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  • Central Division Trade Deadline Outlook - Winnipeg Jets

    Giles Ferrell

    Continuing on the Central Division series, we stop in and check on the Winnipeg Jets. The Jets have been back and forth with Nashville on first place in the Central Division, as of Wednesday the Jets are currently the outright holders of the division's top spot.


    Helping us examine the Jets and where they are at with two and a half weeks to the trade deadline is Murat Ates of The Athletic Winnipeg.


    Q: After all these long years of below average goaltending, the Jets finally have something going for them in goal with Connor Hellebuyck. What has been the key to his success?


    A: There are two keys to Connor Hellebuyck's success this season. First, his track record through college, the AHL, and his NHL rookie season suggests a player who was a great bet to bounce back after a poor 2016/17 NHL season. He had simply been too good at too many different levels.


    Second, Hellebuyck took care of everything he could control this offseason. Most notably, he started working with Adam Francilia, the goaltending coach who Hellebuyck credits for changing the way he moves.


    “Having him has absolutely changed my game,” Hellebuyck told The Athletic in October. “He taught me how the body should move and react. I’m way more in control and look the same when I’m moving as when I’m set."


    Q: Mark Schiefele was averaging a point per game when he went down at the end of December. How have the Jets been able to survive without him?


    A: We have talked about the Jets' superlative depth at The Athletic since we launched in Winnipeg this season. Before Scheifele's injury, Winnipeg had NHL-quality forwards like Shawn Matthias and Marko Dano watching from the press box and Jack Roslovic, who turned 21 in January, tearing up the AHL.


    In my deep dive into Mark Scheifele's impact, I advocated for Roslovic's call-up and the rookie has taken Scheifele's spot in the high slot on the power play and recently displaced Kyle Connor from the Jets' top line.


    Meanwhile, Blake Wheeler has somehow made the shift to first line centre more or less seamlessly. Despite playing out of position with a rookie (Kyle Connor at first, Roslovic recently) on his left wing and sophomore Patrik Laine on his right, Wheeler's line has sawed off tough opposition with 49.8 percent of the shot attempts and exactly 50 percent of the high danger scoring chances since January 1st.


    Winnipeg's new top line has also been lucky - both via their 10.1% shooting percentage and Hellebuyck's .937 save percentage - and have outscored their opposition 8-5 at even strength.I'm not at the point where I would want Wheeler to stay at centre when everyone is healthy but given the youth of his linemates and the competition they face, Wheeler has acquitted himself very well as Winnipeg's top line centreman.


    Finally, I can't say enough good things about the Jets' "second" line of Mathieu Perreault, Bryan Little, and Nikolaj Ehlers. They've played more even strength minutes than Wheeler's line has since Scheifele went down and they've killed it - as a trio, they're above 60% in all of shot attempts, high danger scoring chances and goals for at 5-on-5.


    Depth makes itself known in many ways and one of them is having a second line as good as this one is.


    Q: What happened to Dustin Byfuglien? Should we be concerned?


    A: I looked at Dustin Byfuglien's 5-on-5 numbers not too long ago and found that his on-ice shot attempts for and against have actually both increased this season. His on-ice high danger scoring chances - both for and against - have decreased, but only slightly.


    The big difference? Byfuglien has been a little less zealous with his forays deep into the offensive zone. Tyler Dellow, a columnist at The Athletic, recently shared that Byfuglien took 73 shots from below the offensive zone face-off dots in 80 games last season. This year, he's shooting from that far in roughly half as often - he has just 19 shots from below the dots in 41 games played.


    In short: Byfuglien is gambling less at 5-on-5 but giving up less the other way too. On the Jets' power play (ranked No. 2 in the NHL), Byfuglien is shooting exactly as often this season as last. He's fine; the points will come.


    Q: Are the Jets actually going to be buyers at the trade deadline? If so, what holes do they need to fill?


    A: Winnipeg has an extremely unique opportunity at this season's trade deadline - a high number of value contracts and more cap space available than they're likely to have again.


    I believe GM Kevin Cheveldayoff knows this and is ready to go shopping - Elliotte Friedman has Winnipeg looking for a left-handed defenseman while Darren Dreger recently told TSN 1290 that the Jets are in the hunt for high end forwards.


    Whether this means someone like Mike Hoffman (who I sincerely think Ottawa should keep), Rick Nash, or dark-horse favourite Mats Zuccarello, I'm not sure. The key is that Winnipeg is uniquely positioned as both a) good and b) cap-space rich so this is the season for the Jets to be buyers.


    Q: Is there belief that the Jets can hold off the Preds and Blues for the Central Division title or is it more just hope they can get home ice in round one of the playoffs?


    A: Winnipeg boasts the Central Division's most points (71) and its best goal differential (+32) but Nashville and St. Louis are both hot on its heels.


    One factor in Winnipeg's favour regard clinching its division is that it has more games left at home than either of those two teams - the Jets play 17/29 their remaining games at home while the Predators play 15/32 and the Blues play 13/28 of their remaining games at home.


    Winnipeg can take one more step in securing the division this Friday night vs. St. Louis in what is expected to be Mark Scheifele's first game back from injury.


    Whether or not they can claim the Central Division, the Jets are a great bet to start this year's playoffs at home. Here in Winnipeg, that's a very exciting thought.


    Thanks to Murat Ates for contributing to this post. You can find his work at The Athletic Winnipeg and he can be followed on Twitter @WPGMurat.

    Previous posts in this Central Division series:

    Chicago Blackhawks

    Nashville Predators

    St. Louis Blues


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