How much will Jets’ defense improve after big offseason changes?

How much will Jets improve on defense after big offseason changes?
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Like plenty of other NHL teams, the Winnipeg Jets have been busy trying to improve their defense during this offseason. Rather than adding splashy free-agent defensemen, the Jets instead explored trades, landing Nate Schmidt and Brenden Dillon.

Maybe most crucially, they didn’t lose deeply underrated defenseman Dylan DeMelo to the Kraken expansion draft.

For what was a truly terrible Jets defense unit, that does make the offseason look like a big victory. Recently, The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun wondered if the Jets “won” the offseason (sub required).

If things work out the right way, the Jets could indeed be a lot better on defense. Will they actually be that much better, though? There are quite a few variables to consider — some big, some small — so let’s review some of the factors.

How much of Jets’ defensive struggles fall on Maurice?

For the past two seasons, the Jets have been jarringly bad on defense. Especially for a team with playoff (if not contending) aspirations.

By just about every underlying metric (shot share, expected goals, high-danger chances), the Jets were bad in 2020-21, and abysmal in 2019-20.

During that time, the Jets subsisted off of two things: a) Connor Hellebuyck carrying an enormous burden, and b) talented forwards outscoring any remaining problems. That format worked enough on a survival level, but also left Winnipeg exposed. Just look at that sweep at the hands of the Canadiens. The Jets didn’t just lose; they looked hopeless against a team with far better structure.

Over the years, I’ve often wondered: “How good of a coach is Paul Maurice, really?” From a perspective of actions alone, it sure doesn’t seem like Jets management is too concerned. Maurice has been with the Jets since 2013-14, and has rarely been out of a coaching job at the NHL level since 1995.

Lately, the question shifted slightly: how much should we blame Maurice’s system, and how much it boils down to personnel?

[Power Rankings: Best players still available in 2021 NHL Free Agency]

In losing Jacob Trouba, Dustin Byfuglien, and even Ben Chiarot, the Jets have still been stumbling to recover defensively.

To some degree, tactics point to Maurice asking as little as possible from his defensemen, while forcing his forwards to carry the load. Take a look at Jack Han’s breakdown, and you’ll see that the Jets just about command their defensemen to be innocent bystanders.

So, lately, forwards have asked to cover for defensemen in transition, and Hellebuyck’s asked to clean up a ton of mistakes. It’s largely been an untenable situation. With these offseason changes, Maurice and the Jets won’t have as many excuses about a sometimes clueless-looking defensive scheme?

But will they actually be better, at least in a way that matters? Let’s delve deeper.

Jets defense: additions, who needs to get better, and more

The Jets’ two big defensive additions are very different players, and come in with very different hopes.

If the hope is indeed to ask Jets defensemen to take few chances, and seldom make mistakes, then Brenden Dillon could fit like a glove.

On the other hand, the Jets are hoping that Nate Schmidt can shed a disturbing 2020-21 season, and be more like the dynamic defenseman we saw in Vegas.

That’s where the Maurice questions start to get pretty interesting.

For Schmidt to thrive, the Jets will probably need to allow him to “freelance” a bit. Or a lot. That style brings the risk-reward ratio that can sometimes leave coaches clenching their teeth.

In recent years, both the Canucks and Jets struggled to put their players, particularly defensemen, in situations to succeed. Meanwhile, the Golden Knights were able to get more out of a player like Schmidt.

[2021 NHL Free Agency Tracker]

Again, though — maybe it’s about personnel. Dillon gives Maurice a safe player with positive defensive results; Schmidt could really help the Jets in transition, and to get more offense from defense. Yet, the bad could heavily outweigh the good.

Frankly, Schmidt isn’t the only “reclamation project” for the Jets defense, either. If you look at the underlying numbers, Josh Morrissey‘s game has crashed since he lost Trouba as a defense partner.

How much will Jets improve on defense after big offseason changes? WAR-Josh
via Evolving Hockey

Yikes. It would be one thing if you could explain Morrissey’s struggles away by the aging curve. Merely 26-years-old, that argument doesn’t hold much water.

Could those new additions help Morrissey get back on track, one way or another? That’s a tough question to answer.

Underhanded? Some ‘addition by subtraction?’

Interestingly, the Jets may present some subtle tactical challenges from a “handedness” perspective. Look at their roster, and you won’t see many right-handed defensemen. Even some players comfortable playing on the right side are left-handed shots.

NHL teams chased right-handed defensemen this offseason, often to a degree of self-sabotage.

Instead of obessing over handedness, Adam Oates-style, the Jets sought sheer improvement on defense.

