For a good, long while there, it seemed as though the Winnipeg Jets were going to be able to get away with this whole defense-by-committee thing. Despite an off-season in which Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot departed, and despite the unexpected loss of Dustin Byfuglien, the Jets were managing to stay afloat in the difficult Central Division. Sure, the under-the-hood numbers weren’t always pretty, but on the scoresheet and in the standings, the blueline and the Jets team defense as a whole had been greater than the sum of its parts.
A good measure of thanks, of course, was due to Connor Hellebuyck. Through the early part of the season, the Jets netminder had been among the cream of the crop when it comes to the league’s crease contingent. His numbers were exceptional, he was stealing games with regularity and he earned high praise. Around these parts, we said he was the Vezina Trophy frontrunner in early December. When we did our mid-season awards voting, Hellebuyck finished first in Vezina voting by a mile, a full 15 voting points clear of any other candidate
It’s true, too, that Hellebuyck still has five-a-side numbers commensurate with some of the league’s best keepers. Entering action Monday, there are 43 goaltenders who have played at least 1,000 minutes at 5-on-5, and of those keepers, Hellebuyck ranks eight in save percentage (.929), 12th in high-danger SP (.841) and eighth in goals saved above average per 60 minutes (.34). Then again, it’s also true that Hellebuyck’s numbers have been waning in recent weeks. Among the 40 goaltenders with at least 300 minutes played at 5-on-5 since mid-December, Hellebuyck ranks 32nd in SP (.906) and GSAA (minus-0.35) and 27th in high-danger SP (.796).
To suggest that’s any fault of the Jets keeper, however, would be to entirely ignore the root of the issue.
For instance, across the full season, Hellebuyck’s 32.9 shots against and 8.8 high-danger shots against per 60 minutes at fives are the sixth- and seventh-highest marks among the 1,000-minute netminders. Only seven netminders have a high expected goals against rate, as well. Additionally, it should be noted that during this time when Hellebuyck’s numbers are on the decline, only seven goaltenders have had a higher expected goals against at five-a-side over the past month-plus timeframe. Only nine have faced a greater number of high-danger shots against. And that he’s been under that kind of duress with regularity speaks to the real issue in Winnipeg: the dam that has been deteriorating all season has finally broken.
To be sure, some level of defensive deficiency was always expected of these Jets. That’s the harsh but inevitable reality when a team loses several key cogs on its blueline. But what we’ve seen as the season has worn on is a team that presents opportunities to the opposition at an alarming rate. Anecdotally, there are obvious examples. One needs look no further than the past two games, during which the Jets have suffered a combined 12-3 drubbing at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Chicago Blackhawks.
In Friday’s game against the Lightning – who were, as the Blackhawks two nights later, on the second half of a back-to-back – Tampa Bay had the game well in hand after three goals successive goals to close out the first frame. Included were tallies on a 2-on-1, a 2-on-0 and an inside drive by Anthony Cirelli on which he was hardly challenged by Mark Scheifele. On Sunday, defensive gaffes were again the story. The Blackhawks opened the scoring on a play in which Alex Nylander simply disappeared behind coverage and was left all alone to tuck one home. The game-winner was scored when David Kampf was able to shrug off Jets defenseman Anthony Bitetto to slide home a loose puck. Later, Patrick Kane registered his 1,000th point on a three-way passing play that saw Brandon Saad all alone to tap one past Hellebuyck.
If the lowlight-reel level defending that has been displayed doesn’t do it, a dive into the 5-on-5 numbers of coach Paul Maurice's club provides evidence similar to the eye test. The Jets’ possession rates have steadily declined, as have the shots rates. Meanwhile, while the expected goals rate has remained flat, the expected goals against rate continues to rise. Across their past 10 games, Winnipeg’s expected goals percentage at 5-on-5 is an ugly 40.9 percent. Only the Columbus Blue Jackets (40.1) have been worse. And that low percentage is the result of a Jets team that has given up chances at an alarming rate. No team is giving up more high-danger chances against over their past 10 games than Winnipeg, who are serving up 14.7 per 60 minutes at fives.
In large part due to points the Jets banked in the early season, though, Winnipeg woke up Monday a wild-card contender, three points out of the final spot with two games in hand. In all likelihood, that’s where the Jets will remain for the remainder of the campaign. But if Winnipeg has any designs on doing anything more than simply sneaking in the backdoor and becoming first-round playoff fodder, the roster’s defensive shortcomings will need to be addressed. If they’re not, this seems destined to be a season in which a franchise that is two campaigns removed from an appearance in the Western Conference final and was ousted in Round One last season takes another step in the wrong direction.
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