'It's almost a gimmick': How the Winnipeg Jets are winning, in spite of lousy stats
Winnipeg was supposed to be awful this season. Instead, they're the best Canadian team in the NHL
The Winnipeg Jets started this NHL season the same way any nice or noble character entered any given season of Game of Thrones.
They were expected to get slaughtered.
Four of out of the six regular defencemen from the previous campaign did not return, thanks to trade (Jacob Trouba), free agency (Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot) and what turned out to be a lingering ailment (Dustin Byfuglien).
Goalie Connor Hellebuyck, a Vezina finalist in 2017-2018, had come down to earth with a follow-up season that proved to be the very definition of "meh."
And there were questions about team chemistry, especially after the Jets sputtered through the latter stretch of 2018-19 and only lasted six games into the Stanley Cup playoffs.
In October, few hockey prognosticators were picking the Jets to make the playoffs this season, let alone dominate the league.
But here they are, sitting in the top third of the NHL standings, 40 per cent through a season they were supposed to stink up the league and cower in the basement in the hopes of winning the draft lottery.
At this moment, Winnipeg is the best Canadian team in the NHL.
With 20 wins against 11 losses and two loser points, the Jets are not just surviving but thriving after 33 games. And they're winning in spite of a defence sewn together from waiver-wire pickups, a fourth line that coach Paul Maurice hasn't entrusted with more than a few minutes of ice time — up until recently, anyway — and overall team statistics that suggest this edition of the Winnipeg Jets is way lousier than its record.
The question is, how is this even possible?
"The analytics numbers can look pretty bad," says Sean Reynolds, a Winnipeg-based Sportsnet reporter who frequently covers the Jets, speaking over the phone last week from St. Paul, Minn.
"A lot of times they'll get outplayed and outshot and outchanced in the first period, and they give up a lot of high-quality chances, but they seem to have found a way to survive those weaknesses."
A lousy team, on paper
At even strength, the Winnipeg Jets are ranked second-worst in the National Hockey League in a statistic known as the expected-goals differential. This means they give up far more high-quality scoring chances than they get against other teams.
This measure has proven to be a strong indicator of how well a team is going to do in the long run. Last January, for example, the St. Louis Blues were dwelling near the bottom of the league standings when Moneypuck.com gave them among the best chances at winning a Stanley Cup, based on expected goals.
That same January, the Winnipeg Jets were doing well in the standings but had poor underlying statistics. The Blues, of course, went on to win the Stanley Cup, while the Jets had one of the worst records in the NHL during the latter part of the season and ended up losing to St. Louis in the first round.
Moneypuck founder Peter Tanner predicts an equally-middling fate for Winnipeg this season, based on the same underlying statistics.
The Jets have simply been lucky, so far, both in terms of goaltending and in terms of scoring, he said.
"The statistics show that they're a slightly below-average team, overall. They have accumulated a lot of points, though, so their playoff odds are looking pretty good, but I wouldn't expect a deep playoff run, given they really are a below-average team overall that have gotten very lucky with their goaltending so far," said Tanner, speaking over the phone from Toronto.
Rope-a-dope, NHL style
Hellebuyck, who wound up with a very average .913 save percentage last season, has bounced back with a .930 record so far this season. He's been credited with stealing several games for a Jets club that routinely got outchanced early in this season.
Tanner said he expects Hellebuyck to regress as the season proceeds.
"Given the quality of shots he faced this this year, he's actually saved 13 more goals than an average goalie would. So either he's getting lucky, or you would need to believe that he's improved a lot since last year," he said.
Reynolds said he doesn't believe Hellebuyck's play is the only reason the Jets are winning this season.
"If he's not making the saves that he's making, they're not going to be in many games, but you can't look past the fact that while he keeps them in a lot of games, the Jets have really shown a knack to finish games," Reynolds said.
What the statistics don't convey is the ability of the Jets' skilled forwards to score on demand, he explained.
It's almost as if the Winnipeg Jets are employing the hockey version of a rope-a-dope strategy: allow your goalie to face a shwack of high-quality shots, collapse in front of him to clear the rebounds and then wait for opportunistic chances for your top-six forwards to score.
"If they take care of everything but the shooter — which is an interesting strategy — then the goalie can focus solely on the player with the puck and not have to worry about it going anywhere else. And if they clear up the rebounds and there's no second chances, then there's fewer goals," Reynolds said.
"That's the bet that the Jets have been making and we've seen it in the past. [Former NHLer] Ed Belfour was the kind of goalie who always made the first save."
Buying in to a system
This bet, however, requires on the entire team to buy into a system of play, something that may not have been a strength of the Jets in 2018-19.
Reynolds said when it became clear to the Jets' coaching staff they would not have anywhere near the same quality of defence this year, they changed their game plan, accordingly.
"There was a real interesting quote from Paul Maurice earlier this season ... he had said, 'You know the team has been good this season at what they identified they could be good at.' "
What that meant is more of a commitment to defence on the part of skilled forwards who made a name for themselve by simply racking up the points.
"There's been kind of a stay back and protect the fort mentality, before going out and trying to steal the other team's flag, right?" Reynolds said. "And the defence, it was put really interestingly, again by Paul Maurice, who said he feels they've got a bit of a first-year Vegas Golden Knights kind of thing going on."
In 2017-18, a Vegas team made up almost entirely with players left exposed by other clubs in the expansion draft went to the Stanley Cup final. Many analysts suggested the castoffs played with chips on their shoulders.
"The Winnipeg Jets defence, if you look at them from top to bottom, they all have something to prove," Reynolds said.
"Josh Morrissey is trying to prove that he's a legitimate No. 1 defenceman in this league. Neal Pionk is trying to prove that he was a worthy deal for them giving up Jacob Trouba. Tucker Poolman is trying to prove that he is an NHL defenceman for the first time. Luca Sbisa is trying to prove that he deserved a second shot to be picked up on waivers."
According Reynolds, it's easier for coaches to get players to buy in to a team philosophy when those players are desperate and have no other choice.
'It's almost a gimmick'
That's where the Jets are right now: Playing above their skill on paper, winning games that statistics suggest they ought to have lost and maybe even improving upon a previous year's squad that had more overall skill.
"It's almost a gimmick. They've figured out something that works, for the most part," said Reynolds, suggesting Maurice has found right way to mitigate his team's weaknesses and play to its strengths.
"I think they're doing a real good job of that, but eventually at some point in the playoffs, you end up playing really, really good teams that are going to expose your weaknesses regardless."
In other words, expect the Jets to make the playoffs again — but don't expect a lengthy run.
While the Jets are one of the big surprises in the NHL this season, Peter Tanner has his eyes on a bigger sleeper.
"The Minnesota Wild are showing some similar characteristics as St. Louis did did last year, where they're not winning a lot of games but expected-goals-wise, they're actually a substantially above-average team," he said.
Right now, Minnesota is 16th in the 31-team NHL, in terms of points. Based on expected goals, Moneypuck gives the Wild the fourth-best chance of winning the Stanley Cup.