With so much parity in the NHL due to the cap system and a higher distribution of talent across the 31 franchises, it’s always easy to find reasonable comparables for any club. There’s always a team to emulate or a model to follow, and it’s informative to look back a season or two and seek out some much needed guidance or inspiration.
For the 14 clubs that missed the playoffs in 2017/18, it’s worth knowing who else missed the playoffs in previous seasons but bounced back their following season. It’s worth exploring how they did it, and if it’s at all possible to emulate their success. And with their elevation to contender status – largely due to a productive set of core players, scoring depth, good goaltending and a talented prospect pool – the Winnipeg Jets are currently providing a blueprint. And it’s a blueprint not only for teams that want to contend for a championship, but for those just trying to make the playoffs after missing out the season before.
McDavid isn’t too far off here. In 2015/16 the Jets finished last in their division with a 35-39-8 record, good for 78 points. That’s an identical point total to the 2017/18 Oilers who finished 63-40-6, 12th the West and 6th in the Pacific. Worth noting that while the point totals were the same, the Oilers had a slightly worse goal differential finishing -29.
But I think we get young Connor’s main point here. The Jets went from last in their division to being one of the best in the league, making it to the conference finals in the 2018 playoffs. And along the way they created a template for other franchises to follow.
What’s interesting is that while the Jets are currently in a much better position for long term success, they did at one point did share some similarities to the disastrous 2017/18 Oilers.
The first thing that jumps out is the poor goaltending each team had to deal with at even-strength (5v5). Both clubs were right around the league average when it came to adjusted Corsi For% (a proxy for possession) as well as the rate of goals for per hour. What really sunk them were their goaltenders, as both the 2015/16 Jets and the 2017/18 Oilers ranked 23rd overall in their respective seasons when it came to the team save percentage at even-strength.
The next thing that jumps out are the special teams. We know how bad the Oilers were in 2017/18 on the powerplay and the penalty kill. What’s interesting is that the Jets were just as pitiful.
In 2015/16, the Jets finished the season with a poor scoring rate of 5.25 goals for per hour on the powerplay (5v4), ranking 28th in the league. And on the penalty kill (4v5), they allowed 7.84 goals against per hour, also 28th in the league, thanks in large part to a 23rd ranked team save percentage and the third highest rate of shots and scoring chances against per hour. This had to have been maddening for the coaches as they seemed to have an okay handle at even-strength, finishing the season with a 51.0% adjusted Corsi For percentage and a 50.0% share of the goals when five-on-five.
The Jets still had issues with goaltending and special teams the following season in 2016/17. The overall point total improved, but it could’ve been significantly better had their goaltending at even-strength been closer to league average and not 27th overall. Scoring goals again wasn’t an issue in 2016/17 for the Jets as they scored at a rate of 2.42 goals per hour, good for 11th in the league. But they just didn’t get strong enough goaltending.
And special teams continued to be a problem in 2016/17 for the Jets. They finished 23rd overall on the powerplay, scoring 5.79 goals per hour. And they finished 25th in the league on the penalty kill allowing 7.56 goals against per hour. Even though the Jets moved closer to league average when it came to the rate of shots and scoring chances against when shorthanded, goaltending again was a problem as the club finished 24th in the league when it came to team save percentage.
Fast forward to 2017/18 and the Jets showed significant improvement on special teams. They finished the season scoring 7.95 goals per hour on the powerplay – fifth best the league – due in large part to having a triggerman like Patrick Laine. And on the penalty kill, they had the sixth best rate of goals against with 6.00 per hour. This was largely on the back of the their goaltending which finished tops in the league shorthanded even though the club allowed a high rate of shots and scoring chances against.
So to re-cap, if the Oilers want to follow the Jets path, they’ll need their goaltending to be above league average and they’ll need their special teams to produce and not be a drag on their overall goaltending. Management has brought in a Mikko Koskinen to hopefully alleviate some of the workload off of goaltender Cam Talbot who has struggled. And there has been significant change to the coaching staff, with Trent Yawney being added to apply his experience from Anaheim where they had one of the better penalty kills in the league (even though it was largely due to goaltending). And they’ve added Manny Viveiros, who has had success with the powerplay on his previous teams.
The other item worth mentioning is the scoring talent the Jets have and how the Oilers intend on replicating their output.
A big reason why the Jets were able to push the needle from a -7 goal differential in 2016/17 to a +59 the following season was because of Patrick Laine as well as the emergence of Kyle Connor. The former is a bonafide star player, selected second overall in 2016, while the latter was selected 17th overall in 2015 and required some time in the AHL. Combine these two with the likes of Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler and Nikolaj Ehlers, among others, and you have plenty of scoring talent that could be spread across three scoring lines, and that’s why they have so many supporters that even get Saturday Morning Tailgate Gear with their logo on it.
Worth noting that the Jets went from having only three players with 20 goals or more in 2015/16 – Scheifele (29), Wheeler (26), Stafford (21) – to five in 2017/18 – Laine (44), Connor (31), Ehlers (29), Wheeler (23), Scheifele (23).
In 2017/18, the Oilers had only three players that scored 20 goals or more: Connor McDavid (41), Leon Draisaitl (25) and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (24). When the Oilers finished with 103 points the previous season, they had five players with 20 goals or more: McDavid (30), Draisaitl (29), Maroon (27), Lucic (23) and Eberle (20).
The question for the Oilers: which of the current prospects is going to emerge and provide some much needed offence for the Oilers in 2018/19? You can make a case for either of Jesse Puljujärvi or Kailer Yamamoto to score 20-25 goals with the disclaimer that they’ll need a talented centerman and time on the powerplay. But if neither pans out, or produces like Kyle Connor and helps the team ice three scoring lines, it’s going to be another season struggling for a wild card spot. And another season outside of the contender discussion.
Slight digression: One of my favorite things about hockey analysis and writing is the continuous learning involved. It feels like any game, any play, any stat, any comment from a coach or player could spark an idea worth exploring further. And while you may not always bring out something significant through your analysis or fact checking, you pick up bits of information along the way. Things you may not have known about or thought you knew about but were completely wrong.