The First Line
NHL coaches are a fickle bunch. Gone are the days where forward lines would stay together for years rather than weeks. No longer do we see the iconic lines like “The Production Line” in Detroit (Sid Abel - Gordie Howe - Ted Lindsay) or more recently “The Legion of Doom” in Philadelphia (Eric Lindros - Mikael Renberg - John LeClair). Coaches change lines as often as they change shirts, which is a constant topic of chatter at the morning skate or in pre-game warm-ups.
Throughout the course of the season, only 16 lines in the NHL played more than 500 even strength minutes together. In an 82 game season, that’s just a bit more than six minutes per game, which shows just how often lines change due to injuries or coaching preference. Nashville just got through playing the most stable line in the NHL (Gabe Landeskog - Nathan MacKinnon - Mikko Rantanen). That Avs top line played 741 minutes together at 5 on 5. The Jets top line of Kyle Connor, Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler played together for just over 611 minutes at 5 on 5. Together they scored 208 points in 217 games, and comprise three of the Jets top five scorers on the year.
Although Blake Wheeler is not Nathan MacKinnon, he is the driver of the Winnipeg offense. At age 31, the team captain set career highs in assists, points and minutes played. At 6’5’’ 225, he plays more of a puck possession game, comfortable with the puck along the wall and on the cycle. There won’t be as much north-south speed to this line that’s most dangerous off the rush. They want to get it below the hashes and work some zone time.
Using a heat map from Hockey Viz, the impact of Jets first line is obvious. They are well above league average in creating chances from the slot area.
The fancy stats aren’t quite as glowing as their reputation. Mark Scheifele is the Jets highest scorer 1.83 P1/60 at 5 on 5. That mark puts him at 31st in the league among forwards. For reference Filip Forsberg scores at a 2.11 rate, 11th in the league. The Scheifele-Wheeler combo is good, but Wheeler’s 34 power-play assists are inflating his totals a bit. At even strength they are good, not elite.
When I wrote about the Avs last week, I discussed the advantage of creating zone entries, so I won’t rehash that description here, but looking just at the top line, the most adept puck carrier on this first line is Kyle Connor, so expect the puck to be on his stick through the neutral zone, then Wheeler and Scheifele will go to work down low once the puck gets below the dots.
Both Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler served as catalysts for the Jets in the first round of the playoffs as the Winnipeg quickly dispatched the Wild in 5 games, together they had nine points as shown below.
The Second Line
Of non-Predators players, Nikolaj Ehlers is one of my favorites in the league. I first remember him dominating for Denmark in the World Junior Championship a few years ago, and his skill set is ideally suited to the new NHL. He’s a puck wizard especially when entering the offensive zone. He’s topped 60 points each of the last two seasons, and he’s the most dangerous forward the Jets have when carrying the puck. He leads the team in controlled entries per 60, in primary shot contributions per 60 and zone exits per 60.
It would be fair to think of him as a more effective version of Kevin Fiala.
His linemates are Paul Stastny and Patrik Laine. Stastny was brought over from St. Louis at the trade deadline. It would be an understatement to say the trade worked well for Winnipeg. Stastny had 13 points in 19 regular season games and four in five post-season games for the Jets. He’s provided depth down the middle and helped bump the Jets into Stanley Cup contender territory.
What else needs to be said about Patrik Laine? The Athletic’s Justin Bourne had a tremendous breakdown [Paywall] a few weeks ago about what makes Laine so lethal. It’s not just his slap-shot, he has an extremely accurate and heavy wrist shot as well that he can get off from almost any location on the ice. He’s the league's heir apparent to Alex Ovechkin, and like Ovi, he’s been the subject of criticism for his defensive game. Detractors will point to the fact he’s not the type of play driver we’d expect for one of the league’s best goal scorers. Either way here are all 44 terror inducing moments from the past season.
This line fits so well with one guy’s strength covering another’s weakness. Ehlers will carry the puck out of the Jets zone and into the Predators zone. Stastny will play your prototypical 200 foot game covering Laine’s defensive warts, so Laine can do his thing putting the puck in the net. I once referred to him as Bob Lee Swagger. He’s not afraid to let it rip from anywhere.
The Third Line
The Jets third line consists of rookie Jack Roslovic, Andrew Copp and Bryan Little. Both Copp and Little can take face-offs making them just a bit more effective when taking d-zone draws, which they do quite often.
Andrew Copp is one of the elite shot suppression forwards in the league, made all the more impressive by his share of zone starts. He played most of the season with Brandon Tanev and Adam Lowry, so don’t be shocked to see that trio reunited if the Jets are having trouble shutting down the Preds.
This line can chip in some offense too. Little scored 43 points, Copp added 28 and Roslovic added 14 in 31 games. Watch for the injury status of Mathieu Perreault. He was injured against Minnesota on April 11th and has yet to resume skating after suffering an upper body injury. If he plays in this series, expect Copp to move down to the fourth line and Little to move to the middle.
The Fourth Line
In the absence of Perreault, this line features Brandon Tanev on the left, Adam Lowry in the middle and Joel Armia on the right. Both Lowry and Armia are sneaky good scorers given their ice time and deployment, and among the best shot share players in the league, so there won’t be any breaks for the Predators regardless of which Jets line is on the ice. Lowry especially has a very positive impact on his teammates as seen below.
The Matchup Game
This is where it gets interesting for the Predators. The Jets are a deep team that can roll their lines and expect offense from each of them. There are no possession black holes, and either of the bottom six lines can play effective two-way hockey.
From the Jets perspective they aren’t afraid to go power against power. When the series is in Winnipeg, Coach Paul Maurice is fine running the Scheifele line out there against anyone, but when they need to win a d-zone shift expect the Copp line or Lowry lines to hop over the boards. This is why the Perreault injury is so important. If Copp plays on the 4th line with Lowry and Tanev, they form a truly elite shutdown line.
From the Predators perspective, the questions start at which line will Bonino play against. I actually expect Coach Laviolette to play more with his defensive matchups. Subban and Ekholm will likely see the Scheifele line, to match size for size. If Subban and Ekholm are out there, they can split that pair from the Bonino line to spread out the defensive responsibilities. Josi and Ellis will be used to shut down the speed and creativity of Nikolaj Ehlers, matching speed against speed. In a clear need of a d-zone win, Bonino will skate in to take the draw.
Since the depth lines of the Jets are so effective, Coach Laviolette will look to get the Johansen line away from Copp and or Lowry, perhaps throwing them out there against the Stastny line. Diverging from the strategy used against Colorado, we could see more power against power and depth against depth. This is a storyline to watch as the puck drops on Friday night. Too bad it has to happen in the second round.