The Pittsburgh Penguins have won the Stanley Cup, and the prevailing thought from the Winnipeg Jets (and 28 other NHL teams) has to be: how can we do that?
For some teams, teams like the Tampa Bay Lightning who aren’t all that far away from the Stanley Cup, that answer is fairly simple and involves a few tweaks. For others, like the Jets, the answer is a bit more involved and will require more work to get to. If the Jets want to follow in the Penguins footsteps, they’ve got a long way to go.
No, the Jets aren’t likely to win the Stanley Cup this year, and no, I don’t for an instant suggest these three little things are all that’s keeping them from hockey glory. Nor am I suggesting that these are the only three things to be learned from Pittsburgh’s successful playoff run. What I do suggest is that, by learning three simple lessons from the Penguins, the Jets can be a better hockey club.
1: Trust Your Young Players, Especially Your Goalie
Now, the first part of that statement is painfully obvious for the Jets, partially because they have no choice, but the second part is crucial, and one they should take to heart ahead of training camp. While Winnipeg is certain to be flooded with young players this season (between those who played last year, and those coming in like Kyle Connor and whoever the second overall pick turns out to be), the team has some tough choices to make in goal.
Matt Murray proved in these playoffs that your best option in goal is not necessarily the one with the most experience, or the one with the biggest cap hit. Marc-Andre Fleury is a superb goalie, and Jeff Zatkoff is a capable backup, but the Penguins do not win the Stanley Cup without the heroics of Murray.
The 22-yr-old did it again.
Matt Murray tied the NHL rookie record for goaltender wins (15) in a single postseason. pic.twitter.com/crlSqb3LEN
— ESPN (@espn) June 13, 2016
The Jets may find themselves faced with a similar issue next season, and many would argue they faced it already this season. The best goaltender in the organization wasn’t the one with the highest cap hit. In fact, it was the goalie who, before the 2015-16 season, had no NHL games under his belt. The best goalie available to the Jets right now is Connor Hellebuyck, and if they learn anything from the Penguins it should be to trust him.
Murray is just 22 years old and had all of 13 NHL games under his belt before his magical playoff run. It would be tempting to dismiss this as an isolated incident, but NHL history is full of young goalies stealing the show in the event of injuries. Hellebuyck almost did exactly that, posting a .918 save percentage in his first 26 games of NHL action.
The time is now for Hellebuyck, and if the Jets have learned anything from Pittsburgh, let it be that trusting your young goalie (and your other young stars) can take you a long way. It’s time to let some of the young guns carry the team. Trust them with power play and penalty kill time, give them the space they need to succeed, and don’t sit them in the press box in favour of aging veterans. The results may be messy at times, but in the long run the future leaders of the Jets will be better for it.
2: A Little Defense Goes a Long Way
It’s easy to forget that last season the Penguins were little more than first round fodder for a vastly superior New York Rangers club. This year the script was flipped, as the Penguins dusted off the Rangers with a shrug and a fond farewell. While many things are different from last year to this year (forward depth is a big one) the Penguins defense seemed very different. Last season it was a depleted group, devoid of NHL experience and dearly missing all the players that had departed via free agency in recent years. This year it was greater than the sum of its parts, comprised of slick puck movers and calm-under-fire players (even though they were young) and even an injury to veteran Trevor Daly didn’t leave them in trouble.
So what can the Jets learn from this? A couple of things. One, smart puck movers who are calm under pressure can help overcome almost any forecheck and never leave your team in trouble. Two, if your defensemen can’t get the puck to your forwards, your scorers won’t be doing much scoring (the Jets could also learn this lesson from their Central Division rival Colorado Avalanche). The Jets need to focus on smart puck movement and efficient zone exits. They need defensemen who are calm with the puck and don’t panic under pressure. In other words, as much as I love Mark Stuart, he likely isn’t helping this cause.
The Sharks defense pair that, by all accounts, got exposed the most by Pittsburgh was the slower pairing of Brenden Dillon and Roman Polak, and Winnipeg should take notice. The Jets need to worry less about the nastiness (you’ll get plenty of that from Jacob Trouba and Dustin Byfuglien) and more about making sure the puck reaches the skilled forward core they’ve worked so hard to build.
PIT only reg. goal was direct result of terrible turnover by Roman Polak and then soft play by Brenden Dillon. Pair is getting thrashed.
— Deadly Waters (@deadly_waters) June 2, 2016
So as much as I love the old-school, shutdown defenders, as much as I love watching Stuart throw somebody around in the corner, I’d rather see the Jets make use of somebody who can really distribute the puck. Someday, hockey gods willing, Josh Morrissey will be that somebody. Hopefully someday soon.
3: Speed Kills
An old, obvious statement, and one the Jets seemed at times to forget last season. The Jets team of 2014-15, their most successful season to date, was fast and hard-nosed, aggressive on the forecheck and always keeping their feet moving. The Jets of last year seemed to ignore one of their best assets until it was too late. Only late in the season, when the games had long since ceased to matter, did the Jets display some of the speed that made them so dangerous the year before.
The Jets are not, and cannot afford to be, a low-tempo team. This is not a team that slows the game down, and for the most part it’s not a team that scores goals where you say afterwards “That’s just how they drew it up.” after a brilliant 5-way passing play. This is a team that scores by bulling its way to the net and creating turnovers with a high-tempo forecheck. Pittsburgh proved to be very good at this, and their speed proved too much for any team to handle. The Jets can learn from this, even if it seems obvious.
The Jets have an opportunity to get even faster with Kyle Connor and possibly (probably) Patrik Laine coming into the lineup, and they should make use of that speed. The Jets should never look like they’re skating in mud as they did at times last year. That’s simply not how they win.
So, are these three things going to turn Winnipeg into a contender? No, not right away. Is this all that separates Winnipeg from Pittsburgh? Only if you don’t count a couple of guys named Crosby and Malkin. But are each of these areas in which the Jets can improve? Absolutely.
If the Jets can do these three things, they’ll be a better team for it next season, even if they fall short of hockey’s ultimate prize. After all, when a team wins the Stanley Cup and you didn’t even participate in the playoffs, you can afford to learn a few lessons from them.