A look at some potential trade deadline targets for the Jets

With the trade deadline coming up in one week, it has been rumoured that the Jets are interested in acquiring a defenceman. The Mattias Ekholm rumours seem to have cooled a bit, as it seems the Nashville Predators want to keep him since going on a bit of a heater putting themselves in a playoff spot. With that said, the market isn’t short of blueliners that could improve the team.

Let’s have a look at some. I will include a chart with each player’s Regularized Adjusted Plus Minus (RAPM) results from Evolving-Hockey just for some context. For those who don’t know, RAPM estimates a player’s impact on goals for (GF), expected goals for and against (xGF and xGA), and shot attempts, also known as Corsi, for and against (CF and CA). These metrics are obviously far from everything, but they typically do a pretty decent job of showing what players are driving play when given a big enough sample of gameplay.

LD, Vince Dunn (cap hit: $1.875M, RFA 2021)

Vince Dunn is a defenceman who can defend, is very good in transition, and regularly jumps into the play offensively. While he has had a down season, at 24 years old, he could be an excellent player for the Jets, for more than just this season, if they were to acquire him.

He could fit really well with a player like Dylan DeMelo. DeMelo isn’t quite as strong in the transition game but is such a steady defender and is great at holding the line in the offensive zone, so if Dunn can take over the role of being more involved offensively and be the primary puck carrier it could work out really well.

It was rumoured earlier of in the season that the Blues were looking for a first round draft pick in return. My initial thought is that seems very inexpensive for a guy who has a great chance at being a good top four defenceman for a number of years, especially considering the 2021 draft is generally being looked at as a weaker one.

RD, David Savard (cap hit: $4.25M, UFA 2021)

A stay-at-home defenceman in every sense of the word, David Savard could be an interesting fit on the Jets. He is one of the better in-zone defenders in the NHL, and would likely be a solid penalty killer.

I have two reasons I don’t think Savard would be the greatest acquisition though. The first reason is he doesn’t fill the need of a good transition defenceman. The second is he would likely slot in for Tucker Poolman on that pairing with Josh Morrissey, and I believe DeMelo would be the better option in that spot. I think there’s a chance he might look like a slightly better version of Poolman.

I think it would help the team, but the left side of their defence needs more help than the right side, and they could simply improve the impact of their right side by putting DeMelo in the top four in place of Poolman.

RD, Josh Manson (cap hit: $4.1M, UFA 2022)

Josh Manson has a modified no-trade clause which states he would have to submit a list of 12 teams he could not be traded to, so that would add a question mark. Nonetheless, he would be an interesting piece to look at.

His underlying numbers appear relatively average. I wonder if he wouldn’t be a better fit on this Jets team than his numbers suggest given his style of play though. He is an effective, physical defender who can kill penalties, but most importantly, he has been a pretty good transition defenceman in the past. This intrigues me specifically from the standpoint of having a defenceman that can form an effective duo with Josh Morrissey. Having a guy who is stylistically similar to Jacob Trouba might be just what’s needed to do that.

Manson has battled injuries over the past two seasons, so maybe that ends up being a deterrent for the Jets, but he would be an intriguing piece.

LD, Jamie Oleksiak (cap hit: $2.1375M, UFA 2021)

Oleksiak is a towering defenceman who defends well, and had one exceptional season at preventing shots and chances against in 2019-20. Otherwise he’s been a lot closer to average.

He would almost certainly be an upgrade on Derek Forbort, and would be an interesting fit beside Neal Pionk. Pionk is a bit more of an aggressive defender who’s more involved offensively, and Oleksiak is a solid presence defending the front of the net.

He likely wouldn’t cost a ton, and would provide an upgrade in a spot the Jets certainly need it.

LD, Mike Reilly (cap hit: $1.5M, UFA 2021)

My personal favourite target for the Jets would be Mike Reilly. His shot and expected goal impacts have quietly taken off over the past two seasons. It doesn’t seem to matter who he plays with, they just get better results when paired with Reilly.

Reilly is a very strong transition player who is very involved offensively, and his defensive impact has improved this season as well.

I think he would make a great partner for Dylan DeMelo, much for the same reasons I think Vince Dunn would. Another intriguing option could be for the Jets to switch DeMelo back with Josh Morrissey, and make Reilly a partner for Tucker Poolman. I’m thinking the Jets might be able to form three effective defence pairings with Morrissey-DeMelo, Forbort-Pionk, and Reilly-Poolman.

The bottom line is, he would add an offensive element, and a transition game the Jets are badly missing from their blue line, and it would likely cost very little.

There is exactly one way the Jets should go about the expansion draft

There has been much talk about the upcoming expansion draft and who the Jets should protect and expose.

By the rules of the expansion draft, each team may choose to protect 7 forwards and 3 defencemen, or 8 total skaters. Each team may also protect one goaltender. The Jets will clearly go the 7/3/1 route.

I don’t think it’s necessary to discuss who the Jets should protect in goal. Laurent Brossoit is having an outstanding season and I don’t think they can afford to give up on that kind of play from their backup.

All jokes aside, the decisions for who to protect among their forward group would seem relatively straightforward at this point without the Jets extending any of their unrestricted free agent forwards.

