It was a minor tweak that had major results. And it also confirmed what a lot of people outside Manitoba have been saying for the last little while. And that is that the Winnipeg Jets are blessed with more talent and depth at forward than any other team in the NHL.
For the Jets’ final game of a seven-game road trip Monday night, coach Paul Maurice switched his top two centers, moving Mark Scheifele to the unit with Kyle Connor and Nikolaj Ehlers, and Pierre-Luc Dubois to the line with Paul Stastny and Blake Wheeler. What ensued was a 5-1 win over the Calgary Flames that was dominant and decisive, with all four lines making an impact on the scoresheet and all five goals coming at 5-on-5.
It was the kind of move that displayed Maurice’s coaching acumen, but also reminded us that a coach can only be as good as the players he employs. And moves like that underline just how difficult it is to defend against the Jets because what they can do with their lines creates all sorts of matchup problems for their opponents. Scheifele has 24 points on the road this season in 20 games, which leads all NHL players. Ehlers has 20 in the same number of road games. The Jets have six forwards who have 10 or more goals this season, which ties them with the Colorado Avalanche for tops in the league in that category. Mason Appleton will join that group with his next goal. Six of the 12 Jets' forwards were drafted and developed by the organization.
The Jets’ third line of Adam Lowry between Andrew Copp and Appleton – all homegrown Jets – has been consistent and productive. And Maurice is unafraid to use his fourth line of Nate Thompson between Mathieu Perreault and Trevor Lewis, as evidenced by the fact that he deployed it against the Flames’ top unit with Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau for faceoffs in the defensive zone. Maurice was not willing to give his opponents bulletin-board material by acknowledging he has the best forward group in the NHL, but he did give it some very high praise indeed. “This would be the first bench that I’ve run in 25 years that…has a spectrum of talent and grit,” Maurice said. “It’s a pretty good group and I think it’s getting better.”
And while the top two lines are getting all the attention, Maurice maintained that the success actually begins with his three fourth-liners. They have a combined 37 years and 2,164 games of NHL experience and two Stanley Cups, both from Lewis. Two of the three players on the line make just $750,000. “We have a lot of different looking players here that mesh well together,” Maurice said. “The Lowry line has scored an awful lot of goals for us lately and it’s a checking, more physical line. And then you have the next two lines as a hybrid in some ways, we’ve got a physical player or a bigger man on each of the next two offensive lines. I guess what I’m trying to say is that there are a lot of pieces now that are moveable because they have played together for a little while.”
That’s not to say the Jets are perfect. They give up a lot of shots, a lot of good scoring chances and a good number of goals. In fact, Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck has faced more shots 5-on-5 than any other goaltender in the NHL and if that trend continues, it will be the second straight season that has happened. Last season, he was at the top of that list by more than 300 shots. But he won the Vezina Trophy in 2019-20 and after a spotty start to the season, has been razor-sharp of late.
One of those games where the Jets weren’t that good was Saturday night in a 4-2 loss to the Flames when the top two lines failed to hit the scoresheet and the Scheifele line was on for two even-strength goals against. That was essentially what prompted the line shuffle. “You have two skilled, fast guys in (Ehlers) and (Connor), so you’ve got to keep your speed going, let them get going and then get roaming around in the offensive zone,” Scheifele said. “And then when you play with (Wheeler) and (Stastny), they’re both such smart players, so you just make the simple plays over and over and over, and that’s how we get success. So there are two very different lines, but obviously four very talented players than you’re playing with. It’s fun no matter who you’re playing with.”