By Geoff Brookes
Try as they might, no coach has been able to keep these 3 guys apart for any length of time, since Wheeler arrived in Atlanta in the trade from Boston.
In the 70’s, the Rangers had the “gag” line – an acronym for “goal a game”. The whole line was asked to represent team Canada in 1972, agains the Soviet Union, in the famous series.
Without much fanfare, in an even lower-scoring era of hockey, Little, Ladd and Wheeler have basically done the same thing – produced about a “goal a game”. The line has combined for 48 goals in 48 games so far this season (which doesn’t include defence men scoring while they’re on the ice). They combined for 74 goals (in 82 games) last year, 44 in 48 games in the lockout year, and 75 goals in the Jets’ first year.
Andrew Ladd is well-regarded as a strong all-around player, Little has become a strong defending centre in the Jets’ zone, and Wheeler has bought in to the task of defending, even if he trails the other 2 in this area. As noted under “coaching”, Wheeler has focused on avoiding “cheating” on the team’s defensive zone breakouts.
Most importantly, they seem to have that elusive chemistry together. They each have a particular strength. Recently, in one of the Jets’ 3 victories in Chicago this year, Ladd demolished the Hawks defenseman, leading to a key goal in the first period. Wheeler has added a new trick to his repertoire – wreaking havoc in front of the opposition net, resulting in tipped shots for goals, as well as general chaos. Bryan Little has been the Jets’ most consistent player since the team arrived in Winnipeg, making really smart hockey plays at both ends of the ice. He’s accounted for many of the team’s key goals this year, including some key shootout goals. Fittingly, Bryan Little became the first Winnipeg Jet (of the new era) to score a hat trick, on the same day that Buff switched back to defence.
There’s been a lot of debate over the past few years about what the Winnipeg Jets’ top line is. I think we can set that debate aside for quite a while.
Little – 18-20-38
Ladd – 17-23-40
Wheeler – 13-23-36
2 – Scheifele, Perreault and Frolic – Grade A
For some time, Jets coaches and fans have talked about the need for secondary scoring, and the need to find chemistry on their lines (after LLW).
The Jets had experimented early in the season with Scheifele centering Wheeler and Kane (interrupted by a thankfully brief injury to Kane). But the chemistry wasn’t there.
It wasn’t helping that Scheifele was leading the team in goalposts and crossbars – like a hockey party game. He couldn’t buy a break, despite having a wicked shot release. Nevertheless, Scheifele continued to play a strong 2-way game, and earned the coach’s praise.
After a while, Maurice combined Frolic on the right wing, with Scheifele at centre. As is commonly said about the Jets, when Frolic joins a line, he makes his line-mates much better. Also an excellent 2-way hockey player, Frolic is a slump-breaker for his team-mates.
Like Scheifele, Mathieu Perreault struggled to score early in the season, but was playing good hockey. The 2 great things happened for Perreault – (1) the Jets inserted Perreault as the half-boards playmaker on the Jets’ newly adopted power play structure (with Byfuglien as the lone blueliner), and (2) the Jets asked Perreault to switch from centre to left wing, and play alongside Scheifele and Frolic. Something clicked, and suddenly the Jets had two forward lines that were scoring regularly, as well as a power play that was suddenly hot.
From December 11 onward, this line has combined for 19 goals in 19 games! Even 14 in 19 is pretty good second line scoring (if you exclude Perreault’s 3 power play goals during that period, and Frolik’s power play and short handed goals). And in the 21 games since Perreault joined the first unit power play, he’s had 4 power play goals and 5 power play assists – coincidentally the time that the power play started to be a consistently positive factor in Jets wins.
Chemistry? Secondary scoring?
I’ll second that!
Scheifele – 7-19-26
3 – Lowry, Kane and Halischuk
Overall grade – B+, for good puck possession, speed and physical play
These guys are scary – especially Kane and Lowry. They forecheck like crazy. They hit. They check. They cycle the puck in the other team’s end.
They exemplify the Paul Maurice Winnipeg Jets. They control the puck.
Kane actually bounced around all 3 top lines this year, but I really like him with Lowry. Kane suffered from missing some golden scoring chances early in the season. He’s missed some games, through no particular fault of his own (he ran into Scheifele at the opposition blue line in the first game of the season). He actually got back into the lineup much faster than predicted, partly due to the great shape that he’s in (per coach Maurice).
Kane’s scoring stats aren’t too bad – 10-9-19 in 33 games – but his value to the team goes beyond his scoring numbers. His speed and aggression play exactly to the team’s identity, and these attributes are missed when he’s out of action.
Adam Lowry is having a strong rookie season, playing well in both ends of the rink, at the important centre position. His scoring stats are modest, at 5-8-13 in 47 games, but he’s showing improvement in this area as the season has progressed. At 52.2% Corsi (puck possession, shots directed at net offense/defense), he’s controlling the game nicely, as a rookie!
Halischuk is (realistically) an “also-ran” on this line. He’s been OK, but the Jets could definitely benefit from a timely upgrade at third line RW, if they could make a good trade.
Overall grade – B+, for good puck possession, speed and physical play
4 – Slater, Peluso and Thorburn
Overall grade – D+
Slater and Thorburn are the only Jets forwards with 5 on 5 Corsi (puck possession) below 50% (43% and 45%), on a team that is 10th overall in the NHL in this category. Even Peluso is just over 50%. The 4th line’s play looks improved lately, but, again, the Jets could potentially upgrade their team at this spot. At least they play tough. And as the recent game with Chicago showed, you still need some tough guys hanging around. At least they play in a way that fits the team’s developing character. We just wish they did it more often with the puck on their own sticks.
Overall team grade – A.
After a disheartening 2-5 start (which had me doubting), this team has really put it all together, succeeding despite catastrophic injuries. With a substantially lineup after the all-star break, we’re really wondering just how high this team can go. Paul Maurice has them believing. They’re getting great goaltending, especially from rookie Michael Hutchinson.
We started the season wondering whether they could make the playoffs. Now we’re wondering how far they can go!
(1) Staying healthy
(2) Shoring up depth by trade, for at least one more effective forward
(3) Continuing to play strong systems, controlling the puck
Updated prediction – if they can stay healthy, I am predicting a first series playoff victory, losing in the second round this year. But you really never know with this team. If they can beat the Chicago Blackhawks all three times in the United Center this year, there’s really nothing that they can’t do. Seriously.