The defence situation seems a little bit more foggy since the Jets have been rumoured to be interested in acquiring defenceman Mattias Ekholm, who is under contract for one more year beyond this one. People have also speculated that the Jets might look into protecting Logan Stanley and exposing Dylan DeMelo. This would be a big, unnecessary mistake.

Even if the Jets were to trade for a defenceman under contract beyond this season that they would have to protect, it couldn’t be more obvious who the three defencemen the Jets should protect are, and DeMelo is firmly in that trio.

Bryan’s protected list (based on no trades):

Forwards: Blake Wheeler (NMC), Mark Scheifele, Nikolaj Ehlers, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Kyle Connor, Andrew Copp, Mason Appleton

Defencemen: Neal Pionk, Dylan DeMelo, Logan Stanley

Goaltender: Connor Hellebuyck

Unless the Jets extend Adam Lowry this offseason, there shouldn’t need to be much discussion for who the seven forwards the Jets protect should be. Mason Appleton has blossomed into a fantastic third line winger this season, and has shown flashes of being a guy that could potentially be effective higher in the lineup as well.

Andrew Copp, while having a bit more troubles driving play at 5 on 5 this year, has been a really good overall player for the Jets in his time here. He’s had stretches of high end defensive play, and earlier on this season he was part of one of the best offensive lines in the NHL with Paul Stastny and Nikolaj Ehlers.

The other five choices at forward couldn’t be more obvious for the Jets.

Where people may raise an eyebrow, is on defence, and specifically at my omission of Josh Morrissey in favour of Logan Stanley or Dylan DeMelo. Protecting Neal Pionk would look like a given at this point, as he has had an outstanding season which has been obvious to just about everybody. People have suggested to me that Stanley has looked good enough to protect, but that the player we should expose, rather than Morrissey, is DeMelo. My question is, why?

A look at Josh Morrissey

As per Evolving-Hockey’s Wins Above Replacement (WAR) model, which estimates a player’s overall on-ice impact relative to a replacement level player, Morrissey has been worth a total of -0.7 WAR. He has had an okay offensive impact, but an absolutely dreadful defensive impact. In fact, according to the model, he has had the very worst total defensive impact among NHL defencemen in that span. This is back to back years he has been struggling mightily.

Below is his charted Regularized Adjusted Plus-Minus over the last three years from Evolving-Hockey, which estimates how well a player has driven goals for, expected goals (xG) for and against, as well as shot attempts (Corsi) for and against. On the left is even strength impact, and on the right is power play impact.

As we can see, including his last year with Jacob Trouba, the overall picture doesn’t look all that good. When Morrissey was playing well, the Jets had three aggressive defencemen who liked to carry the puck on the right side. Morrissey slotted in nicely as the safety valve on breakouts, where Trouba, and sometimes Byfuglien, whenever they were partnered, would handle the majority of the puck carrying duties. Now, while being partnered mostly with Tucker Poolman, Morrissey is being put in a primary puck moving role, which he clearly does not belong in.

The thing Morrissey has going against him going forward, even if we do think he could still be effective in the role he played beside Trouba, is none of the three defencemen the Jets have on the right side are great in transition and carrying the puck. Despite that, Neal Pionk and Dylan DeMelo are showing that they are the strength of this defence corps, so they shouldn’t be going anywhere. Morrissey’s results with Dylan DeMelo have been passable but not great, his results with Pionk haven’t been good, and his results with Poolman have been that of one of the very worst defence pairings in the NHL.

A look at Dylan DeMelo

Dylan DeMelo has been one of the most underrated players in the league over the past couple of seasons. He rarely makes mistakes on the back end, he’s aggressive in the defensive zone breaking up plays, and he’s great at keeping plays alive in the offensive zone with perfect positioning. Despite not being highly skilled, his smarts and assertiveness result in him having a strong offensive impact year after year.

According to Evolving-Hockey’s WAR, since the start of the 2019-20 season his impact has been worth 1.7 WAR, good for 49th among all NHL defencemen. If we look at this year’s impact alone, according to the model he’s been worth 0.9 WAR, which is good enough for 25th among NHL defencemen. He doesn’t have any crazy on-ice percentages that are highly inflating this number either. He has been flat out awesome in such an unassuming way.

Now let’s take a look at his three year RAPM from Evolving-Hockey.

Most of this has come playing top four minutes. The best of it came playing with Thomas Chabot with the Ottawa Senators, but the results aside from there have also been very good.

This is a guy whose results have been that of a number two or at worst a number three defenceman over the past three years, and that’s just by playing a very smart, assertive game. He doesn’t need to high end skill to be that effective, he just is that effective. Once Ville Heinola is given an opportunity to seize an NHL job, it’s more than conceivable that those two could form a high end NHL defence pairing, as Heinola can be the guy who takes charge of the transition game, and be the guy who is more involved offensively.

DeMelo is also under contract for three more years beyond this season at a very team friendly cap hit of $3 million.

Seattle taking Morrissey would be a good scenario for the Jets, so protect Logan Stanley instead

Logan Stanley has proven he’s likely at least a bottom pairing NHL defenceman. Will he be anything more than that? Maybe, maybe not. He has struggled at times against speed, but has looked very steady otherwise. At the very least, the Jets can be a contender with him as a bottom pairing defenceman on an inexpensive contract.

