It's a work in progress, but Jets find success with optimized top six

it's a work in progress, but jets find success with optimized top six

Mark Scheifele (55) and Nikolaj Ehlers (27) of the Winnipeg Jets speak during the third period against the Philadelphia Flyers at Wells Fargo Center on Sunday, Jan. 22, 2023 in Philadelphia.

Did you know that the fishfly has an average lifespan of 24 hours? Rick Bowness’s lines sometimes have about the same shelf life.

But what two losses to start Winnipeg’s lengthiest road trip of the season may have produced is the Winnipeg Jets head coach’s ideal top-six setup, at least until the trade deadline on March 3.

And while it’s not often advised to take two games’ worth of data and make wild assertions from the resulting numbers, it’s worth pointing out what Bowness et al have stumbled upon.

Specifically, the lines of Kyle Connor, Pierre-Luc Dubois and Cole Perfetti, and Mark Scheifele’s trio with Nikolaj Ehlers and Blake Wheeler.

The latter might be the real winner here, too, because we know the damage Connor and Dubois can do with just about anyone out at right-wing (and they’ve had Perfetti there before, with success).

But trying to find the optimal settings for Ehlers has been a work in progress since he returned from an 11-week, 36-game hiatus thanks to a sports hernia that eventually required the steady hand of a surgeon to repair.

And while he’s put up points in eight of the 10 games since his return (four goals, 10 assists), the pursuit of perfection never ends.

To that point, Ehlers’ last two games have been pretty good with Scheifele and Wheeler.

After reconfiguring following a 4-1 loss in Toronto last Thursday, the line has produced some solid metrics, including 86% of the shot share (shots for and against at 5-on-5) in a 5-1 trampling of the Ottawa Senators on Saturday. The line also recorded an expected goals percentage of 81%, creating three high-danger chances in the game.

In Philadelphia, Ehlers drove behind the net and dished a pass out to Wheeler, who pitched it over to Scheifele — where Ehlers just was moments earlier — and produced one of the silkiest tic-tac-toes in the NHL this season.

The play was predicated on Ehlers’ speed, which is one of the reasons why Bowness put the line together, to begin with.

“We need him to use that speed,” Bowness told reporters on Sunday. “You take the puck deep and he’s very patient with the puck and he finds open guys. He’s been really good.”

With 17 points in 12 games this season, Ehlers is still on pace for 65, which would be remarkable given how much time he’s missed.

Perfetti’s addition to the right flank with Dubois and Connor has been just as successful.

A solid 64% of the shot share in Ottawa on Saturday and 50% of a night later in Philly. And the expected goals numbers? Let’s just say they haven’t dipped below 75% on either night — outstanding, analytically speaking.

Perfetti showed great poise and vision on a 2-on-1 early in the first period on Sunday, waiting for the defenceman to bite before sliding it across for Connor to bury his 24th of the season.

In Ottawa, it was Perfetti tucking home his seventh of the season on the power play as he continues his pursuit of the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie.

“That’s more how we want to play,” Bowness said following Saturday’s game.

It’s impossible to know how long these lines, in their current iteration, last.

At some point, Mason Appleton and David Gustafsson are going to return to the lineup from sick bay, and the trade deadline could spell the end of Perfetti’s tenure in the top six this season.

Bowness also mixes and matches his lines with the best of them, trying to find every available edge — or shot in the arm — depending on the situation.

The sample size isn’t big enough to draw firm conclusions just yet. But given the fact the team has won both of their games since Bowness did his latest tinkering job, they’re likely to see daylight on Tuesday when the Jets face the Nashville Predators to end their five-game road trip.

Twitter: @scottbilleck

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