Jets' decision to dodge a rebuild, keep their stars is paying dividends so far

Winnipeg's record suggests it's a middle-of-the-pack squad, but there might be more there for the Canadian club.

When the Winnipeg Jets extended Mark Scheifele and Connor Hellebuyck before the 2023-24 season it was a statement of the team's intention to keep on competing — but it appeared there might be a gap between that mission and their potential.

The Jets had barely made the playoffs in 2022-23, and enjoyed modest postseason success during the pair's tenure. Betting they could do better in the years to come with both players on the wrong side of 30 seemed dubious on the surface.

Of course, the team's market and attendance issues make the calculations around a full rebuild a little different for Winnipeg than some other teams, but the club's plan still warranted skepticism.

While a 13-game sample only has so much to tell us about this team's big-picture prognosis, the Jets have to be encouraged by the performance of the group they opted to keep together.

That begins with Kyle Connor who is looking like the offensive centerpiece he was during his 47-goal 2021-22 campaign.

Kyle Connor is off to an outstanding start to the season for the Jets. (Jeff Roberson/AP)
Kyle Connor is off to an outstanding start to the season for the Jets. (Jeff Roberson/AP)

Connor quietly ranks second in the NHL in goals (11), and while his shooting percentage is high at 18.3%, it's not outrageous. His scoring is being driven by the fact he's averaging career-highs in shots per game (4.62).

The 26-year-old's ability to get his deadly shot off has made him Winnipeg's standout performer, but the team has featured a balanced attack with six different players producing at least 10 points — including up-and-comer Cole Perfetti, and offseason addition Alex Iafallo.

Winnipeg is averaging 3.62 goals per game, which ranks sixth in the NHL despite missing Gabriel Vilardi, who was expected to play a major role in the team's offence.

The Jets have managed those impressive scoring numbers despite the fact their power play has yet to get into gear, ranking 18th in the league (18.4%). That's because its work at 5v5 has been outstanding.

In those situations, Winnipeg has been a top-seven team in every metric that matters. The Jets have dominated the shot battle (55.80% — 3rd in the NHL) and outscored their opponents by a solid margin (56.86% — 7th). They've also had the lion's share of expected goals (54.97% — 6th), scoring chances (57.59% — 2nd), and high-danger scoring chances (56.50% — 5th).

Based on those numbers it would be fair to assume that Winnipeg's record would be among the best in the NHL.

Unfortunately for the Jets, they've won just one game more than they've lost — taking a couple of "loser points" on the way to a 7-4-2 record. That's good enough to place them third in the Central Division, but it's not reflective of the quality of their offense, and how they've carried the play.

Winnipeg's biggest issue right now, surprisingly, is that it can't seem to get a save. The Jets' .880 save % in all situations ranks 27th in the NHL. The .813 mark the team has on the penalty kill is 25th — helping to explain their modest 73.3% success rate.

These are not results you expect from a team that employs a perennial Vezina Trophy contender like Hellebuyck.

That's not what Winnipeg is hoping to see from a player it just invested so heavily in, but in all likelihood Hellebuyck is going to be just fine. The American netminder came third in Vezina voting last season and is young enough (30) that the Jets don't need to worry about his skills declining precipitously.

Even during his stellar 2022-23 campaign he had a worse 10-game stretch at one point, posting an .878 save % between February 23 and March 19. Goaltending is volatile enough on a season-to-season and week-to-week basis that anything can happen. There's no need to panic about a few iffy games from a proven quantity like Hellebuyck.

Backup Laurent Broissoit isn't as safe a bet to bounce back from his early wobbles as the 10 year-veteran's career has been a roller coaster. Beginning in 2016-17 he has alternated between seasons with a SV% of .918 or better and .895 or worse — never having two good or bad years in a row.

It's possible this is going to be one of his less impressive campaigns, but even if that's the case his effect on the team should be modest as Hellebuyck tends to shoulder massive workloads. The American led all goaltenders in games played in three of the four seasons prior to 2023-24. The one time he did not (2021-22), he still led the league in shots faced and saves.

Winnipeg is in a tremendous position because its biggest weakness so far is goaltending, which is something that projects to be a strength as the season goes on. Meanwhile, it's strong offensive production should be relatively sustainable thanks to its 5v5 excellence.

The team's shooting percentage is high (10.9%), but not ludicrously so as that number ranks 11th in the NHL. There's also room for positive regression on both special teams units.

Coming into the 2023-24 season the Jets projected to be similar to many of their most recent iterations. They looked like a club that would be fighting for a playoff berth and unlikely to do much in the spring if they got one.

While no one is pencilling Winnipeg in for a deep postseason run just yet, these Jets look significantly friskier than expected.