The same likely can’t be said about Josh Morrissey playing top pair minutes on an expensive contract.

At the end of the day, losing Morrissey in the expansion draft would just be freeing up $6.25 million for the next seven years and getting out of a contract that is starting to look really bad. He might be able to turn it around, but he’ll need to be playing in a role that isn’t and likely won’t be available to him on this roster for some time.

The Jets also have a lot of good prospects on left defence, including Ville Heinola, Dylan Samberg. Declan Chisholm may be able to make a mark in the NHL at some point in the next couple of years if given the opportunity. Couple this with the fact that the Jets are thin down the right side with respect to prospects, and it becomes clear that losing Morrissey wouldn’t hurt the team nearly as much as losing DeMelo, even if they were playing at a similar level. The gap between DeMelo and Morrissey right now just makes it so much more obvious who the Jets should be exposing if they were to protect Stanley.

Who should the Jets expose if they trade for Mattias Ekholm?

If the Jets trade for Mattias Ekholm, who would be under contract for one more year beyond this season, they now have an extra defenceman they need to protect.

I’ve touched on Morrissey versus DeMelo, but I haven’t really touched on DeMelo versus Stanley yet.

Again, given how impactful Dylan DeMelo has been for the Jets, and given that Logan Stanley is looking like a pretty good player, but nowhere near the impact of DeMelo, despite having extremely sheltered minutes to this point, the obvious answer here would be to expose Logan Stanley.

Put it this way, if the Jets were to lose Stanley in the expansion draft, they would likely be doing a lot better than most teams. This is a guy whose absolute ceiling is likely that of a number four defenceman, and it’s probably more likely he plateaus as a number five or six defenceman. Stanley is 22 years old and turns 23 on May 26th. For the most part defencemen are more or less what they are around this age and it shouldn’t be expected that they develop into much more than they are (you can read more about that in two part piece written by EvolvingWild here and here if you’re interested). As such, the chances of Stanley becoming as impactful as DeMelo are very slim.

The Jets are set up well for the expansion draft

As long as the Jets don’t hand out a gift to Seattle by exposing Dylan DeMelo, they are in relatively enviable shape for the coming expansion draft. Even in the worst scenario (with respect to the expansion draft), if they trade for Mattias Ekholm and extend Adam Lowry, the worst they’re looking at is losing a likely bottom pairing defenceman in Stanley, or a bottom 6 forward who’s past his prime in Lowry.

If they don’t make a trade for a defenceman with term, even the rabid Logan Stanley fan club can relax, as long as the Jets go exactly one way about this expansion draft, and that’s to expose Josh Morrissey and protect Dylan DeMelo. If they do that, they will be fine.

There are no excuses left for Maurice: it’s time for Heinola and Samberg to play

12 games into the 2021 season, the Jets’ top defence prospect, Ville Heinola, despite playing very well and doing things that no other Jets defenceman can, has played just one game this season. Their number two defence prospect, Dylan Samberg, despite being a force in training camp, has not even gotten a sniff of game action.

This is on a team currently icing one of the weakest groups of defencemen in the NHL, especially in transition.

Heinola and Samberg are guys that are perfect fits in holes the Jets are missing at 5 on 5. The Jets also have a gaping hole at the point on their top power play. Heinola has showed he is very good on the power play in his time in Liiga and at the World Juniors.

With the exception of Dylan DeMelo, who is starting to settle in after missing the first four games of the season, Neal Pionk, who is looking pretty good in his own end, and maybe Derek Forbort, who has been the other half of a solid pairing with Pionk. there isn’t a guy the Jets would really miss if they came out of the lineup. Given that, there is absolutely no reason for Heinola and Samberg to sit right now.

What would change on the ice if Heinola or Samberg were in the lineup

Either player would be a huge help defensively. The Jets frequently get hemmed in their zone. Opponents get set up, start the cycle, and absolutely feast on the Jets. When they do successfully stop the attack, they have trouble making clean breakout passes, and when that outlet isn’t there, the guys they have don’t have the wherewithal to carry the puck out of the zone.

Stopping the cycle is something Samberg does very well, and he is pretty good in transition too. Heinola may soon be among the best in the NHL at cleanly exiting the zone, and can often stop the attack before it gets started by being in the right spot.

The Jets would likely immediately see a huge improvement in transition, and defensively by getting these two in the lineup. To boot, Heinola would likely be a boost to creating offence from the back end, as the Jets don’t really have anyone to consistently get involved in the offensive zone.

Heinola seemed to settle in immediately when he stepped into the lineup earlier this season, and with the way he seemed to help Josh Morrissey it really didn’t make much sense to take him out of the lineup. Samberg may not see the same results immediately, but the talent is there, and getting him in now would eventually pay dividends, and it’s possible that it would pay dividends right away.

Nathan Beaulieu has now played enough games for the Jets to meet expansion draft requirements

Nathan Beaulieu still playing this season made absolutely no sense, except for one explanation: him getting to the amount of games played such that the Jets would expose enough players in the upcoming expansion draft who have played enough NHL games over the last two seasons. It seems, though, that despite this, and the fact that he has had really poor results this season, that Paul Maurice thinks he gives the team a better chance to win than either of Heinola or Samberg.

