Jets’ Playoff Expectations From a Season Ago Have Returned

The Winnipeg Jets are off to their best start since returning to Winnipeg, with an 8-3-1 record. They are fresh off of an extremely impressive three-game home stand which saw them beat the Montreal Canadiens, and the Chicago Blackhawks, and capped it off with a spectacular win against the Dallas Stars. For a team that missed the playoffs last season, they could have not asked for a better start to their 2022-23 season.

Questions surrounded the team after they made little to no moves in the offseason, but it’s safe to say they have silenced those questions. One new coaching staff later, and their impressive start has reset the expectations back to what they were during the 2021 offseason when experts predicted playoff success.

The biggest question mark around this team over the offseason was forward depth, but they have answered those questions with results.

Adam Lowry commands the third line, and regardless of who his wingers are, Money Puck has each trio recording a 60 percent expected goals percentage (xG%) or higher. The latest installment features Lowry, Axel Jonsson-Fjialby, and Saku Maenalanen, and they have been one of the best third lines in the entire NHL.

Adam Lowry Celebrates Winnipeg Jets Bench
Adam Lowry of the Winnipeg Jets celebrates with his teammates (Photo by Juan Ocampo/NHLI via Getty Images)

Lowry himself has eight points this season, which is almost half of his point total from 79 games a year ago. The third line has a 78.6 percent xG% and is giving up only 0.8 expected goals per 60 minutes, which is good for the third-best mark of all forward lines in the NHL that have played a minimum of 20 minutes together.

They have been asked to play a “shutdown” role, such as the one that saw them matching up against Jason Robertson when the Stars came to town. Maenalanen had not played in the NHL since 2018-19, and Jonsson-Fjiallby was claimed off of waivers before the season began. This unlikely trio is making it tough for the opposition to score, and taking the defensive load off of the more offensive-minded forwards.

David Gustafsson has been impressive centring the fourth line alongside veteran addition, Sam Gagner. For a fourth line, Bowness feels comfortable enough giving them regular ice time late into the third period.

Because of the injury to Nikolaj Ehlers, Mason Appleton has been elevated into a top-line role alongside Mark Scheifele and Kyle Connor. That line had their best effort of the season on Tuesday, Nov. 8, where they combined for eight points.

Scheifele continued his hot start to the season, as he’s currently on pace for 54 goals. Conversely, Connor is on pace for 13 goals and 47 points, which would both be career lows for the star winger. He will revert back to his usual self sooner rather than later, and Ehlers will return to the lineup to add yet another scoring option to the top six.

The Defence is Playing as Previously Advertised

The Jets made an aggressive move during the 2021 offseason when they traded for both Brenden Dillon and Nate Schmidt. One year later, those defenders are starting to play the way the Jets had hoped. Both of them have benefited greatly from Bowness’ system and style of coaching, and the team is better defensively as a result.

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This regularized adjusted plus/minus (RAPM) chart from Evolving Hockey shows that Dillon is doing exactly what is asked of him. He has been a defensive defenceman his entire career, and 2022-23 is no different.

Brenden Dillon 2022-23 RAPM
Brenden Dillon’s Isolated EV RAPM Impact, 2022-23

Dillon and Schmidt have found themselves on the same pairing to start the season, and they are posting good results thus far. They are holding a 51 percent xG%, and are at exactly 50 percent when it comes to unblocked shot attempts (Fenwick %).

They work well together as a pairing, as Schmidt is responsible for most of the zone exits and entries, and Dillon shoulders the entry denials and net-front defence. If they remain together for the rest of the season, they will continue to build chemistry and remain an effective second pairing.

That remains a big “if”, due to Josh Morrissey and Neal Pionk’s underlying numbers on the top pairing. Yeah, they are racking up points, but they are getting out-shot-attempted (Corsi) by a margin of 142-185 (43.4%) at even strength. Whether or not Bowness decides to make a change is unlikely, given they are currently first place in the Central Division. Keep an eye on that pairing, as their numbers may begin to falter over the next month.

Follow the Three C’s: Coaching, Culture & Connor Hellebuyck

The Jets have been fairly inconsistent to start the season, and a big reason for that is due to learning the new Xs and Os that coach Bowness is implementing. He just returned from his battle with COVID-19, and his return has had quite an impact on his players.

As we have learned, coaching is not just about systems. The vibes around this team are through the roof, and it is translating to their play on the ice. They are playing free and structured, something every coach in the NHL is looking for.

Rick Bowness Winnipeg Jets
Rick Bowness, Head Coach of the Winnipeg Jets (Photo by Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images)

Connor Hellebuyck is currently enjoying career-highs in save percentage (SV%) and goals-against average (GAA). His SV% is .938, which is good for third-best in the NHL, while his GAA is a stellar 1.98. This is an extremely welcome sight for the Jets, as Hellebuyck has the ability to carry them to the playoffs, as he has done in the past. It’s no surprise that they are reliant on their Vezina-calibre goaltender, but so far it has served them well.

The Jets aren’t playing perfectly, and Bowness would be the first to admit that. If he is able to get his team playing at a level that he is comfortable with, and Hellebuyck continues playing at an elite level, there’s no reason why the Jets cannot at least make the playoffs.

Winning a playoff series is much easier if you have the goaltending advantage, and right now, not many teams can claim that advantage over the Jets and Hellebuyck. The Jets’ next two games are on the road against the 5-6-2 Calgary Flames, and the 8-4-2 Seattle Kraken. They will look to take their dominance on the road and maintain their place in the standings amongst the NHL’s best.

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