Darkly, there might be some “addition by subtraction.” Not only did the Jets add potentially better players on defense, they also lost some blueliners who might have been anchors. Derek Forbort and Tucker Poolman are out of the mix. Between the additions of Schmidt and Dillon, and maybe some more opportunities for Sami Niku, Logan Stanley, and Ville Heinola, there could be more room for improvement.

Small two-way losses?

While not glaring, the Jets did lose some defensive value among their forwards, however.

At 33, Mathieu Perreault‘s in the range of diminishing returns. Even so, he’s been a diamond in the rough for quite some time.

Hockey Viz Perreault
Via HockeyViz.com

Mason Appleton generates similar results — positive defense, middling offense — and the Jets lost Appleton to the Kraken.

By no means is that the end of the world, mind you. For one thing, the all-defense addition of Riley Nash could mitigate some of those setbacks. The “eye test” fooled people into thinking too highly about Pierre-Luc Dubois‘ two-way prowess, but it wouldn’t hurt if he could settle in with the Jets a bit more, either. (And, hey, they didn’t lose Paul Stastny.)

Perhaps most importantly, the forward group might be an area that improves if Maurice integrate those Jets defensive additions in a beneficial way.

For years, there have been rumblings that the Jets’ star forwards struggle more defensively than many realize. The questions bubble up often enough that Maurice blew a gasket when asked about Blake Wheeler‘s so-so underlying metrics.

Could the Jets get more from their forwards, defensively speaking, by asking them to do less? It’s an interesting thought.

Hellebuyck or bust?

There’s one more factor that could offset even an improved Jets defense.

What if Connor Hellebuyck falls off after the Jets leaned on him so much, for so long?

Since 2016-17, Hellebuyck easily leads all goalies in games played with 289. (Sergei Bobrovsky ranks second with 271 GP.) During that span, Hellebuyck’s the only goalie to make 8,000 saves. Only four goalies even faced 8,000 shot attempts since 2016-17:

  1. Hellebuyck – 8,802 shot attempts.
  2. Frederik Andersen – 8,466
  3. Andrei Vasilevskiy – 8,110
  4. Bobrovsky – 8,043

Wear-and-tear can be a difficult thing to gauge with goalies. Look at Vasilevskiy. When he first became a starter, he admitted that fatigue became a factor for him. Yet, he’s been an incredible workhorse during the Lightning’s repeat Stanley Cup runs.

Like 27-year-old Vasilevskiy, at least Hellebuyck is in his prime years at age 28.

Personally, there’s some concern that teams can break down a goalie like a less extreme version of NFL teams giving running backs too many “touches.”

That’s of greater concern for Hellebuyck because, unlike Vasilevskiy, those minutes haven’t been easy. There’s at least some risk that the Jets might improve on defense right as Hellebuyck might hit a wall.

With that in mind, it’s a bit unfortunate that the Jets didn’t poke around a bit more for a backup they could lean on. Maybe it won’t matter — the Lightning repeated while it was easy to forget that Curtis McElhinney was even around — but it’s at least a mild gamble.

Overall, the Jets figure to be better on defense

For all of that hand-wringing, the Jets absolutely deserve credit for improving their defense.

It’s up to Paul Maurice to make better meals with what sure looks like a higher-quality list of ingredients. To make it all work, they’ll need to be smart — and more than a little bit lucky.

 

 

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James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Will Jets, Scheifele learn right lessons from sweep, suspension?

Will Jets, Scheifele learn right lessons from sweep, suspension?
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No NHL team enjoys losing a playoff series. Even after shockingly sweeping the Oilers, getting swept only deepened the wounds for the Winnipeg Jets.

But with setbacks like the Jets suffering that sweep vs. the Canadiens, and Mark Scheifele‘s four-game suspension, there can be some long-term silver linings. Unless, you know, you fail to learn the right lessons.

[NBC 2021 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Ultimately, we’ll get a better idea how the Jets process this sweep by observing their actual moves in free agency, the 2021 NHL Draft, and the Seattle Kraken expansion process. And, after Scheifele sits out one more game from that suspension, maybe we’ll see him avoid another hit like the one on Jake Evans.

(As Scheifele himself would agree, he’s not exactly racking up hits as if he’s Winnipeg’s answer to Matt Martin.)

But, considering some of the reactions to that Jets sweep, it’s unclear if they truly processed why it happened. Scheifele’s comments about his suspension don’t send the greatest messages, either.

