Winnipeg Jets Roster Preview: Ladd, Little, and Wheeler

With training camp just around the corner, it is a good time to take stock of the roster that the Winnipeg Jets are likely to ice for the 2015-16.

Next summer, captain Andrew Ladd and elite defensemen Dustin Byfuglien are both slated for free agency. Key young players Mark Scheifele, Jacob Trouba, and Michael Hutchinson will all become restricted free agents. 

Next summer has the potential for big change.

This summer, however, was a relatively quiet one for Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff as much of the roster that was swept in the first round of last season’s playoffs returns intact for a run at another playoffs berth this season.

Here, we’ll take a look at the scouting reports and advanced stats for each member of the top forward line for next season. This process will be repeated for the other projected forward lines and the defense pairings in time. First up, the Jets’ number one line…

Andrew Ladd – Bryan Little – Blake Wheeler

Andrew Ladd

The Ladd-Little-Wheeler trio played together 13.47 percent of the time last season, by far the largest mark for any three forwards on the team. And this top unit all starts with team captain, Andrew Ladd.

Ladd is an all-around force driving the first line’s production. The 6’3, 200 lbs. 29 year old offers everything a team wants from its leader. He’s known as a tough, skilled, high-tempo winger who complements high-skill linemates well. His offensive play lacks a little creativity but he is generally consistent, regularly posting first-line quality production in the low-scoring modern era. 

In fact, in his last four non-lockout-shortened seasons, Ladd has scored between 50-64 points. In the lockout year, Ladd managed 46 points in 48 games. In the modern NHL, top-flight right wingers score between 42-81 points. Ladd is squarely within that range. 

An unrestricted free-agent-to-be, Ladd will certainly command a raise over the $4.4 million bargain contract he’s currently playing out. As Ken Wiebe writes for the Winnipeg Sun:

Ladd’s worth has always stretched well beyond the numbers but the impressive part of last season’s totals was that he was playing through a sports hernia and not close to full health…The laundry list of Ladd’s strong qualities as a player is a lengthy one, but it’s his durability and consistency that are at the top of it…As for his leadership, Ladd is the player that sets the example on and off the ice for the group, in terms of the standard of work that is required to get this team to the next level.

In terms of advanced stats, Ladd’s numbers are excellent:

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Ladd’s analytics are elite across the board. His individual production rates are first-line quality in goals and primary assists and his possession work is exquisite. In addition to his strong counting stats and leadership skills, Ladd is an all-around advanced stats star.

In all, Ladd is a key member of the top-line and an indispensable core member of the Jets.

Bryan Little

The centreman and playmaker for the Jets’ top trio, 27-year-old Little has 197 assists to go along with 146 goals in his 556 career games. While the raw assist total may not jump off the screen at you, Little’s work places him among some of the game’s best playmakers:

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Among centres with more than 2500 minutes played since 2012 (a group of ~70 skaters) Little plots in the bottom-right quadrant of the graph above, just beside David Krejci and Mike Ribeiro and a little to the right of Kyle Turris and Claude Giroux. 

His presence in the “playmakers” quad shows that his assists per 60 minutes rate is well above the league average in this group of the game’s best centres. It’s also worth noting that Little’s goal rate is almost strong enough to push him into the “all-around” group.

Scouting reports on Little bear out these stats. He’s been described in this way:

A good playmaker who…owns a good wrist shot and sound defensive instincts. Is a tireless worker. Can snipe too.

His assists rate, tireless work ethic, and reasonable defensive play are clear in his HERO chart as well.

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Little’s primary assists and primary points are first-line quality. His goal-scoring lags behind, which isn’t uncommon for the centre cohort. In terms of puck management, Little has strengths and some room to grow. His Corsi For rate is very strong, which leads to a very reasonable Corsi plus-minus total. Little still must work at suppressing shots while on the ice – his current rates places him as a third-line type.

In total, Little has proven his worthiness of the top-line job in Winnipeg. He’s a capable primary assists provider and, still only 27 years old, may yet find another level to his game.

Blake Wheeler

Wheeler wasn’t always the right wing option for the Ladd-Little pairing last season. Wheeler completed the trio just over 13 percent of the time while Michael Frolik skated in the right winger role with Ladd and Little almost eight percent of the time. With Frolik now departed to the Calgary Flames, look for Wheeler to claim the top-line spot for himself this season.

For Jets fans, Wheeler’s skill set is clear – the 6’5, 225 lbs. winger has great wheels and has learned to lean on defenders to drive the puck to the heart of the offensive zone. Scouting reports say

[Wheeler] has tremendous size and reach for the wing position, as well as good wheels for a big guy. [He] controls the puck effectively in the corners and can play on either wing. [He] possesses a good scoring touch and is at his best when he drives through traffic.

These skills have helped Wheeler to put together an impressive standard stats resume. He’s managed 362 points in 533 career games, good for a 0.68 points per game rate. However, since the franchise moved to Winnipeg, Wheeler has scored at a 0.77 points per game rate, including an excellent 69 points in 82 games in 2013-14. Quietly, Wheeler has become one of the league’s most reliable scorers on the wing.

To whit, Wheeler has the 12th most points among right wingers since 2011, including regular and post-season scoring. He ranks ahead of notable right wing qualifiers like Jakub Voracek, Alex Ovechkin, and Joe Pavelski over that time spent. If restricted to regular season totals, Wheeler moves up to seventh among right wings over the past four seasons.

That’s elite.  

Wheeler’s advanced stats profile reflects these huge scoring strengths, while detailing the hulking winger’s shortcomings:

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An elite offensive contributor in every category, Wheeler provides irreplaceable offense for the top trio in Winnipeg. His shot generation rate is strong, just tipping into first-line territory. 

Defensively, Wheeler has certain issues. He hardly contributes as a shot suppressor posting fourth-line rate stats in shot prevention. At 29 years old, it’s foolish to expect a change in style at this stage in his career.

Despite some defensive shortcomings, Wheeler’s role as a key cog on the first line for the Jets is clear. He provides top-notch offense that few teams can match at the right wing position.

With Ladd, Little, and Wheeler on the top line, the Jets have an offensively excellent, defensively reasonable top trio to lean on again in 2015-16. These three can be relied upon to provide the level of first-line offense needed to make the playoffs, even in the highly competitive Western Conference. If GM Kevin Cheveldayoff can find the right deal to keep Ladd in town after this season, this group is still young enough to enjoy a few more seasons as an elite group.

But re-signing Ladd? That’s an issue for another day.

What do  you think, Jets fans? Are you satisfied with Ladd-Little-Wheeler as the team’s top line? Or would you prefer a more defensively responsible player on the line in place of Little or Wheeler?