The Winnipeg Jets weren’t expected to do much this season. Some observers, (myself included) thought the Jets were more likely to contend in the Connor McDavid sweepstakes, than contend for a playoff spot at the start of the season. However, the Jets have surprised many experts so far, as they sit in third place in the tough Central Division, with a 9-7-3 record. Granted, the season is long and the Jets could very well regress. And there are issues with goal scoring. But for now, Jets fans are enjoying the ride. Here are five reasons why the Jets have been better than expected.
Surprisingly Good Goaltending
There is no goalie in the NHL that has faced more criticism than Ondrej Pavelec. Most of that condemnation was deserved. Since the franchise arrived in Winnipeg in 2011, Pavelec’s save percentage has decreased every year, going from a .914 in 2010-11, to a .901 save percentage in 2013-14.
Ondrej Pavelec's numbers would be better if he had better goaltending behind him.
— ??? (@wazoowazny) September 22, 2014
Ondrej Pavelec was 33rd in even-strength save percentage among goalies with 30+ starts. So, uh, good luck next season, Winnipeg.
— Bruce Arthur (@bruce_arthur) April 16, 2014
But the embattled Czech Republic goalie has turned things around in the early part of the 2014-15 season. In 16 appearances, Pavelec has a .923 save percentage which ranks him 11th in the NHL, ahead of the likes of Carey Price, Sergei Bobrovsky and Henrik Lundqvist.
Pavelec’s 2.14 goals against average is 12th in the NHL, which is better than Jonathan Quick and Roberto Luongo.
Backup goalie Michael Hutchinson has been impressive as well, despite limited playing time. In only four appearances, the Barrie, Ontario native has a superlative .947 save percentage and a 1.49 goals against average. Though it is a small sample size, Hutchinson has been sharp, when called upon. Hutchinson was at his best in a 1-0 shutout over the Chicago Blackhawks on November 2, making 33 saves, some of them of the spectacular variety.
The long-term question is sustainability. The Hockey Writers own Joshua Weissbock discussed the probabilities of whether Pavelec can sustain this hot start in this excellent article he wrote recently. I’m not sold on whether Pavelec is able to continue his good play as the numbers have dictated otherwise throughout his career. But for the moment, Pavelec and Hutchinson have been huge reasons for the Jets early success.
Commitment To Defence
When Paul Maurice took over from Claude Noel as head coach of the Jets last January, he stressed the Jets needed to be better defensively, if the team wanted to move forward. So far this season, the Jets have listened to their coach. The Jets are third in goals against, conceding an average of 2 goals per game.
While the solid goaltending is a big factor, the Jets blue line deserves some credit as well. Toby Enstrom has led the way on defence, by making the correct outlet pass out of his zone and using his long stick to thwart opposing attackers.
Paul Postma is the most improved player on the Jets this season, as his 53.7% Corsi shows. He’s been smart with the puck, shown some physicality and has shown good instincts on when to join the rush or when to sit back and stay in position.
I've said this before but Paul Postma is the most improved Winnipeg Jet in my opinion.
— Ezra Ginsburg (@ICEzzyG) November 14, 2014
One could certainly make the argument that Paul Postma has been the #NHLJets best defenseman this season.
— Russ Hobson (@russ_sportsguy) October 29, 2014
The forwards have done a much better job at backchecking and supporting the defence.
It all adds up to the goals against going down and the rise in the NHL standings.
Strong Penalty Killing
Special teams are a vital part to any team’s success. While the power play has struggled, the Jets penalty killing has been a source of strength. The Jets are sixth in the NHL with an 87.7% success rate when a man down.
Maurice has tinkered with the penalty kill units, using skill players such as Blake Wheeler, Evander Kane and Mark Scheifele in shorthanded situations. The results have been wondrous. Wheeler and Bryan Little even have a shorthanded goal to their credit.
The penalty kill shone brightest against the Pittsburgh Penguins on November 6. The Penguins came into that game with the top-ranked power play in the NHL. The Jets shut down Sidney Crosby and company, killing off all five Penguin powerplay situations including a 5-on-3 situation midway through the second period.
For all of the penalty trouble tonight, the Jets' penalty kill has been exceptional even by its already-strong standards.
— PATRICK WILLIAMS (@pwilliamsNHL) November 7, 2014
One concern could be the Jets spend too much time shorthanded. The Jets rank 21st in the NHL, spending 52:43 shorthanded this season. The concern is the Jets will wear down from killing off so many penalties to the point where they won’t have the energy left to maintain this pace. This is an area the team will need to look at.
During the Claude Noel era, the Jets had a rather hard time winning away from the MTS Centre. The Jets finished eight games below .500 on the road in 2011-12, and were .500 in the shortened 2012-13 season, and finally followed up with a 9-13-1 record before Noel got the axe on January 12.
This season, Maurice and the Jets have enjoyed being on airplanes and hotels this season. The Jets are 6-4-2 away from the Manitoba capital so far this season.
Part of that success is due to the improved defensive play. The Jets feel they don’t need to put on a show for the away fans, thus they are more focused on their game plan and assignments.
The Jets have played 12 of their first 19 games on the road so it was vital for them to play well away from the frozen tundra that is Winnipeg. So far, so good.
Wheeler Taking Leadership Role
Andrew Ladd may wear the C on the Jets jersey, but it is Blake Wheeler that is assuming the leadership role on the Winnipeg Jets.
The University of Minnesota product leads the team in goals (8) and points (13) so far this season. Even more surprisingly is that Wheeler leads the team with three fighting majors.
Blake Wheeler just a horse for Jets. On pace for career best season.
— Damien Cox (@DamoSpin) November 16, 2014
Blake wheeler plays like a man possessed @NHLJets
— Scott Romberger (@_scotch__) November 16, 2014
Wheeler was recently featured in The Hockey News, where they talked about how he is the heart and soul of the franchise. Here’s a brief example, courtesy of Jared Clinton of The Hockey News.
“This season is the first in which his defensive starts are heavily outweighing his offensive starts, and Wheeler is still finding ways to drive the puck up the ice. It’s a skill that doesn’t show up on the score sheet but his consistency driving the puck up ice has been a godsend for a Jets team that is lacking offence.”
The Jets offence has struggled this season, but Wheeler has done his part. Now he needs his teammates to follow the true leader of the team.