Scheifele critiques Department of Player Safety for suspension

Echoing previous reactions, Scheifele again stated that he believed his four-game suspension was “excessive.” He insisted that he was merely trying to negate a goal, and was backchecking. Scheifele emphasized that he did “regret the outcome” of Jake Evans getting injured, but defended his hit and his “clean record.”

During Wednesday’s post-sweep press conference, Scheifele provided doozy of a quote about it.

” … Obviously, it’s crushing that my season was ended by that, and I wasn’t able to play in this series,” Scheifele said. “I thought I was going to try to be shut down by Phillip Danault, and (instead) it was the Department of Player Safety that shut me down.”

Ultimately, Scheifele’s takeaways aren’t so alarming, as he’s not someone who might blur the line like, say, a Nazem Kadri or Tom Wilson. If there are any additional reactions, maybe it was a fine Scheifele was trying to avoid.

But what about other shockwaves after the Jets come to grips with that sweep by the Canadiens?

No accident

Frankly, it might be a little naive to merely pass off the Canadiens sweeping the Jets as the byproduct of Scheifele being suspended.

Beyond the argument that the Canadiens outplayed the Jets in Game 1 (with Scheifele available until the last minute), it’s difficult to look at the lopsided on-ice play and argue that Scheifele would have tipped the scales.

By certain underlying metrics, the Canadiens dominated the Jets in historic ways during this sweep.

[NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs 2021 Second Round schedule, TV info]

In other words, when the Jets pulled off their sweep of the Oilers, you could strain an argument that it was a “close sweep.” That really wasn’t the case when the Canadiens swept the Jets.

To reiterate, we won’t really know how Jets management views this sweep until we see what moves they make during the offseason. But the players’ reactions are … interesting.

Scheifele, for instance, slammed the media for doubting the Jets late this season. Meanwhile, Adam Lowry‘s viewpoint was, uh, typical? Empty-caloried?

The real questions Jets should be asking after sweep

Look, Scheifele and his teammates can use criticisms as fuel. Print out those critiques and get that extra motivation for future workouts.

Management, however, should be soul-searching. Frankly, the Jets squandered some great seasons from Connor Hellebuyck, and you really never know how many elite seasons you’ll get from even great goalies.

Uncomfortably, the Jets’ underlying numbers have been troubling since at least the second half of the 2018-19 season. Generally speaking, they’ve leaned heavily on a mix of Hellebuyck and shooting luck (thanks to some talented forwards) to win games. That formula’s worked well enough to get into the playoffs, but Montreal’s dominant play inspires doubt about Winnipeg’s ceiling.

So, again, they should be asking tough questions.

Should they replace Paul Maurice?

For multiple seasons, the Jets have been mediocre, if not outright bad, from an analytics standpoint.

Is that all Maurice’s fault? That’s unlikely, but it’s fair to wonder if the Jets might benefit from fresh ideas (Maurice has been behind the bench since they relocated to Winnipeg in 2013-14.)

The “fancy stats” are not the only troubling element with Maurice. In a February study of Winnipeg’s systems, Jack Han wrote about disjointed tactics leading to discontent. Let’s fire off some larger questions:

  • Did the Jets fail to adjust their tactics in that sweep vs. the Canadiens?
  • Is Maurice getting the most out of players? Were there unexplored avenues to integrate Pierre-Luc Dubois more seamlessly?
  • Should Maurice absorb some blame for a stagnant Jets power play?

Can management improve things?

A natural defense of Maurice with the Jets — and really, throughout his surprisingly voluminous coaching career — is that he’s coaching a small market team. There’s not a whole lot Winnipeg can do about that.

But another defense is that the Jets’ defense never really recovered from losing Dustin Byfuglien, Jacob Trouba, and Tyler Myers.

Now, you can argue that maybe a different coach would find different (maybe better?) solutions to the Jets’ personnel issues on defense. Let’s assume Maurice is optimizing things perfectly for a second, though.

Can GM Kevin Cheveldayoff give Maurice the tools needed for better future results? As Ryan Lambert discusses at EP Rinkside, it doesn’t look easy.

Yet, if it’s a lost cause, it really makes you wonder if the Jets are getting the most out of management and/or their coaching staff.

Can big names deliver more?

So, we touched on coaching and the front office. Time to finish with the third part of the blame game triumvirate: the players.

Scheifele spoke about players already part of the organization (either the Jets, or the Moose at the AHL level) getting better. Consider some circumstances, then.

