The Winnipeg Jets have been no stranger to disadvantage this season with an ever-growing list of injured players. The gaps in the roster have caused a vast lack of aggression in the defensive zone. Mathieu Perreault is the most recent player to join Dmitry Kulikov, Bryan Little, and Mark Letestu on the injury list after a game against the Philadelphia Flyers left him with a concussion. Missing these core players has left the Jets needing to adapt — and quick.
The absence of strong players due to injury, and the continual (and still indefinite) inability for Dustin Byfuglien to come back on the bench has left the Jets scrambling for control during the game. However, they keep their heads high and their spirits up regardless of the issues that arise. Even after a humbling defeat against the Detroit Red Wings, the Jets maintain a positive headspace.
“We come in here, we have a good practice, we laugh, we tell some jokes, and we stay positive. That’s what keeps it light in here. That’s what keeps it fun. And that’s what keeps it exciting to come to the rink every day,” Nikolaj Ehlers said of their chipper demeanor at practice after the disorienting 5-2 loss in Detroit last Friday. (from ‘Full-of-fun Jets enjoying themselves in a different way this season,’ National Post, 12/14/2019) While previous years have seen the Jets become off-kilter after a loss, this season they have been actively working to change that.
A New Identity on the Ice
Since starting out the season on a rough note, the Jets have made cognitive decisions to change the way they play. Blake Wheeler started the initiative by reviewing thousands of hours of game footage from his previous seasons to understand where he can improve. Along with improvement from individual players, the Jets have taken on a new, full-ice approach to the way they play.
The Jets’ new approach has the team playing in each of the three zones with purpose, rather than playing the dichotomy of “offensive zone” and “defensive zone”. By using each player in a system rather than as individuals, the Jets are able to keep aggression in all three areas of the ice, giving them the advantage. Keeping control of the puck in the neutral zone has been a consistent struggle for the Jets, with passes repeatedly being intercepted. Instead of scrambling, the Jets are using the neutral zone as a place to gain momentum and traction.
Playing the neutral zone more often gives the Jets the ability to complete cross-ice passes and set up a play rather than charging into the offensive zone as individuals and scrambling to make a shot on net. Another strong advantage of using the neutral zone is that it allows the Jets to keep control of the game during line changes, a critical moment in most games.
During the recent game against the Red Wings, any observer could note the change in the Jets’ tactic and overall presence on the ice. The defense corps barricaded the blue line, forcing the Red Wings to break their formation and give away the puck in the Jets’ favour. The forward lines have been using the full ice, keeping control of the puck in the neutral zone, and regaining an advantageous offensive position before entering the offensive zone.
Blake Wheeler Leads by Example
The Jets started their rocky 2019-20 season with inconsistent, messy play and no defensive presence, making them rely heavily on goaltender Connor Hellebuyck and scrapping offensively to earn a win. Recently, to get away from their “scrap to win” identity on the ice, the Jets have taken on Wheeler’s “come to each game ready to play and be positive” mindset along with their new full-ice strategy. “[Winnipeg] is a blue collar town, and I try to have a little bit of that in my game every night. That’s what drives me trying to work every single night,” Wheeler said, in reference to his work ethic.
“Because Blake, as a guy in his prime now, has accepted the fact that we’ve got some things we’ve got to get better at and he’s been great at handling that, and he takes whatever role,” Paul Maurice said about Wheeler’s contribution to the team during the last few months. (from ‘Wheeler’s new line just fine,’ Winnipeg Sun, 11/18/2019)
New Strategy Brings Results
More control over the puck and a competitive presence in the neutral zone allows for more turnovers in the Jets’ favour, and more shots on goal. Their new technique slows opposing players down and avoids potential breakaways by securing the blue line. In doing this, they are able to start setting up their defensive corps long before the puck reaches the Jets’ net. Building on this strategy could bring a different energy to the coming battles that once left this team scrapping for control.
The Jets have gained new traction and momentum to close off the final games of 2019. These positive changes are giving them the opportunity to exceed expectations come the new year.