They weren’t together at the beginning of the season, but perhaps they should have been, because the Winnipeg Jets’ new-look top line is beginning to shine.
New Look, Better Results
The combination of Kyle Connor, Mark Scheifele, and Patrik Laine was born out of necessity more than anything. After second-line centre Bryan Little suffered a serious injury as the result of taking a Nikolaj Ehlers slap shot to the side of the head, head coach Paul Maurice moved the struggling Blake Wheeler away from Scheifele and into Little’s role, flanking the captain with Ehlers on the left and Jack Roslovic on the right.
That line has had its moments and Wheeler has won 55.56 percent (30/54) of his draws since moving into the role, but it’s the new top trio that’s really excelling.
Over the past four games, they’ve combined for five goals and seven assists. Connor has one goal and two assists, Scheifele has three goals and two assists, and Laine has a goal and three assists.
Analytics expert Andrew Berkshire noted Scheifele is taking more shots from the slot and making more passes to the slot since the split, and that Scheifele has seen his “involvement in creating scoring chances go from 6.53 per 20 minutes played at even-strength to 10.9.” (From ‘Breaking up once-dynamic duo correct move for Jets,’ Winnipeg Free Press, 11/15/2019.)
Chemistry Is Starting to Come
In their second game together, it was clear the three had potential. They were by far the best line in the Jets’ 4-0 loss to the Colorado Avalanche, firing 14 shots on Adam Werner, who made 40 saves in his NHL debut.
The trio didn’t get down on themselves after the 22-year-old stymied them, and had a breakout, seven-point performance in the Jets’ 4-3 victory over the Florida Panthers on Thursday. Head coach Paul Maurice said post-game the chemistry is starting to come.
“They’ve been close to that for a couple of games,” the bench boss said Thursday. “We’ve liked them and they look like they’re starting to get a rhythm. I’m give that line a little bit more room for some passes… they’re just starting to get in sync and just figure out the ones they should shoot and the ones they should pass.”
All Three Players Pulling Their Weight
None of the three are guilty of shirking responsibility like the lazy guy in a group project. Each player is contributing their fair share to success.
The line’s success is due in part to Laine’s continued development into an all-around player. Laine’s showing, once again, he’s a prolific passer (he showed that late last season on a line with Scheifele and Wheeler) and leads the team with 14 assists.
His ability to dish the puck, as well as his burgeoning sense of awareness, was evident when Laine — who signed a two-year “prove yourself” bridge deal less than a week before the regular season began — set Scheifele up for a gimme with a no-look backhand pass to break a 2-2 third-period deadlock.
“He goes to the right spots. When you have a dangerous shot like that and he’s looking for a pass, I think it shows his game is growing,” Scheifele said of Laine. “He’s looking for it, but he’s always in the right spots.”
The line’s success is also due in part to Scheifele’s bonafide superstar status and sturdy 200-foot game. The centre is strong on the puck and dogged in everything he does and it’s paying dividends. The turnover he forced below the goal line on the Jets’ second goal against the Panthers shows how complete a player he is; his overtime winner versus the Dallas Stars shows how scintillating his shot can be and why he’ll be a point-per-game guy for the foreseeable future.
Last but not least, the line’s success is due in part to Connor’s consistency, great hands, and the killer instinct that led to 30-goal seasons in 2017-18 and 2018-19 and earned him a lucrative seven-year extension in late September.
Whether he’s tallying assists or scoring dagger goals — he did the latter in the line’s debut against the Vancouver Canucks on Nov. 8, potting a beauty on a breakaway — he looks dangerous and confident.
Top Line Success Could Go a Long Way for Jets
Nothing has come easily for the Jets this season even though they sit third in the Central Division; their top guns were inconsistent, as was the team as a whole, through their first 15 games.
Eight of the Jets’ 11 wins have been by just one goal. If the top line continues to trend upward, the team’s margins of victory going forward could be a bit wider, a bit more often.