The Winnipeg Jets’ roster looks awfully different from the one that touched down in the prairies in October 2011.
The forward core has been dramatically shaken up to the point where it would be almost unrecognizable to the Jets fans of that inaugural year. The defense is similarly altered, and none of the original goalies remain either.
The problems that beset those first Jets have been partially dealt with. Depth up front and a bare prospect cupboard are no longer concerns. Defensively the Jets still need work, and the goaltending has to be better, but the team has at least made moves to these ends.
Yet some problems dating as far back as 2011 continue to plague the team years into their new existence, and while the Jets have gone a long way toward solving many of their initial problems, a couple of hurdles remain. The biggest and most present of these is penalties.
— TSN Hockey (@TSNHockey) August 17, 2017
Taking penalties is bad enough, but the Jets have also had no luck at all killing them. In fact, they ranked 26th on the penalty kill last season. This problem isn’t new. The Jets ranked 25th on the kill the year before, despite ranking 13th the year they made the playoffs.
The Jets made some changes over the offseason. They cut ties with some longtime players that could no longer help them, brought in a proven goaltender, and added another established defenseman for the left side.
If the Jets want to make the playoffs this year, however, they’ll need to curb two of their oldest problems: taking too many penalties and killing too few.
Who’s the Stalwart?
The two seasons in which the Jets ranked in the top half of the NHL’s penalty kill percentage were, not by coincidence, the two years they had Michael Frolik in the lineup. Frolik’s presence loaned some much-needed stability to the penalty kill.
When the Jets decided not to retain the savvy Czech winger in 2015, however, the penalty kill faltered and returned to its pre-Frolik place in the bottom 10 of the NHL standings.
Frolik scored three shorthanded goals in his final season in Winnipeg and remains one of the league’s best penalty-killing forwards, as the possession metrics can attest. Calgary had an abysmal time on the kill in Frolik’s first year there, but with changes in goal, they’ve now risen to 12th as of last year.
You can’t lay all of this, for either the Jets or the Flames, at Frolik’s feet, but there’s no doubt losing a top penalty killer hurt the Jets. Since then, the Jets haven’t had much luck replacing him. Who on the Jets is qualified to be the stalwart on the PK, the one guy Paul Maurice unfailingly sends over the boards when they’re down a man?
It could be Joel Armia. The lanky Finn recorded four shorthanded goals last year, including a highlight-reel effort against the New Jersey Devils.
Not all of Armia’s penalty kills had this picturesque ending, but few players on the team were as good as he was at hemming the opposition in their own zone while down a man. Fans will no doubt recall the time he killed most of a power play on his own in the opening game of the 2016-17 season against Carolina by pinning the puck to the end wall and refusing to be moved.
Fans may also recall, however, that Armia was scratched the next game against Minnesota in favor of Chris Thorburn and Alexander Burmistrov. For Armia to be an effective penalty kill stalwart, he does have to actually play.
He also has to stay healthy. His four shorthanded goals came in just 57 games, as his season was hindered by injury troubles.
Whatever Armia does, however, he can’t kill penalties by himself. He needs to have the right linemates. There need to be the right systems in place. And when shots get through, as they will, someone needs to stop them.
Your Most Important Penalty Killer
The old adage, “your goaltender has to be your best penalty killer” has been repeated ad nauseam, but it may explain the Jets’ PK woes. After all, their goalies haven’t been their best anything most of the time since the team returned.
Last year, the Jets’ two principle goaltenders combined for an embarrassing .905 save percentage. It gets substantially worse if you throw in Ondrej Pavelec’s body of work. Connor Hellebuyck’s shorthanded save percentage ranked 36th in the NHL.
Hellebuyck is still at the age, however, where a year’s age means a year of development. He could easily improve this season, and in fact, it would be surprising if he didn’t. That alone would help address the Jets’ woeful penalty kill.
Steve Mason should help the Jets’ goaltending in general but, worryingly, his save percentage on the PK was actually worse than Hellebuyck’s last year. On the other hand, in his first year with the Flyers, he didn’t allow a goal against on the PK. So he has it in him to be better. He’ll need to be.
Aggressive or Lazy?
Typically you can slot penalties into one of these two categories. Sometimes, if you’re Dustin Byfuglien, you can get penalties for hitting too hard. Mostly, however, penalties fall into one of these two distinctions: aggressive or lazy.
The Jets’ big acquisition on defense, Dmitry Kulikov, may be more inclined to the latter. His 26 PIMs last year (which put him in the same category as such goons as Connor McDavid and Patrik Laine) were all minors, but he has been disciplined for his hits in the past and plays an undeniably hard-nosed style.
Matt Hendricks tends to take a lot of penalties, but frankly, I don’t expect him to see much ice time, even if some Jets fans were very worried about his acquisition.
Perhaps the biggest thing keeping the Jets in the penalty box, however, is also the toughest to shake: their reputation. Anyone who follows the Jets regularly has seen the way the referees handle players in Jets colors. Sometimes it feels as if there are two sets of rules at work.
There’s little the Jets can do about how they’re perceived by NHL officials in the short run, except give them as few reasons as possible to penalize them. What they can do is make sure they’re prepared to kill off the barrage of penalties that seem to come their way every year.
Are they prepared? Only time will tell, but if the Jets want to see playoff hockey this year they’d better be.