Beaulieu struggles in every important area of the game at the NHL level. He doesn’t generate offence, he doesn’t have a good transition game, and he has struggled to defend this year. He’s also struggled on the penalty kill. He’s also past his prime being 28 years old, so there’s really no room left for improvement, as opposed to the two rookies. If the coach decides he absolutely has to stay in the lineup, it needs to be in very sheltered minutes.

Take the RAPM chart here from Evolving Hockey with somewhat of a grain of salt. Since it’s early in the season, and this season every team doesn’t play every team, the model can only account for quality of players with respect to the division they’re playing in. The sample is small enough that there are relatively significant error bars. With that said, within the North Division, the results, to be kind, have not been good for Beaulieu. The eye test would also confirm this.

To add to this, Beaulieu has been moved up to the top defence pairing. To try and figure out what this coach is thinking is something that makes one scratch their head, because Beaulieu has done the opposite of show that he should be moved up the lineup, and Heinola already showed well in the lineup this year. There are zero reasons to keep Beaulieu in the lineup now.

There are ways to get Samberg in the lineup if Heinola is already in for Beaulieu

There’s no doubt Logan Stanley has exceeded the expectations of most people coming into the season. With that said, the results have been fine, and better than a couple of guys the Jets have been dressing. One thing the team should be able to do though, is rotate Stanley and Samberg. The Jets can see what results they get with Samberg, and make decisions from there.

Another thing the Jets can do is let Josh Morrissey sit a game or two. He has not been playing well. He hasn’t had particularly good results with any partner this year except for one game samples with each of Heinola and Poolman, and we’ve already seen from their time as a pairing last year that Morrissey and Poolman are not a fit together.

Another option would be to run with 7 defencemen.

In the worst scenario, Samberg doesn’t pan out for this year, and it’s no big deal that he got those games. The big deal is not finding out what you have when the guy is already 22.

It is good for everybody if Heinola and Samberg both play

There isn’t a good reason for neither of Heinola or Samberg to be playing. We’ve already seen Heinola play well in the NHL. We’ve seen the Jets’ defence corps struggle mightily in areas where these two players are strong. It would help the team, and help the careers of these two great prospects for the Jets to play now.

There’s no reason for Nathan Beaulieu to play now. Tucker Poolman can stick around as a press box guy who can step in and kill penalties, but he hasn’t shown anything to suggest he should be a mainstay in the lineup. Josh Morrissey looks like he doesn’t belong playing hard minutes right now. Logan Stanley, despite looking decent, hasn’t showed anything to suggest he’s a better option than Heinola, and given what he did in college, it’s somewhat likely we would see Samberg outperform Stanley as well.

The bottom line is the Jets need serious help on the blueline. They specifically need help defending, and in transition, and they have players who so obviously fill this hole. It’s been very troubling to see the approach Paul Maurice has taken when it comes to playing the right guys on defence.

Jets fans mourn the departure of Patrik Laine, await the arrival of Pierre-Luc Dubois

On the morning of Saturday, January 23 it was announced the Jets had traded Patrik Laine and Jack Roslovic for Pierre-Luc Dubois and a 2022 third round draft pick. Laine has been a fan favourite in Winnipeg from the moment he stepped onto the ice in 2016. He’s treated fans to so many great performances, and been such an important part of the team the entire time he’s been here.

The trade is somewhat of a risky one. Laine, with his all-world shot, and a seemingly improving ability to drive play, looks like a guy that with just a little bit more growth can be a guy who turns into a real superstar in the NHL. Dubois, on the other hand, doesn’t have the same ceiling Laine does, but at this point is already a very strong play driver, and creates more offence at even strength than Laine does. Dubois won’t contribute the way Laine does on the power play, but the even strength impact will be strong.

Laine will be missed

Laine was the subject of a lot of rumours this summer. The media consistently reported he was unhappy in Winnipeg and wanted out. Nothing confirmed this more than the infamous quote, “I’m here, aren’t I?”

Laine was uncomfortable throughout that interview, and was given plenty of opportunity to say he wanted to remain in Winnipeg if he really did want to. Instead he tried his best to be non-committal in his answers and I think it came out rather awkwardly.

Laine was a professional throughout this whole process. Head coach Paul Maurice praised him for having a fantastic training camp, and it showed in the one game he played with the Jets this season. He was in control of the play on the ice. He was making great passes, controlling the puck in the offensive zone, made a great pass to Connor for a 5 on 3 power play goal, and scored two goals including an incredible shot from just inside the top of the circle, and a play in overtime which saw him fake an opponent behind the net, go end to end with speed, and bury the winner.

Laine gave us unforgettable memories, right from the first time he stepped onto the ice, until the very last time the puck came off of his stick in a Jets uniform. The electric Finn will be missed dearly.

Breaking down the trade

The comparison of Laine and Dubois at even strength, as far as the last couple of years go, isn’t really a close one. Dubois has easily been the better player at even strength. Laine has struggled to drive much play, whereas Dubois has been very good in that regard. Laine’s ability to make plays in the offensive zone and shoot the puck has helped, but even that hasn’t been enough to match Dubois’s offensive contribution at even strength.

