Winnipeg Jets’ Bottom-6 Has Been Better Than Advertised

So far, the Winnipeg Jets’ 2022-23 season has gone better than advertised: they are tied for second in the Central Division with an 11-5-1 record, Connor Hellebuyck has seemingly returned to Vezina Trophy form, and Josh Morrissey has emerged as a Norris Trophy candidate.

Related: Jets Need a Trade to Replace Injured Forwards

However, the team’s biggest surprise has been the bottom six. They were considered a weakness going into the offseason but have quickly put those concerns behind them. Can this group be improved with a trade? Yes, and management might have to make one, given the injuries to Nikolaj Ehlers, Mason Appleton, and Morgan Barron. But, for what they are contributing, they have been better than expected.

Jets Offseason Pickups Have Been Effective

Before the offseason, no one expected Axel Jonsson-Fjallby and Saku Maenalanen to be third-line contributors for the 2022-23 Jets, but here we are. Jonsson-Fjallby was claimed off of waivers in the preseason, and Maenalanen had not played an NHL game since 2018-19. These players have played a crucial role alongside Adam Lowry on what has become a shutdown third line.

Axel Jonsson-Fjallby, Washington Capitals
Axel Jonsson-Fjallby, Washington Capitals (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Among lines that have played at least 20 minutes together, Money Puck has the third line of Lowry, Maenalanen, and Jonsson-Fjallby giving up 1.71 expected goals per 60 minutes. That is the best rate on the team and proves that they are thriving in the role head coach Rick Bowness has given them.

The biggest improvement from this group over last season has been on the penalty kill. The Jets have the third-best penalty kill in the NHL, with a staggering 85.3 percent success rate, and it’s a huge reason why they’ve allowed the lowest number of goals per game in the Western Conference, at 2.41 GA/G.

Jets’ Depth Forwards Have Been Promoted

Before Appleton got hurt, he was beginning to find a rhythm with Kyle Connor and Mark Scheifele on the top line. Now, Sam Gagner has taken that role and become a complementary top-six winger. The Jets signed Gagner to a one-year, $750,000 contract near the end of the offseason, and now he is shouldering big minutes alongside the top two forwards on the team.

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With both Appleton and Ehlers projected to miss a few months, that top-line spot is now Gagner’s to lose. He got the primary assist on Connor’s game-winning goal against the Anaheim Ducks on Nov. 17 and has also been asked to play crucial power-play minutes this season.

In what has suddenly become a competitive Central Division, with the St. Louis Blues winning eight straight games and the Minnesota Wild starting to turn a corner, the Jets will need Gagner to keep producing to keep their playoff spot.

Call-Ups from Manitoba Moose Making an Impact

Jansen Harkins and Mikey Eyssimont both started the season with the Jets’ American Hockey League affiliate, the Manitoba Moose. Injuries brought them into the lineup, and they have helped the bottom six succeed.

In the 4-3 win over the Carolina Hurricanes on Monday, Nov 21, the Jets’ fourth line of David Gustafsson, Harkins, and Eyssimont, was the only one that outshot, outscored, and out-chanced their opponent at 5-on-5. Harkins and Eyssimont were both averaging over a point per game with the Moose before being called up, and they have provided some much-needed depth thus far.

The Jets are firmly in a playoff spot, but their forward depth has yet to face their biggest challenge. Many people predicted the group to be thin without injuries, and now three from the opening-night lineup are out for an extended period of time.

The Jets’ next four matchups will come against Central Division rivals. Expect them to play a strong defensive game where Hellebuyck remains solid, and the bottom six will have to remain defensively responsible in order to prevent a slide in the standings.

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