Given the Winnipeg Jets’ potential, that the franchise has only one playoff berth over the past four NHL seasons is a sign the team has had its fair share of issues. Be it a lack of depth on the blueline, substandard goaltending or, up until last season, a mediocre attack, the Jets have had their shortcomings, to be sure.
If there’s one fault that has persisted throughout the past four campaigns, though, it’s Winnipeg’s inability to stay out of the penalty box. But the Jets, understanding the importance of staying on the right side of the on-ice law, are taking steps to correct that in training camp and they’re bringing in a ringer of sorts: former NHL referee Paul Devorski.
On Friday, Sportsnet’s Sean Reynolds reported that Jets coach Paul Maurice reached out to the league ahead of the season and asked for some additional help when it comes to teaching his squad how to stay out of the box, which led to Devorksi, a veteran of nearly 1,800 combined NHL regular season and playoff games who retired in 2015, coming to camp. The plan, per Reynolds, is to have Devorski oversee the team during battle drills and point out ways to avoid getting whistled.
It may sound like an odd move for the Jets, but considering they haven’t just been one of the league’s most penalized teams over that span, they’ve been the most penalized team, it’s almost a no-brainer to bring an official to camp to help straighten things out.
The Jets' seemingly perpetual parade to the penalty box began in the 2013-14 season when Winnipeg racked up 389 penalties, the fifth-most in the NHL. The following season, Winnipeg somehow found a way to commit more fouls, collecting a whopping 428 infractions, more than any other team. In 2015-16, the Jets reined it in — if you can even call it that — and were whistled 374 times, fourth-most in the league, before pulling it back a bit further last season, finishing fifth in the league with 350 penalties. That Winnipeg didn’t crack the 350-mark for a fourth-straight campaign could almost be cause for celebration.
All told, the Jets’ penalty problems saw them accrue 3,796 penalty minutes over the past four years, second only to the Philadelphia Flyers, but finishing second in that category doesn’t really tell the whole story. That’s because the rough-and-tumble Flyers had 11 more major penalties, nine more misconducts, five additional game misconducts and four match penalties. That more than accounts for the extra minutes, too, because when taking only minor penalties into account — holding, tripping, slashing and the like — the Jets were far and away the least disciplined team. Winnipeg took 1,344 minor penalties, an eye-popping 73 more than any other club, from 2013-14 to 2016-17.
As one would rightly assume, the Jets’ apparent penchant for penalties has lent itself to a ton of shorthanded play. In fact, across the past four seasons, Winnipeg has been shorthanded 1,156 times, 41 more than any other team over the same span. That’s bad news for Winnipeg, too, because it’s not as though the penalty kill has been the soundest aspect of their game.
Since 2013-14, the Jets’ shorthanded units have a success rate of 80.3 percent, which, league-wide, is the seventh-worst mark. And it’s the past couple of seasons where the Winnipeg has really been sunk on the penalty kill. In 2013-14 and 2014-15, the Jets’ penalty kill ranked 10th and 13th, respectively. Mediocre, sure, but still among the top half of the league. That changed in 2015-16 and 2016-17, however, as Winnipeg’s penalty-killing rates dropped below 80 percent in consecutive years and the Jets finished 25th and 26th in back-to-back campaigns. The collective result has been the league’s third-worst penalty kill over the past two seasons, one that has operated at a 77.9-percent success rate. Only the Ottawa Senators and Arizona Coyotes have been worse.
The Jets' penalty-killing problems can be attributed to more than the sheer volume of infractions, however. If the number of times a team has been shorthanded correlated perfectly with a poor penalty kill, then the Anaheim Ducks – who rank second in times shorthanded (1,115) over the past four years – wouldn’t also have managed to trot out the second-best penalty kill, one that has operated at 83.9 percent, over that span. Coaching is a factor, of course, but so is personnel. The loss of Michael Frolik, an excellent penalty killer, coincides with Winnipeg’s drop in success rate. His shorthanded effectiveness has been hard to replace, too. Likewise, it doesn’t help when Jets goaltenders have posted the ninth- and fifth-worst penalty-killing save percentages across the past two seasons.
Winnipeg has taken steps to improve the penalty-killing personnel, mind you. Matt Hendricks was brought in this off-season almost solely to help the shorthanded unit. Whether he can move the needle in the same way Frolik did might be a stretch, but he could at least add a minor boost. Defenseman Dmitry Kulikov was also brought in, and he’s got experience manning the penalty kill for the Florida Panthers and Buffalo Sabres over the past several seasons. Additionally, Steve Mason was brought aboard, and while his shorthanded save percentages aren’t glowing or even better than those of Connor Hellebuyck, it’s worth taking a shot on any addition that can boost a hapless penalty kill.
But even if the additions don’t help turn the Jets’ penalty kill around, the best option is staying out of the box entirely, and with a slashing crackdown underway, it’s well worth taking the time to find ways to cut the fat from the penalty ledger before things get out of hand this season. So, while some might consider bringing in Devorski an example of outside-the-box thinking, the Jets won’t mind — because that’s exactly where they want to be.
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