Have a look at the Central Division standings and you’ll probably spot a pretty surprising team up near the top.
The Winnipeg Jets were one of those teams the “smart” hockey prognosticators were picking to make the playoffs despite their lack of regular-season success over the past several years, most recently finishing with just 87 points in what was probably the most competitive division in hockey.
Generally speaking, the reasons for optimism were pretty clear: Winnipeg’s best players are mostly under the age of 25 and therefore likely to improve naturally, while some of the worse players on the roster last year are no longer around. This from a team that was only marginally below water in terms of 5-on-5 play and had otherwise been doomed by taking too many penalties.
Moreover, management brought in Steve Mason to be the goalie. Mason, coming off a bad contract year in Philadelphia, had established himself among the best goaltenders in the league over the previous few years, and the Jets’ netminders had mostly been horrendous over that same time period. It seemed like a pretty clear upgrade.
And while the Mason thing hasn’t worked out at all (he’s .872 in four appearances) it turns out the promising young goaltender they’d had all along was at least ready to get out in front and seize the job in the early goings. Connor Hellebuyck, through his first nine games, is a .938 goalie. That obviously far exceeds his career .910 coming into the year, and is a number that will come down, but if he’s even league-average the rest of the way, the team should be in much better shape.
This is one of those things where the smart people who saw the success coming might feel pretty good about themselves given the team’s success so far. But it shouldn’t surprise you to learn this team is winning on thin margins; entering Thursday’s game against division rival Dallas, they had a plus-1 goal difference in all situations. This is due in large part to a poor power play and the fact that Mason gave up a lot of goals in not a lot of TOI.
Moreover, while their 5-on-5 PDO is a on the too-big side (101.7), you have to keep in mind that it’s deadened by Mason’s poor performance and would otherwise be sky-high.
The problem, then, is that the Jets are not a good possession team. Even score- and venue-adjusted (they’ve certainly led more than they’ve trailed) they entered Thursday’s games ranked 27th in the league in attempts and 24th in shots on goal. That they were 12th in goals is entirely down to that PDO. They also still give up entirely too many medium- and high-danger chances, as has been tradition in pretty much every season since they came to Winnipeg.
It’s not hard to figure out what’s going on here: Hellebuyck standing on his head is propping up the Jets to a surprising extent. Even if we’re being kind to him and assuming he is a league-average goalie (based on his history, he’s a little below that level, though that doesn’t account for how bad the Jets were in front of him) we have to understand that he’s underperformed. In all situations, his expected save percentage in the first two years of his career, in all situations, was .0014 higher than it actually was, indicating he didn’t exactly rise to the challenge. But that would have cost the Jets about one extra goal per thousand shots, so it’s not really that big a deal.
This year, though, the team in front of him has been much worse — his expected save percentage is .910 — but he’s been north of .940. His save percentages by quality have improved across the board: Low-, medium-, and high-danger shots are going in with far less frequency.
So you look at this early-season success and, understandably, say it’s not going to last. Hellebuyck is improving and may be better than he’s shown, but he’s still not anywhere near this good because, frankly, no one is. The team also has to stop shooting almost 11 percent at some point, because that’s usually what happens in this sport.
However, it must be noted that just about everyone on the team who’s not from Commerce Township, Michigan, has been worse than anyone had any right to expect. Only six Jets are north of 50 percent in adjusted xGF%, and while they’re mostly names you might expect (Kyle Connor, Patrik Laine, Dustin Byfuglien, Jacob Trouba, Mathieu Perreault and somehow also Toby Enstrom) that also leaves a lot of difference-makers who aren’t delivering procedurally. Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler and Nik Ehlers are scoring plenty, but they’re below-average in terms of shot volume and quality at 5-on-5. You’d expect that to come up based on nothing but their quality and track records.
Laine and Byfuglien, for the record, also aren’t scoring much (both have just six points), which is something you can’t expect to continue long-term.
Let’s put it this way: The Jets entered last night with 33 goals, and the Scheifele line had personally scored 15 of them. There’s a huge need to spread around the scoring, but you have to think that’ll come based on how deep they are up front.
So, just as I don’t think the Jets are as good as their results have shown so far, I also don’t think they’re as bad as the underlyings so far suggest. It was always reasonable to peg them as a playoff contender, just because if you assumed (or hoped) they’d get league-average goaltending, they had the talent to get everything else done.
Last year, the Jets finished seven points out of the playoffs. Taken together, their goaltending probably cost them about 25 goals. That’s roughly eight points’ worth of expected wins scattered to the wind, so it’s pretty clear what the issue is and was.
Maybe Mason rounds out a bit and can become reliable once again. Certainly, he can’t be worse than he’s been, and Hellebuyck can’t start every game.
Maybe Hellebuyck stays hot for a little while longer, then settles at about the league average.
You have to think that alone makes Winnipeg a playoff team, or close to it. This is a team that, for years, should have been better than it was. Maybe it’s not so bad, for now, to go in the opposite direction.