  • Scheifele is still at or near his prime at age 28. Even if he doesn’t improve that backchecking, it’s unlikely the Jets will lose him at the end of a playoff series three years in a row.
  • Here’s something that might sneak up on you. Blake Wheeler is already 34. After a season of questions about his two-way play, Wheeler played well vs. the Oilers, but then went pointless during the Canadiens’ sweep of the Jets.
  • Again, Pierre-Luc Dubois did not impress, but he’s just 22. Dubois, Nikolaj Ehlers (25), and Kyle Connor (24) form the youngest part of the Jets’ core.
  • Hellebuyck is an absolute steal at a $6.167M AAV, and is in the meat of his prime at 28. Still, asking him to deliver at his current level, year after year, might be dangerous. Goalies simply aren’t easy to predict.
  • Can Josh Morrissey find his game after seemingly losing it since Jacob Trouba left town? There’s hope at 26, but fear considering his recent work. Especially since it’s not just a one-year slump.

 

Will Jets, Scheifele learn right lessons from sweep, suspension? Josh Morrissey player card
via Evolving Hockey

Yikes.

Whatever the answers might be, ask tough questions

So, what should the Jets do?

Again, that hinges on perspective. Can the Jets count on a rebound from top players, or is there something systemic keeping them from shining as much as they should? Is Kevin Cheveldayoff capable of improving things if issues don’t fall on Paul Maurice?

Ultimately, Jets ownership can determine how to respond to what should be a disturbing sweep. That might start with identifying it as a problem — rather than a mere bump in the road — in the first place.

JETS VS. CANADIENS series recaps (MTL completes sweep 4-0)

Game 1: Canadiens 5, Jets 3
Game 2: Canadiens 1, Jets 0
Game 3: Canadiens 5, Jets 1
Game 4: Canadiens 3, Jets 2 (OT)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Canadiens-Jets stream – Game 3 on NBCSN

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2020-21 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs continues with Sunday’s Game 3 matchup between the Montreal Canadiens and Winnipeg Jets. Canadiens-Jets stream coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Jets head to Montreal facing the prospect of an 0-3 series deficit against the Canadiens in Game 3. After dropping the opener and losing Mark Scheifele to four games due to a suspension, Winnipeg could not solve Carey Price in Game 2 and dropped a 1-0 decision.

Head coach Paul Maurice saw improvement on Friday, but it wasn’t enough.

“We feel we’ve got to make the same kind of improvement in Game 3, and that’s the big one,” Maurice said. “Obviously, a critical game for numbers, but also going into back-to-back. If we can make the same kind of improvement game over game, we’ve got a real good chance.”

Montreal enters Sunday on a five-game winning streak and have not trailed in any of those games. The last time that happened was the Kings’ Stanley Cup run in 2012.

“We’re really playing together. Everyone’s supporting the puck and coming back in the defensive zone,” said Canadiens defenseman Ben Chiarot. “There are easy outs all over the place. They have an aggressive forecheck. We’re doing a good job of supporting each other and defending well in our own zone. It’s a big key why we’re having success.”

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

WHAT: Winnipeg Jets at Montreal Canadiens
WHERE: Bell Centre
WHEN: Sunday, June 6, 6 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
ON THE CALL: Alex Faust, Dominic Moore
LIVE STREAM: 
You can watch the Canadiens-Jets stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

JETS VS. CANADIENS (MTL leads 2-0) series livestream link

Game 1: Canadiens 5, Jets 3
Game 2: Canadiens 1, Jets 0
Game 3: Sun. June 6: Jets at Canadiens, 6 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
Game 4: Mon. June 7: Jets at Canadiens, 8 p.m. ET (NHL Network)
*Game 5: Wed. June 9: Canadiens at Jets TBD
*Game 6: Fri. June 11: Jets at Canadiens TBD
*Game 7: Sun. June 13: Canadiens at Jets TBD

MONDAY’S NHL PLAYOFF SCHEDULE

Game 5: Bruins at Islanders, 6:30 p.m. ET (Series tied 2-2) – NBCSN (livestream)
Game 4:
Jets at Canadiens, 8 p.m. ET (MTL leads 2-0) – NHL Network (livestream)

Jets’ Scheifele, Maurice think four-game suspension is ‘excessive’

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Before Game 2 of Jets – Canadiens, Mark Scheifele and Paul Maurice reacted to Scheifele’s four-game suspension for his hit on Jake Evans. To little surprise, both Maurice and Scheifele called that suspension “excessive.”

Jake Evans did not need to be hospitalized. Nonetheless, he’s out indefinitely with a concussion.

Scheifele calls four-game suspension ‘excessive,’ talks about Evans hit

You can watch Mark Scheifele’s full 16-minute press conference regarding the hit on Evans and four-game suspension in the video above this post’s headline.

