Jets Should Restructure Lines to Have Scoring Throughout Top-9

The Winnipeg Jets are finding themselves in a precarious position as the playoff race begins to narrow. With just 11 games remaining in the regular season, they are clinging to the final wild-card spot in the Western Conference. Both the Nashville Predators and Calgary Flames are closely tailing the Jets, so it’s time to start figuring out how to fend them both off.

One of the key aspects of the Jets’ playoff push will be their slow return to full health. Josh Morrissey just returned to action on March 16 against the Boston Bruins after missing two straight games. Pierre-Luc Dubois also just made his return to the lineup after playing just one game since Feb. 26.

Josh Morrissey Winnipeg Jets
Josh Morrissey, Winnipeg Jets (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Now that two key players have returned to the lineup, the look of the team will be adjusted. Some lines have found success in their absence, while others have gone quiet and have even found themselves with reduced ice time. That being said, is there an ideal setup for the team?

The Jets’ Forward Group

The return of Dubois drastically altered the look of the Jets’ top six after only one game. Both of the top two lines had a new look in their March 18 game against the Predators.

Nikolaj Ehlers and Nino Niederreiter flanked Mark Scheifele on the top line, while Dubois was joined by Blake Wheeler and Kyle Connor on the second line. This shifted Vladislav Namestnikov onto the third line after having a great deal of success with the skill of the top-six forwards.

The Current Group

With Dubois’ return, the Jets once again settled into their top six/bottom six formations that they’ve been running most of the year. This lineup secured the win for them over the Predators but continues to emphasize how top-heavy this team has been.

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While the scoring talent is always going to be loaded near the top, the Jets could look to form a top-nine format to help spread out skill. This is something they haven’t had since the 2017-18 playoff run but could work to provide a boost to a team that struggles to score outside of the top two lines.

Potential Top Nine/Bottom Three

Kyle Connor – Pierre-Luc Dubois – Nikolaj Ehlers
Vladislav Namestnikov – Mark Scheifele – Nino Niederreiter
Morgan Barron – David Gustafsson – Blake Wheeler
Axel Jonsson-Fjallby – Adam Lowry – Mason Appleton

This group adds a layer of depth behind an already skilled top six. The most notable addition to this group is David Gustafsson, who has yet to establish a full-time role on the team. He is a talented forechecker with a knack for finding himself in soft areas to create scoring chances. Just last year, he registered 30 points in 47 games for the Manitoba Moose.

This would also demote Wheeler to the third line to help take the load off of him as he has struggled mightily to return to form after his injuries earlier in the season. Having been a fixture in the top-six for plenty of years, the time has seemingly run out for him to prove he should remain in such an important role.

Blake Wheeler Winnipeg Jets
Blake Wheeler, Winnipeg Jets (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

That being said, Wheeler can still play a valuable role on a forechecking line that has some sneaky offensive skill. Barron has played incredibly well since the All-Star Break and has begun to finally produce. The three of them won’t light up the scoresheet but will provide a better offensive look than the current group.

While it isn’t in the “top nine,” the fourth line would also benefit from the moves as it would see the additions of both Adam Lowry and Mason Appleton. Neither adds much offense, so they could be seen as a line-matching shutdown line that wouldn’t be relied upon when goals are needed.

Another aspect of this is getting Jonsson-Fjallby back into the lineup. Having sat for several games over the past two months, the Jets have been missing his speed and forechecking. His defensive ability is nothing to scoff at either, as he specializes in helping minimize the opponent’s scoring chances from in tight. He would ultimately be replacing Maenalanen on the fourth line which would boost the line’s defensive ability quite a bit.

The top line of Connor, Dubois, and Ehlers was already very successful earlier this season before being separated. In just over 90 minutes together, the trio combined for an expected goals percentage (xG%) of 64.1%, which ranks eighth in the league among all lines with 90 or more minutes. Reuniting the three of them could be the spark that the group needs to get going.

xG% courtesy of MoneyPuck

Kyle Connor Pierre-Luc Dubois Winnipeg Jets
Kyle Connor and Pierre-Luc Dubois, Winnipeg Jets (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

If nothing else, it provides that top line with a new look that we know has chemistry. Why the Jets have yet to return to this line remains a puzzling question, but it should be made a priority given the struggles of everyone else. Ideally, separating Scheifele and Connor is another positive for the team. The two forwards have been attached at the hip recently and have found little to no success and have played very poorly without the puck.

Dubois, Connor, and Ehlers have proven in a large enough sample size that they’re one of the best lines in the NHL and the Jets would be better off if they remembered this. Even with all the recent struggles, it has been a long while since this line has taken the ice together. It may be a coincidence, but the Jets’ scoring woes have been at their worst without this trio working their magic.

That leaves the potential second line, which would have a different look than what we’ve seen in the past. Niederreiter and Scheifele have played a lot together since the Jets acquired Niederreiter, and were even subject to a benching in the March 14 game against the Carolina Hurricanes.

That said, inserting a defensively sound player like Namestnikov can help to sort out the issues away from the puck that comes with playing with Scheifele. Namestnikov also works well as a forechecker, and getting the puck in tight to Niederreiter could work to create a lot of offense.

Vladislav Namestnikov Winnipeg Jets
Vladislav Namestnikov, Winnipeg Jets (Photo by Darcy Finley/NHLI via Getty Images)

The lines have been in flux for the better part of the past three months, but the Jets could benefit from trying to create more offense up and down the lineup. In the past 20 games, they have scored more than three goals only six times. With the amount of talent in the lineup, that shouldn’t happen.

At this point, the team should try just about anything to find a shot in the arm because they’re stumbling their way to the end of the season. With no definitive answer to the scoring problems, it’s time to adapt or suffer a disappointing end to a season that started so promising.

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