The above shows that while Patrik Laine had an elite impact on the power play, the overall impact that he brought, in the systems the Jets were running, was not as high as maybe some people thought. The overall offence he brought was very good, and the overall defence was not good, although he did improve on it last year.

Dubois has had a more positive impact on both offence and defence at even strength, although Dubois hasn’t been particularly good defensively either. Exactly what he brings to the Jets remains to be seen, but a player like Dubois, who has been good at driving play and great at generating offence, will be a welcome addition to the Jets who could really use some play drivers to add to Nikolaj Ehlers and Andrew Copp.

Jack Roslovic is the forgotten man in this trade. He has had limited success playing mostly a bottom six role in Winnipeg.

The above shows Roslovic has roughly had an average impact in three seasons in the NHL, perhaps even slightly below average. He has shown flashes that make people think he can be a top six forward in the NHL. He has also disappeared at times, most specifically when he’s been played at centre.

My thought is that Roslovic can be a decent middle six winger in the NHL. It’s possible that he can become a decent centre, but there seemed to be some hesitancy in his game when he played at centre.

Who won the trade?

Typically, I’m not a guy who subscribes to the idea that you shouldn’t judge a trade right away. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Trades are made with information that is available at the time of the trade, not in hindsight. If a GM makes a trade that is likely to produce a good result given all information, but it doesn’t work out, it was a good trade, it was just a bad result. That is, the process is what really matters when making trades, or in fact any decision.

As far as the Laine trade goes though, it is oh so close. The Winnipeg Jets traded a high-ceiling player and a player who hasn’t been great but can still improve, for a player who is already having a strong positive impact on results, as well as a third round draft pick in 2022, which likely won’t be a factor for years, if ever.

I think both teams got what they were looking for. Each traded a problem (in Winnipeg’s case, two problems), and got a great piece in return. It’s a trade that makes sense for both teams, so it’s hard to call a winner on this one.

One thing is for sure though. Jets fans will never forget the memories that Laine gave them.

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.

The Jets cannot waste time with Morrissey and Poolman as the top defence pair

Josh Morrissey and Tucker Poolman spent much of last season playing together as the Jets’ top defence pair. The biggest reason for this is because the team did not have any kind of depth, or high end players on the right side to play with Morrissey for most of the season.

This changed when the Jets traded a third round pick in 2020 for Dylan DeMelo, who would immediately become their best 5 on 5 defenceman. DeMelo spent a few games playing with Beaulieu, and eventually made his way onto the top pair beside Morrissey. The top pair, and more importantly the team, enjoyed much more success when DeMelo moved up.

According to Natural Stat Trick, Morrissey and Poolman had 675:04 of ice time together last season, over 200 minutes more than any other defence pairing the Jets iced last year. That is a relatively large sample in which they’ve had poor results. the Jets have DeMelo, a guy who has performed like a legitimate top pairing defenceman over the past two seasons. They also have Sami Niku, a guy who has not performed well in the NHL to this point, but has also never been given a role as an offensive defenceman beside a guy like Morrissey, which would likely help his game, and give him a chance of producing good results. Given all of that, it’s blatantly obvious that the Jets should not be considering pairing Morrissey and Poolman together in the 2021 season.

Exactly what kind of impact did they have together last year?

The decision to pair these two together when they did last season made sense in the beginning. Poolman had spent limited time in the NHL, and although his minutes were sheltered and he was playing on a very good Jets squad in 2017-18, he had pretty good results in a small sample playing mostly with Ben Chiarot. He spent the majority of the 2018-19 season injured, but when he got in with the Moose he looked very good, and Moose head coach Pascal Vincent, to paraphrase, said he was playing in the wrong league. Poolman’s skills had people, including myself, thinking he could have a decent impact playing with Josh Morrissey.

We proved to be very wrong.

As per Natural Stat Trick, the pair finished with a shot share of 46.53%, and a horrendous expected goal share of 40.31%, the worst mark in the entire NHL among pairings that played at least 300 minutes together.

To break the expected goals down a bit further, their xGF/60 (expected goals for per 60 minutes) was 1.83, and their xGA/60 (expected goals against per 60 minutes) was 2.73. They provided no help to their forwards offensively, and they were just about useless defensively when they were together.

One reason for the bad offensive season for this pairing may have been the system. It was well documented last season, and coach Maurice even alluded to this at different points throughout the season, that due to the overall weakness of their defence corps, the team decided to play a more conservative style of hockey. It was uncommon to see defencemen jumping into the play offensively, and they would even go as far as to commonly keep a high forward in the offensive zone, further limiting the amount of offence the team was able to create.

Despite sacrificing offence, they struggled almost as bad defensively. They struggled big-time with their coverages, had trouble exiting the zone, and overall they were overmatched by the higher end offensive players of the opposing teams. Did some of this have to do with playing with the Connor-Scheifele-Laine line more often than other lines? Probably. Evolving-Hockey’s wins above replacement (WAR) model and their shot isolate model, as well as Micah Blake McCurdy’s shot isolate model all show Connor and Scheifele as among the worst defensive impacts in the NHL. Laine also is shown as ranging from a bit below average to not good at all defensively in all three models.

That only accounts for roughly 40% of their ice time though, and while they may have struggled worse with those three on the ice, they still struggled big-time, and a lot of it was their own doing.

