A look at the Jets’ first two games and how they can improve

The Jets started the season off with a bang against the Calgary Flames. The Flames took an early 3-1 lead into the first intermission, and it looked like it was same old for the Winnipeg Jets. A lack of ability to control possession and create quality shots plagued them last season, and Calgary completely controlled everything in the first period.

Things changed in the second period. The Jets’ forwards completely took over the game. The Flames had no answer for Nikolaj Ehlers and Patrik Laine’s dominance. The third line with Andrew Copp, Adam Lowry, and Mason Appleton was able to play even hockey against Calgary’s top line, and it allowed the top two lines to do their thing against the other lines. The fourth line with Mathieu Perreault, Nate Thompson, and Trevor Lewis had a decent showing as well. Perreault in particular was involved and strong on the forecheck.

Overall, the brilliance of the forwards covered up for a lack of talent on the blue line, and that’s the way they’re going to have to win with the current lineup. They did in this one, as they scored three unanswered to come back and win 4-3 in overtime. The Jets led even strength shot attempts 44-38, and they led score adjusted even strength expected goals 2.15-1.25 as per Evolving-Hockey. Overall it was a very good performance by the Jets and they were full marks for their win.

Things didn’t go so well for the Jets on Monday against the Leafs.

Patrik Laine missed the game with an upper-body injury, which was a huge loss for the club. Tucker Poolman is not on the road trip as he is currently on the NHL’s COVID-19 list. Mathieu Perreault jumped onto the second line in Laine’s absence, and with Poolman out, Sami Niku jumped onto the pairing with Josh Morrissey. Jansen Harkins stepped into the lineup for his season debut, and Logan Stanley made his NHL debut.

In the first period, both teams looked sloppy. Neither team could really get much of a rhythm going. In the second period, it was all Leafs. Shots on goal were 22-5 for the Leafs in that period and they took a 2-1 lead, and if it weren’t for Connor Hellebuyck, that may have been a bigger lead. The Jets weren’t able to put together enough of an attack in the third, and ultimately the Mitch Marner potted the empty netter to secure a 3-1 victory for the Leafs. It was a game the Jets had no business being in, as the final shot attempts were 65-48 for the Leafs. Even more concerning, as per Evolving-Hockey, the score adjusted expected goals were 4.73-1.85 for the Leafs, including a differential of 2.57-1.10 at even strength. In other words, just like much of last year, Hellebuyck kept the Jets in a game where they were completely outclassed.

The Jets have gone as their forwards go

The Jets have iced a weak defence corps in both games. With the exception of Niku, they don’t really have any defencemen who regularly jump into the play in the offensive zone, and unfortunately, Niku has given too much of that back in his own zone.

The difference between the two games is the forwards were unable to control possession and create offence against the Leafs. I also don’t think it’s fair to expect an A+ performance every single night from that group. When the forwards struggle though, it really highlights the inability of the Jets’ defencemen. Once they get stuck in their zone, it becomes tough for them. They don’t have the defencemen who can regularly make a quick pass or carry the puck out of the zone. The Jets’ top six forwards also have a tendency to struggle defending, so getting hemmed into their own zone certainly isn’t a great way for them to have success.

The Jets need to add some good transition defencemen who can also defend so the forwards don’t have to shoulder the whole load of team success. Fortunately, the Jets have two young defencemen currently on the roster who appear to be NHL-ready defenders who are good in transition.

Enter Dylan Samberg and Ville Heinola

Samberg and Heinola probably should have gotten a chance to show his stuff before Logan Stanley. Much was made of Stanley’s training camp. He did not look good in the scrimmage last Monday, but many of Jets media, who saw far more of camp than I did, noted that he had a good camp. Most of these people noted Samberg had a great camp as well, and it just so happens Samberg has more skill and upside than Stanley, specifically defensively and in transition.

Logan Stanley wasn’t really a problem for the Jets on Monday, but he didn’t offer a solution to the Jets’ issues. Samberg and Heinola both offer things that can help push the Jets in a positive direction that Stanley doesn’t.

As I alluded to earlier, Samberg plays a strong defensive game, and his combination of skill and athleticism allows him to play a strong transition game as well. He can make nice passes leading to zone exits, and he can use his skating ability to carry it out if he needs to.

Heinola is all of that and then some when it comes to the transition game. He can singlehandedly diffuse attacks by always being in the right spot to stop an attack, and he is able to make a quick decision and make a play by passing or carrying the puck out of the zone with ease. He also will jump into the play when needed offensively, and he has the skill to put up good offensive numbers in the NHL.

Heinola finished his mandatory seven day quarantine last Wednesday and was officially called up to the Jets on Monday, and should begin practicing with the team right away. He will be a welcome addition to the lineup when he gets in, which should be sooner rather than later.

Getting healthy and icing their best lineup would be a big boost to the Jets

I’ve talked about getting Samberg and Heinola into the lineup, but getting Dylan DeMelo back in will be just as important. Getting all three of these guys in would allow them to run something like this:

Morrissey-DeMelo

Samberg-Pionk

Heinola-Forbort

This is such a big improvement from a puck moving standpoint, and this is a group that would be far more equipped to handle a subpar game from their forwards than their current blue line.

The Jets can win games with the defence corps they’re icing now, but they give themselves a better chance by putting the more skilled defencemen in the lineup.

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