© Geoff Brookes
I need to say right up front that I am a big fan of Paul Maurice as the coach of the Winnipeg Jets. I don’t want to see a coaching change. I like his professionalism, the way he handles players, and the way he presents himself. I also think he’s good at positioning the Jets to win hockey games.
But lately I’ve begun to wonder if he could be better than he is right now.
I marvel at comments from knowledgeable hockey people about how Maurice makes “in game” adjustments. The recent home game against the New York Rangers might be a good example, when fast-skating players like Tanev and Copp got more playing time after the first period, to counter-act the speed of the Rangers, and perhaps give the rest of the Jets a bit more motivation to skate like the “Blue Shirts”. The adjustment worked, as the Jets played far better in the second period, tying the game at 1.
This begs a question, though. Why wasn’t that “need for speed” recognized before the puck dropped in period number one?
Paul Maurice has talked publicly about these 2016 Jets needing to find their team identity. He’s talked about that identity involving speed and physicality – being tough to play against. But are the Jets’ coaches consistently reading from that playbook- especially the part about speed? If so, how was it that the Rangers blitzed the Jets in the first period of that game? Why didn’t players like Tanev and Copp get a larger role from the first minute of the game?
Why do slower veterans like Drew Stafford continue to garner prized spots on the top two lines, when their capacity for this essential ingredient is dwindling with age?
There are answers for this question – the experience of a veteran player; the ability to make the most of scoring chances in the blue paint; knowing how to play the game at the NHL level.
The problem with these answers is that they avoid the main question – can the player (e.g. Stafford) keep up with the pace of the game in the year 2016? If the answer to that question is “no”, then it undermines the value of Stafford’s main attributes. It’s hard to be productive when you can’t get to the right spot fast enough.
Is it just Stafford, or do other Jets that fit this analysis?
Well, how about Mathieu Perreault?
I can’t say that I’ve measured the speed of any of the Jets, but by my eye test, both Stafford and Perreault are just slightly slower than they were a couple of years ago.
But that isn’t really the main point. The issue is that the league is faster than it was just two years ago.
Again, I can’t prove this. But watching games, I’m convinced that the NHL is faster – much faster. As support for this comment, you often hear interviews with players where the reticent, cliché-infused athletes actually say these words aloud. The NHL is faster.
The league is now ruled by players like Patrick Kane and Tyler Seguin, who compete with speed and puck-handling. Teams like the LA Kings – who used to dominate with their “heavy game”, en route to 2 cup wins – are now just 2 games above .500 (or exactly .500 when you count all losses as losses).
And on the Jets, skilled players like Stafford and Perreault, who used to get at leasthalf a point a game – often more than that – are struggling at roughly .25 points per game.
I like Drew Stafford as a hockey player. I especially like Mathieu Perreault. But I can’t help wondering if they are working on how to adapt their game to the lightning-paced NHL of 2016.
Have the Jets missed the boat on this change? On balance, I don’t think so. In fact, the Jets started drafting the faster, often smaller players as early as 2013, with picks like Josh Morrissey and Andrew Copp, and followed that up in more recent years with picks like Nikolai Ehlers, Kyle Connor and Jack Roslovic. Even later round picks featured speed and skill.
With allowances for the time needed for younger players to develop (including Copp and Tanev), it’s the fast players that are producing most of the goals and assists for the Jets in 2016 – Scheifele, Wheeler, Little, Ehlers and Byfuglien. (I rate Big Buff as a fast skater). In my opinion, Patrik Laine is a rare, special case, where his ability to shoot puts him in a unique category (like Ovechkin). Having said that, many have pointed out that his skating and playmaking skills are under-rated by media outside of Winnipeg.
My point is that the NHL Jets succeed when they use their speed. Any strategy that doesn’t play to that strength is not maximizing their chances to win hockey games.
The changing NHL also affects the way penalties are called for stick infractions, and restraining penalties. It’s gotten to the point where it’s almost irrelevant whether or not the infraction actually incurred. If the stick gets near the wrong places, you’re probably going to get a penalty. The Jets are second in the NHL for most minor penalties taken. It’s hard to win when you give your opponents that many power plays. This change has occurred over a longer period of time, but is almost as important as the changes in the speed of the game.
Until the Winnipeg Jets adapt their strategies to fit these NHL realities for the 2016-17 season, they are likely doomed to mediocrity.
To paraphrase the Canadian pop singer Gerry Doucette, “Momma let ‘em play.” If Paul Maurice lets the speed demons race around the rink, and gets his players to keep their sticks on the ice (hello to the “Mayor of St. James”), we’ll be jumping out of our seats celebrating goals and victories.