A look at Morrissey and Poolman’s individual impacts

Below are the results of Morrissey and Poolman from Evolving-Hockey’s shot isolate model (otherwise known as regularized adjusted plus minus, or RAPM). It estimates each player’s individual impact on goals for, expected goals for, corsi for, expected goals against, and corsi against. Corsi is the same as shot attempts, while expected goals adjusts for shot quality and omits blocked shots.

Both players seemed to struggle similarly defensively. Poolman is shown as having worse shot and scoring chance generation offensively. Interestingly, Poolman’s goal generation is shown as being higher here. This could be because in his time away from Morrissey, the forwards scored on far more of their shots than expected.

When a defenceman is showing a goals for impact much higher than his expected goals, that’s not usually his doing, and has more to do with a high on-ice shooting percentage, which is something that regresses toward the mean as the sample of shots grows. Poolman struggled to create offence for his team last year, despite a goals for impact that might fool some people. There can be exceptions to this when the player is very involved in the offence and is a really good passer and/or shooter. I would not put Poolman in that category.

This shows that altogether, Morrissey struggled defensively, and Poolman struggled at both ends.

Errors in logic

The Jets went out and got Dylan DeMelo at last year’s trade deadline and signed him to an extension this fall. The pairing with Morrissey and DeMelo improved to a 56.41% shot share and a 45.06% expected goal share between the regular season and the play-in series according to Natural Stat Trick. There was clearly a huge improvement when DeMelo stepped onto the pairing with Morrissey.

As I alluded to earlier, Paul Maurice ran a system last year that sacrificed offence for defence in order to protect a weak defence corps. He started this year’s training camp off with a press conference saying he didn’t like the way they defended or created offence last year.

With a big reason for the lack of offence being the system, and the reasoning for the system being a weak defence corps, adding a great 5 on 5 defenceman in DeMelo to the top pair is one way of helping. We’ve already seen it give the Jets a big improvement. Instead, the coach is going to start by rolling out the same top four as they did most of last year, with the only change being Derek Forbort taking the place of Dmitry Kulikov.

It makes no logical sense to acknowledge last year’s problems with the defence corps and roll out nearly the same top four. It makes even less sense when you have a great 5 on 5 defenceman in DeMelo who can make such a huge improvement to the top four.

Another option would be trying out Sami Niku beside Josh Morrissey. There’s no guarantee this would be a good pairing, but it wouldn’t hurt to try any more than it would hurt to put Poolman back on the pairing with Morrissey. In the best scenario, it works out, and the Jets have more options on their blue line, and could use DeMelo as a partner for either Ville Heinola or Dylan Samberg, which would be a nice scenario for either of those two trying to break into the league.

Maurice has said that he doesn’t think Morrissey and Poolman got a full look last year, despite having the 18th most minutes among defence pairings and posting some of the worst results of any pairing. One might expect some slight improvement if the system is changed in any way, or they use the pairing in a completely different manner than they did last year, but trying this again is highly unlikely to yield good results.

The bottom line is there are options besides Poolman to pair with Morrissey, one of which is a guaranteed improvement, and putting Morrissey and Poolman back together hurts the Jets. If and when the pairing gets outplayed again, the Jets can’t afford to waste any time breaking them up.

Season Preview 2021

The 2021 NHL season, if you can believe it, is just under one week away. No, I will not be referring to it as the 2020-21 season. The Winnipeg Jets look to improve on a season where they finished 37-28-6 giving them 80 points in 71 games. This ranked them 20th in points percentage. This is slightly deceiving, as just one more standings point in any of their games would have placed them 15th. With that said, it was quite an ugly season for the club.

The talented, but flawed Jets, at even strength, finished 25th in score and venue adjusted shot share, and as per Evolving-Hockey, finished 30th in score and venue adjusted expected goals share. This means they were getting severely outshot, and the difference in quality of shots they were able to generate versus what they gave up was even worse. Much of this was cancelled out by terrific goaltending by Connor Hellebuyck, the Jets’ ability to finish their chances, as well as their discipline. While Connor Hellebuyck was an all-world goalie last year, the goaltending in particular isn’t something the Jets should try and rely on since goaltending results are so unpredictable.

The Jets should look for an infusion of youth on their blue line, hope for bounce back seasons from a few veterans, and play a more aggressive game where they possess the puck more, and are able to generate more and give up less at even strength. They should also look to play more up-tempo and take advantage of the fact that they are one of the best finishing teams in the NHL.

The infusion of youth

The Jets have two excellent prospects on defence that are good enough to make an NHL impact right away. 21 year old Dylan Samberg, and 19 year old Ville Heinola.

The Jets should be looking to get Samberg into the lineup as soon as possible. He turns 22 on January 24, an age where players typically start approaching their peak.

He has great tools. He skates very well, can physically manhandle opponents, has good defensive instincts, and is better than you might expect with the puck. These are all things the Jets could use in their lineup. He is also listed at 6’4″, 216 lbs on Elite Prospects, which certainly doesn’t hurt. It would be mutually beneficial to the Jets and Samberg to have him start on the big club. If he doesn’t pan out to start, there is no issue in sending him down, but he needs to get up to NHL speed, and I’m not sure there’s much that can be gained by having him start in the AHL.

