachuting Luca Sbisa in via waivers to offset the surprising absence of Dustin Byfuglien. Hellebuyck was outstanding, running a .933 save percentage through that date and saving a league best 11 goals above expected, based on Evolving Hockey’s model of shot quality.
“Forget the Vezina Trophy. It may be time to start a Hellebuyck-for-Hart campaign,” I wrote at the time. “Since 2007-08, only three teams have posted a worse expected-goals percentage than the Jets have so far.”
This season’s Jets are a much better team but have still relied too heavily on goaltending for large stretches. Hellebuyck is already up to 12 goals saved above expected, second only to Carter Hart per Evolving Hockey, and stopped more expected goals (3.99) in the Vegas game alone than most goaltenders have all season. His .938 save percentage is even better through the beginning of the season than it was the year he won the Vezina Trophy, although he trails Hart (.941) and Jake Oettinger (.952) in that regard.
Put aside those excellent numbers and pull up the highlight reels and you’ll find Hellebuyck has been nothing short of wow.
Here he is against Chicago at home:
Big ups to Connor Hellebuyck on securing the 30th @pepsi shutout of his career and his second in the last five games! 🙅♂️ pic.twitter.com/aus7UYtwUG
— NHL (@NHL) November 5, 2022
And here he is in Vegas:
☹ Connor Hellebuyck makes a save on Nicolas Roy in the 3rd period. @GoldenKnights #VegasBorn #GoJetsGo pic.twitter.com/YUIEx3foE2
— Did VGK Score?! (@DidVGKScore) October 31, 2022
And finally, this piece of absolute wizardry to bail Winnipeg out of a turnover.
☹ Connor Hellebuyck makes a save on Nicolas Hague in the 1st period. @GoldenKnights #VegasBorn #GoJetsGo pic.twitter.com/rWtQ38fefN
— Did VGK Score?! (@DidVGKScore) October 31, 2022
Hellebuyck’s dominance was No. 1 with a bullet in our list of bold predictions for the Jets season and we’re sticking to it. He deserves a ton of credit for Winnipeg’s start.
Scheifele has taken a committed step forward this season and that should be celebrated. Yes, puck management has been an issue on his line’s way out of its own zone and yes, his line has gotten buried for plenty of chances against — particularly against Colorado and again on the Jets’ road trip to Los Angeles, Arizona and Vegas. That said, a video breakdown shows that Scheifele has worked hard to get back onto the right side of the puck even when things go awry. And remember, Scheifele scores so much and sets up so many quality chances for his teammates that he doesn’t need to be a top defender to help Winnipeg win; he just needs to be better than he was last season.
If his defensive metrics remain horrible right now, I think it’s more about some of the plays we identified in that video study where linemates fail to clear the zone and Winnipeg gets hemmed in its own zone for large stretches than because Scheifele isn’t competing. My guess is that, if Scheifele keeps up the commitment level that we raved about earlier this week, his defensive metrics will improve (just look at what Winnipeg was able to do on its most recent homestand against Montreal, Chicago and Dallas.)
Now, about the things he’s great at.
Don't blink or you might miss this tally from Mark Scheifele… 😳 pic.twitter.com/jk6yDZ1uXX
— NHL (@NHL) October 18, 2022
With eight goals (and plenty of rockets among them), No. 55 is on pace for 55 goals this season. Admittedly, he’s never scored 40 so reasonable thinking says he’ll cool down a little (and start collecting more assists; he has just two of them so far) but there’s no arguing he’s been as red-hot to start this season as he was toward the end of the last one. I think it’s clear that he and Bowness have gotten along well and Scheifele’s frequent praise for and inclusion of his teammates hasn’t gone unnoticed, either.
Interestingly enough, most model-based metrics show Scheifele’s defensive impact to bring him down to a roughly second-line performance, so I’m going slightly against the grain here. I just think Scheifele has taken control of his own game and some of those long defensive zone shifts are about his wingers failing to clear the line.
The only player in the NHL to score more short-handed goals than Adam Lowry from 2020-21 to now is Trevor Moore. This season, Lowry is tied for the league lead with Reilly Smith, Bo Horvat and Sam Lafferty with two short-handed goals each.
Perhaps more shocking: One of those goals didn’t even require Lowry’s trademark backhand-five hole deke.
Some shorthanded magic courtesy of Adam Lowry (@ALowsyPlayer17). 🪄 pic.twitter.com/YUTuyjuyJy
— NHL (@NHL) November 5, 2022
“Honestly, coming down that side, I didn’t know what I was going to do,” Lowry said of his most recent short-handed goal. “I think I just tried to get it off of my stick as quick as I could.”
The fun thing about this season is that Lowry is getting it done at even strength, too. With three goals and eight points in 12 games, Lowry is tied with Cole Perfetti for sixth in Jets scoring, quelling concerns that he’s an all-defence, zero-offence player at this stage of his career.
The defending is still excellent, of course, meaning that Lowry is off to his best two-way start in several seasons. Bowness and company are trusting Lowry with the heavy defensive lifting and he’s completely vindicating their confidence in him. He’s been dominant with almost every single combination of wingers he’s played with and his most recent combination — Lowry with Axel Jonsson-Fjällby and Saku Mäenalanen — has carried an unsustainable but awesome 81 percent of expected goals.
