Can the Winnipeg Jets keep up their winning ways?…by Geoff Brookes

 

Connor-Hellebuyck

© Geoff Brookes

The Winnipeg Jets are soaring to their best start in the 2.0 era.

It’s not even close to any of the previous 6 seasons. After Friday night’s game, the Jets are 4th in the NHL, with (on average) 1 game in hand. And this is not a fluke, in terms of game results, as their goal differential is also 4th-best in the NHL.

Last year, the debate between Winnipeg and the Centre of the Universe was about who had the best rookie. This year, it’s about who has the best Canadian team. (The Leafs are 3rd in the NHL standings, but the Jets have 2 games in hand. However, it must be said that the Leafs blew out our Jets in the season opener).

But the big debate – especially among Jets fans and the analytics community – is whether the Jets meteoric rise is sustainable.

For traditional Jets fans, it’s the worry factor, based on the dearth of championship hockey since the WHA champions of 1979. It’s the painful memories of good Jets teams that let things slip away, including playoff series where they had led 3-1 in the series. (There are 2 of those, by the way. In addition to the much-remembered comeback series loss to the 1980 Stanley Cup Champion Oilers, there was another 3-1 comeback series loss to the Vancouver Canucks, in the year before Selanne joined the Jets).

Perhaps the most crushing disappointment was 1984-85, when the Jets had the fourth-best point total in the NHL, led by Dale Hawerchuk’s 130 points (53-77-130), and five other 30 goal scorers. With high expectations, the Jets convincingly won their opening playoff series against the Calgary Flames. However, they lost “Ducky” to injury in that series. The depleted and deflated Jets could not match their next opponent – the Oilers in the top of their dynastic form. (Similar to the current NHL playoff structure, the Jets had to play their Smythe division rivals in round 2, instead of having the opportunity to face a lower seeded opponent in an open playoff structure).

paul-maurice-matthieu-perreault-mark-scheifele-blake-wheeler

Beyond that, there was the Jets 2.0 in-season collapse in their second season, when they had led the South-east division but fell disastrously in March, including back-to-back home losses against the ultimate division winners, the Capitals.

The traditional hockey view would suggest that this NHL Jets team is the real deal. They have elite young talent. They have good leadership. They have a solid, 6 man defensive unit. They have a hot, young goalie with a solid resume. They are 18-4-3 in their last 25 games, including a 7-0-0 record in the last 7 games in the previous season.

But there are some reasons to be concerned. The Jets have been outshot by their opponents, 34-28, on average. The advanced stat, Corsi, tells a similar story (Corsi is total shots directed at the opposing net). Critics have said that the team has been lucky that there haven’t been more goals scored against them.

There is some good news, though. Websites like Corsica.hockey now track shots by “quality”.  Consistent with the “eye test”, the Jets have allowed a lot of shots from the perimeter areas – low percentage shots – and fewer shots from the quality scoring areas. This, together with a very strong performance by goalie Connor Hellebuyck, has contributed “Bucky” having the 14th best goals-against average, and the 12th best save percentage. Even better, his save percentage while the Jets are at even strength is a sparkling 94.2%, 6th best in the NHL! His save percentage, when adjusted for shot quality is still good – around 15th in the league. Even when his 5 on 5 shot save percentage is adjusted for shot quality, it is still very impressive.

So, the Jets defensive improvement from last year is impressive, and apparently sustainable, even with the normal up’s and down’s that come in an 82 game schedule.

Ironically for the Jets – where the concern has always been about their goals against – the less sustainable aspect of their overall game could be their sky-high shooting percentage. According to Corsica.hockey, the Jets’ actual goals per 60 minutes (5 on 5) is 2.53, but their “expected goals” based on shot quality and a normalized shooting percentage, is just 2.03!

That difference 2.53 (actual) versus 2.03 (expected) is massive. Half a goal a game (roughly, 5 on 5) is the difference between a winning record and a losing record.

So, who is shooting the lights out, and is it sustainable?

Advanced stats likes to look at it in terms of what happens while a player is on the ice. This gives a more balanced analysis. So far, among Jets forwards, Wheeler, Laine and Scheifele have been the biggest beneficiaries of the Jets’ “puck luck”, with extra goals (over expected) of 4.79, 3.87 and 3.84 respectively. This is measuring the difference between the Jets actual goals (5 on 5) while they are on the ice, compared to a statistically-calculated “expected goals” based on shot quantity and quality. In other words, it is a measurement of the Jets’ “puck luck” while these top players are on the ice.

The traditionalist will now say “Hold the phone – isn’t that precisely what you expect to happen, with top players?” The answer is, yes it is what you expect. But the issue is, how much better can a top player be, over the long-term, for putting the same quality shot in the net?

Advanced stat gurus are divided on this question. But some say that it can happen. My favourite article, that discusses Scheifele specifically, is by TSN’s Travis Yost: “Scheifele the straw that stirs the drink in Winnipeg”. Interestingly, this article was written in the summer, based on statistics from the prior year. This is a must read for Jets’ fans. You can click on the link below:

http://www.tsn.ca/scheifele-the-straw-that-stirs-the-drink-in-winnipeg-1.818242

The point is, it is possible for a player like Scheifele to influence the overall shooting percentage when he is on the ice. This is also supported by 2 other articles:

https://www.stats.com/insights/nhl/alex-ovechkin-perfect-example-nhls-shooting-percentage-flawed/

http://www.tsn.ca/examining-on-ice-shooting-percentage-by-position-1.338499

So, some advanced stats theories support the idea that higher than normal shooting percentages can be achieved, and even sustained.

Now, there are undoubtedly going to be some valleys to go with the peaks, over the next 64 games of this hockey season. There will be some “regression to the mean”.

When Wheeler, Laine and Scheifele are not getting the puck luck, they will need the other Jets to fill in the gap in the Jets’ scoring. That is why it is so important for the Jets to get more scoring from their other forwards and lines. (See my previous blog, “In search of a third line”, and consider Jack Roslovic’s meteoric rise, currently second in AHL scoring).

But the overall big picture, despite the bad Corsi (the modern NHL’s bad karma), the Jets’ just might be on to something this year!

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