It begins around the 6-minute mark, as that’s where Scheifele called the four-game suspension “excessive.”

“I think it was pretty excessive,” Scheifele said of his four-game suspension. “I wasn’t expecting that, I was pretty shocked. But that’s [the NHL’s] decision.”

To start, though, Scheifele stated that Evans’ health matters “first and foremost.” Scheifele said he’s praying for Evans’ quick recovery.

Following that, Scheifele and media members drilled into some of the mechanics of the hit.

  • Scheifele repeatedly emphasized that his intention was to “negate a goal.”
  • He also noted multiple times that he was trying to get to the post to negate that Evans empty-netter.
  • One media member brought up that, from a stick positioning standpoint, it seemed like Scheifele eventually got ready to deliver the hit (or brace for impact) rather than go for the puck:
Scheifele Maurice four-game suspension excessive Evans
screenshot via NBC Sports

In discussing that suspension, Scheifele also pointed out that his “record proceeds” him.

  • He mentions that he doesn’t believe he’s received a charging penalty before. Scheifele notes that his priority is to prevent and score goals.
  • His point was that “the result sucks,” and that said he never injured someone before in his career.

Moving forward, Scheifele said he won’t appeal his four-game suspension. He said he didn’t want to be more of a distraction, and also wondered if an appeal would make any difference.

(Scheifele also responded to harassment of family members, calling it “unacceptable” and “gross.”)

Maurice reacts, and more

While it’s fair to wonder if Scheifele’s absence could swing the series, the forward believes his team can withstand the loss.

“We have tons of depth on our team. We have so many guys who can step up,” Scheifele said. “I have full faith in my team that I’ll be able to play a game again this year.”

In speaking about Scheifele’s four-game suspension, Paul Maurice also said it was excessive. He had resigned himself to losing Scheifele for two games, not four.

Beyond Scheifele, the Jets are dealing with injuries. Maurice considers Paul Stastny a game-time decision heading into Game 2 on Friday (7:30 p.m. ET; USA Network).

Unfortunately, Dylan DeMelo might be dealing with something that’s more than “day-to-day.”

Excessive, fair, or insufficient, that four-game suspension means that Scheifele cannot return to the Jets until Game 6 at the earliest.

JETS VS. CANADIENS (MTL leads 1-0) series livestream link

Game 1: Canadiens 5, Jets 3
Game 2: Fri. June 4: Canadiens at Jets, 7:30 p.m. ET (USA Network)
Game 3: Sun. June 6: Jets at Canadiens, 6 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
Game 4: Mon. June 7: Jets at Canadiens, 8 p.m. ET (NHL Network)
*Game 5: Wed. June 9: Canadiens at Jets TBD
*Game 6: Fri. June 11: Jets at Canadiens TBD
*Game 7: Sun. June 13: Canadiens at Jets TBD

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

‘He knows better’ – Canadiens, Jets react to Scheifele hit on Evans

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[UPDATE: Scheifele has been suspended for four games.]

After being taken off the ice on a stretcher, it’s not yet clear if Jake Evans will need to be hospitalized after a vicious Mark Scheifele hit. It’s clear that Jets and Canadiens players had opinions about the Scheifele hit on Evans from Game 1, even if some were more willing to share them than others.

Evans suffered a concussion and will be out indefinitely.

Jets, Canadiens react to Scheifele hit on Evans from Game 1

Of all the Scheifele – Evans hit reactions so far, Canadiens defenseman Joel Edmundson probably gave the boldest comment.

“It was a dirty hit. But the league’s going to take care of it,” Edmundson said, via ESPN’s Greg Wyshynski. “If he gets back in the series, we’re going to make his life miserable.”

Jesperi Kotkaniemi called the hit “disgusting,” but tried to stay measured with his overall response. Meanwhile, Brendan Gallagher said that Scheifele should “know better.”

Jets coach Paul Maurice started by saying that he hopes Jake Evans is OK. It might be notable that his defense of the hit was fairly muted.

JETS VS. CANADIENS series livestream link

Game 1: Canadiens 5, Jets 3
Game 2: Fri. June 4: Canadiens at Jets, 7:30 p.m. ET (USA Network)
Game 3: Sun. June 6: Jets at Canadiens, 6 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
Game 4: Mon. June 7: Jets at Canadiens, 8 p.m. ET (NHL Network)
*Game 5: Wed. June 9: Canadiens at Jets TBD
*Game 6: Fri. June 11: Jets at Canadiens TBD
*Game 7: Sun. June 13: Canadiens at Jets TBD

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.