Players in training camp playing ahead of him on the left side of the defence include Derek Forbort and Nathan Beaulieu. While these are players who can certainly hold their own and may be decent third pairing guys, Samberg brings more skill to the table, and there’s no reason to believe he isn’t physically ready.

Luca Sbisa is a player who looks destined to start in the press box. For whatever reason, the Jets seem to be factoring the potential of losing him on waivers into their roster plans despite him being above replacement level in just 2 of his 12 seasons in the NHL. The Jets should be looking to Samberg and/or Heinola to earn a spot in the lineup and push Beaulieu and/or Forbort to the press box. This way when injuries happen, the Jets aren’t pigeonholed into dressing Sbisa, who unfortunately isn’t an NHL-level player. If he’s factoring into the Jets’ decision making in any way, they’re doing something wrong. They also get a defence corps with much higher upside by getting the prospects in the lineup.

Ville Heinola is coming off a stellar performance at the World Junior Hockey Championship. His ability to negate pressure in his own zone and seamlessly exit the zone with control of the puck was unmatched throughout the tournament. To be frank, he was probably the best defenceman in the tournament, despite the award going to teammate Topi Niemelä.

His play in Liiga, Finland’s top league, has been stellar as well. He has 14 points (1 goal, 13 assists) in 19 games and an outstanding 59.8% on-ice shot share. A 19 year old defenceman doing that is a men’s league is far from common.

The moment he steps into the NHL, he will be one of the smartest players in the NHL. His mind is just a step ahead of everyone else’s, and he has incredible passing ability, good hands, and ability to defend to go with it. He has a real chance to become an elite NHL defenceman.

He is only 19 right now, but he has very much looked NHL ready this season in Liiga and at the World Juniors. He will be subject to a seven day quarantine after arriving in Winnipeg, so he likely won’t be able to practice until Wednesday the 13th, a day before the Jets’ first game. As soon as he gets acclimated to the systems, he should be stepping into the lineup, at the very least for the six games before his entry-level contract slides. If he impresses, there should be no reason to keep him off the roster. His transition game in particular will be so valuable to a team who has struggled mightily in transition for the past two seasons.

What might the forward lineup look like and how good are they?

The Jets’ top six forward group has seen Nikolaj Ehlers playing with Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler, and Kyle Connor with Paul Stastny and Patrik Laine to start training camp. If the lines stay this way, this is a good thing for the top line. Over the past two seasons, as per Natural Stat Trick, The Ehlers-Scheifele-Wheeler line, in 483:31 of ice time, has posted a 52.40% shot share, a 50.48% expected goal share, and has outscored the opposition 29-20 (a 59.18% goal share). This is an overachieving goal differential, but the results have been quite good considering the team has struggled in the corsi and expected goals categories for back to back seasons, and the finishing ability of Ehlers and Scheifele has the potential to push their goal totals above their expected goals to some degree.

The iteration with Connor on the top line has been less successful. In 695:33 of ice time over the past two seasons, they’ve had a shot share of 51.06%, an expected goals share of 48.67%, and have been outscored 35-31 (a 46.97% goal share). It would be unexpected for them to continue underperforming their expected goals, but also unlikely for them to outscore their opponents enough to be any kind of a first line you’d picture on a contending team. The Jets are making the right call by having their best play driver, and best overall winger in Ehlers play on the top line.

The second line of Connor, Stastny, and Laine is intriguing, and may be a bit of a wildcard. Connor and Laine struggled together last season, mostly defensively on Scheifele’s line. They finished chances at a very high rate, but gave up so many chances that it more than cancelled out that line’s offence.

Connor is a player is particular who struggles defensively. Laine is improving in this area, but isn’t a great defensive player at this point either. Playing those two with a centreman who was consistently behind on the backcheck and has been very weak defensively for the past two seasons was probably not a great recipe for success.

Stastny is a guy who can play well defensively. If Laine takes another step defensively, I don’t expect it to be quite an average defensive line, but if Connor and Laine can continue to finish well in the offensive zone and Stastny can still drive some offence and create some chances for those guys, it could be a line that works well.

On the other hand, Paul Stastny is 35 now, and it’s very possible he gets worse results on a team that’s not as good as any he’s played on in recent years. It’s a line that has the potential to be good, but if it doesn’t work, Paul Maurice has to be ready to try some things aside from the trademarked swapping of Connor and Ehlers.

The third line will start with Andrew Copp and Adam Lowry together playing with one of Mason Appleton or Mathieu Perreault. In the past, Copp and Lowry have had great results together regardless of who the third player on their line has been. Last year the results were not so good. Adam Lowry had the worst year he’s had in a long time and he needs to have a bounce back year. If he has a rough start, Maurice will need to give more opportunites to guys like Jansen Harkins and David Gustafsson. Kristian Vesalainen may also be ready for an NHL opportunity this year.

The Fourth line throughout camp has seen Jansen Harkins playing with Nate Thompson. They started with Appleton on that line, but when Perreault got hurt, Appleton slid up to the third line, and Kristian Vesalainen stepped onto that line. The Jets should look for someone to replace Thompson on that line as quickly as possible. Trevor Lewis, who had a goal and an assist in yesterday’s scrimmage, may be a good option to do that, as he’s still been posting solid results over the last few years and could still be a good bottom six player.

