Playing minus one forward has turned out to be a big plus for a number of Winnipeg Jets.
Strategy Borne of Necessity
The Jets played their first two games of the 2021-22 season with four full lines, but after Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele were both put into the NHL’s COVID-19 protocol, they were forced to go with 11 forwards and seven defencemen.
Having players in COVID-19 protocol does not provide any salary cap relief, so the Jets — who are right up to the salary cap ceiling — didn’t have space to call anyone up.
The Jets first went with 11 and seven on Oct. 19 against the Minnesota Wild. They have done so for seven straight games now, and in that span, have gone 5-0-2.
More Ice Time, More Opportunity
That’s because five forwards are all thriving with their added ice time.
Leading scorer Kyle Connor is skating an average of 21:02 opposed to 18:44 in 2020-21. He has seven goals and seven assists for 14 points in nine games, and had a six-game point streak snapped Tuesday agains the Dallas Stars. Connor is fourth in scoring in the entire NHL, behind only Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, and Alexander Ovechkin.
Just as hot has been Pierre-Luc Dubois. The power forward has seen his ice time jump dramatically, to an average of 19:06 from the 15:06 he skated in his disappointing first season in Winnipeg. The big-bodied Dubois is beginning to display dominance and his hard-working, play-driving game has netted him 11 points (seven goals and four assists) already. He is riding an eight-game point streak.
Andrew Copp, third in points with nine (five goals and four assists) has played an average of 21:02, opposed to 18:15 in 2020-21.
Copp was destine for more ice time this season regardless, given his promotion to the top-six after setting career-highs last season. He is proving thus far more than capable of being a key offensive weapon.
Paul Stastny and Nikolaj Ehlers, fourth and fifth in points with seven and six, respectively, have also seen boosts in ice time. The veteran Stastny, on the top six, has seen his jump to 19:07 from 17:25 and dynamic Dane Ehlers has seen his jump to 19:26 from 16:55.
Ehlers had a slow start, going pointless in his first four games despite generating a lot of good scoring chances, but now has six points over his last six.
Strategy Keeps Everyone Engaged
Head coach Paul Maurice, prior to the Jets’ matchup with the San Jose Sharks last Saturday, said the strategy is also beneficial for his two fourth-liners — a rotating cast of Jansen Harkins, Riley Nash, Dominic Toninato, and Kristian Vesalainen — and seventh defenseman Nathan Beaulieu because their changing roles keep them alert.
“Those guys that play on the fourth line are left wing, centre, right, whatever you tell them,” Maurice said. “In some ways it wires the bench, they have to pay attention cause I’m moving people around. And I like what Beau has been able to do for our team.”
“I think in the absence of Mark and Blake, we’ve had each line step up and look really good,” Maurice said in a separate media availability on Monday. “We’re fine,” he continued later. “We got through what could have been a real tough situation with those two guys out.”
11 and Seven Worked Even With Scheifele and Wheeler
On Tuesday against the Stars, the Jets had both Scheifele and Wheeler in the lineup for the first time in seven games, but Maurice stuck with the strategy. He placed the pair on the third line and moved Adam Lowry to wing and kept the top six — Connor with Dubois and Evgeny Svechnikov and Stastny with Copp and Ehlers — intact.
The plan paid off as the Jets played arguably their most complete game of the season until the mid third, when they inexplicably took their foot off the gas and relinquished a two-goal lead (the Jets ended up winning in a shootout.)
One has to imagine, that as Scheifele and Wheeler get back up to speed, the attack across three lines will be more balanced and ice times will become more balanced than they were when the alternate captain and captain were out.
While the strategy hasn’t been without its foibles — Nash, a shut-down centre who produces nearly no offence, has drawn time on the power play while Beaulieu has played some shifts at forward on the left wing — the Jets are in a good rhythm with their current strategy..
Maurice has spoken on “doing no harm” when it comes to his lineup, which right now, is getting him points. He can feel comfortable continuing with 11 and seven for now, knowing his personnel is capable of handling it.