When he’s on his game, Lowry is still a smart, physical force who can play against anyone and hold his own.
We recently took you through Bowness Story Hour, with one-on-one insights from Victor Hedman, Jim Nill, Ray Shero and Jarmo Kekalainen, among others.
I realize it’s dangerous to cite coaching as a driver for team results when a goaltender is playing as well as Hellebuyck is but I think we’ve been consistent enough in our messaging from Day 1 of training camp: Bowness’ Jets look better taught, better organized and better motivated than last year’s team was. Backchecking has caught on. Forechecking has a distinct shape. There are more plans, more set plays and more of a sense that a long shift or a selfish play will be met with real consequences.
Bowness was not Winnipeg’s first choice and we know that. Time may someday show us that Hellebuyck and not Bowness was to thank for the Jets’ record. I just think he’s accomplished too much in such a short order in terms of the on-ice product that coaching deserves mention in a piece like this.
And the coaching staff is not the only off-ice crew that deserves praise.
Jets pro scouting
There’s no way to end this section without acknowledging Winnipeg’s pro scouts and the people who support their work. Winnipeg’s third and fourth lines have been more effective than we’ve seen in ages, in no small part to offseason signings Mäenalanen and Sam Gagner. Jonsson-Fjällby was a waiver pickup from associate coach Scott Arniel’s former team in Washington and I’m told Winnipeg’s pro scouts were a driver in the Jets’ decision to claim him, too.
It used to be that Winnipeg’s depth acquisitions — whether it was Sbisa, Matt Hendricks, Mark Letestu, Nate Thompson, Trevor Lewis, Par Lindholm, Nick Shore, Anthony Bitetto, Riley Nash, etc. — had more of an impact in an intangible sense than in turning the tide of a game. Gagner was a known quantity, but Mäenalanen and Jonsson-Fjällby had played 57 NHL games between them and they’ve both been impressive at even strength and on the penalty kill.
Winnipeg’s pro scouts deserve credit for retooling Winnipeg’s forward depth on the fly, giving the team a variety of options who can help win pucks and lean on opposing teams.
For most of Dylan DeMelo’s tenure in Winnipeg, I’ve looked at his puck retrievals as exit passes waiting to happen. He’s typically quite good at shoulder checking on his way into the corner, scanning the ice and then making a perfect five- or 10-foot pass to a teammate in good position. His decision making has been excellent and his execution has been smooth — so much so that DeMelo was Josh Morrissey’s best partner from the day he arrived in 2020 through the end of last season.
DeMelo’s passing hasn’t been nearly so perfect this season. I’m not sure whether it’s a temporary blip or a function of Winnipeg asking its defencemen to make longer passes than the short ones DeMelo is so good at. Whatever the reason, he seems to be absorbing contact and turning pucks over to forecheckers with a frequency that makes his move to the third pair make complete sense to me.
The concern is that so much of DeMelo’s value is tied to his ability to move the puck. He typically looks like a good offensive player to shot metric based models — not because he’s a scoring threat but because his outlet passes lead to less defensive zone time and more opportunity for Winnipeg’s bigger threats. This year, that impact is gone, which is kind of funny when you consider DeMelo has actually done a good job of jumping into the play and making himself an outlet for Winnipeg’s forwards. The problem is that he’s not much of a scoring threat when he does get the puck and is last on the team in terms of individual expected goals.
It may be that DeMelo finds a way to create more when he gets engaged up ice but Winnipeg will be much better off if he can find a way to clean up his exit passes. He’s gone from standard-bearer on that to a bit of a concern, to my eye. Metrics-wise, his possession numbers have gone from great with anyone (and against anyone) to good only while facing lesser competition on the third pair. Small sample caveat but DeMelo has more to give.
Neal Pionk has scored three goals, four assists and seven points through 12 games — a total that looks great and includes his blistering game-winning goal against Colorado. He’s attacking with confidence, the Pionk-ian spin-o-rama we came to admire earlier in his Jets tenure is back and John Cusack even tweeted a little bit of admiration for Pionk when I wondered aloud if they were doppelgangers.
All of this should combine to make Pionk a curious inclusion on this short list of fallers.
Neal Pionk rips home the @Energizer overtime winner for the @NHLJets! 💥 pic.twitter.com/pipEKS53j8
— NHL (@NHL) October 20, 2022
Why include him at all?
First of all, the Jets have received several good performances throughout their run to 8-3-1. Yes, they’ve struggled at times — especially on that same road trip — but most of their key mistakes have come from players who have also been drivers of their success.
The same applies to Pionk — see his aforementioned OT winner — but he’s also the Jets defenceman who has been burnt for the most scoring chances and goals against. No Jets skater has been on the ice for more shots, scoring chances or goals against than Pionk has been it’s not particularly close. Interestingly enough, his numbers look good in a small second-pairing sample while playing with Brenden Dillon but his larger body of work with Morrissey sees the Jets getting outshot and out-chanced.
By eye (and the models agree), the defensive issues on Winnipeg’s top pair are more about No. 4 than 44. He’s creating chances and looking like a confident offensive player but there’s more chaos in Pionk’s defensive game than you’d like from a core top-four player.
(Photo: Isaiah J. Downing / USA Today)