The Jets, of course, are still trying to come to an agreement with disgruntled forward Jack Roslovic, who, if signed, would jump right into the bottom six, and would force them to place Thompson in the press box. The Jets have enough options, between veterans and young players trying to break into the league, that if they ice their best possible lineup every night, Thompson should not factor in. Unfortunately, with this organization, we’ve seen that being a drag on the team’s results is sometimes something they ignore when deciding who makes the team at the bottom of the lineup.

I’d imagine the opening day forward lineup will look something like this:

Ehlers-Scheifele-Wheeler

Connor-Stastny-Laine

Copp-Lowry-Appleton

Harkins-Lewis-Perreault

Thompson

As a whole, this is a forward group whose top six has a lot of talent, but may be slightly overrated as they still lack play driving ability and ability to defend. With that said, this is a group who can outshoot a lot of their issues.

The bottom six has some good pieces. Andrew Copp is a great third liner, and until this past season Adam Lowry had been performing like one as well. Mason Appleton performed well last season, and Jansen Harkins showed some great things that would suggest he could be a high end bottom six forward. Mathieu Perreault can still have a positive impact on the game, and Trevor Lewis could prove to be a decent depth piece if he gets a contract with the team. David Gustafsson has played well in Sweden this year, and Kristian Vesalainen got off to a hot start, yet had since tailed off in Liiga. If Jack Roslovic signs, he’s another player who at times has been a good middle six forward.

The wildcard in the bottom six here is Adam Lowry. If he bounces back, the bottom six will be in good position to play an important role for the team this year. If he struggles again, the team will need to make some adjustments and give other guys opportunities.

What might the defence look like and can they hold their own?

An interesting wrinkle to this point throughout training camp is Josh Morrissey has been playing with Sami Niku, while Dylan DeMelo has been playing with Nathan Beaulieu. Tucker Poolman has been out with an injury, so many are speculating that he will step into the spot with Beaulieu, and DeMelo will move back up with Morrissey. This may be the case, but wouldn’t it be something if Morrissey and Niku ended up having some chemistry and made up a good pairing?

This is something the Jets were unable to do last season with Morrissey except when he was paired with DeMelo at the end of the season. It’s not what I’m expecting to happen, but if Morrissey and Niku are paired together and can perform well, that opens up their best even strength defenceman, Dylan DeMelo, to be the main driver on a second pairing, or even to have a 1A, 1B type situation with their top two pairings.

That other pairing could be DeMelo with Ville Heinola. DeMelo has spent the start of camp with Beaulieu to this point. If the Jets were using Beaulieu as a placeholder for Heinola, this could be very intriguing. DeMelo is a very good play driver from the back end, and is the type of player that could pair up with Heinola to make an awesome duo.

Derek Forbort and Neal Pionk is the other pairing that has been together since the start of camp. This could be a nice third pair for the Jets if the above scenario were to come to fruition.

I have heard people say things like “Neal Pionk is the top point producer among defencemen on the Jets, how can you put him on the third pair?” The answer to that is twofold. First off, 25 of his 45 points came on the power play. Secondly, the five most common forwards he was on the ice with were Scheifele, Connor, Wheeler, Laine, and Ehlers, which, had a large impact on Pionk’s point total at 5 on 5. His actual contribution offensively as per Evolving-Hockey’s WAR (wins above replacement) and xWAR (expected wins above replacement) was somewhere in the ballpark of replacement level. This means that he was not personally contributing to scoring chances and goals at a high level.

With all that said, Pionk did positively affect the team’s shot share, which in a more sheltered role, might be enough to make him an effective player at even strength, especially with a partner who is a solid defender like Forbort.

The alternative to this, and what I think is more likely, is that we see the following on opening night:

Morrissey-DeMelo

Forbort-Pionk

Beaulieu-Poolman

This would likely make for a better, and a clear top pairing, but the rest of the defence might struggle a bit more. The Forbort-Pionk pairing would no longer be able to be sheltered, and instead of being good depth guys in the press box, Beaulieu and Poolman are in the starting lineup.

These two pairings could end up being a bit better than I think, but their upside is relatively low. The good news, perhaps, is that this isn’t Anthony Bitetto or Luca Sbisa in the lineup to begin the season. These are all legitimate NHL players.

With that said, Ville Heinola will likely get his six game stint after spending a little time in the press box. Who he’s paired with and how he performs is yet to be seen, but he would instantly add more talent and upside to that lineup, and I would like to reiterate that there is no reason he shouldn’t be given a real chance .

Are the Jets a playoff team?

The Jets have talent. But the big question is, can they play the right way to take advantage of this talent. If they play to their potential by taking advantage of their high-end offensive players by playing an aggressive style of game and continue to get good goaltending, there’s no reason they can’t be a playoff team. On the other hand, if they struggle early and they continue to keep trying things that haven’t been working, as they’ve too often done in the last two seasons, and that’s paired with a goaltending performance that isn’t all that stellar, they won’t end up in a playoff spot.

The recipe is there for the Jets to have some success this year. The coach needs to follow it, otherwise it will be more of the same.