While the Winnipeg Jets have not been strong overall as a team, there have been pockets of good performance within the team.
The team’s slow turn back into good health (still a long ways to go though) has brought together three giants on a very good line: Shawn Matthias, Adam Lowry, and Joel Armia.
Third lines in the NHL may be underrated and under-appreciated.
My early work suggested that the overall value in improving a team’s starting goaltender, first line, and top-four defenders were unquestionably the most important areas with influencing their record. Typically speaking, most would expect the second line to be next in a tier of its own, but it turns out that third lines are right there in importance with second lines.
This may be a hard concept to grasp. The average second line is better and will out perform the average third line. However, the actual gap in impact between an elite second line versus a terrible second line is about the same as the gap between an elite third line versus a terrible third line.
So, how good then is the Matthias-Lowry-Armia line?
You don’t really need numbers to notice the Jets are in the opposition’s zone a lot when that line is on the ice. The trio spend a good deal of time cycling down low and wearing down their opposition, much like the “checking lines” of old.
But zone time is not enough… A team that spends more time in the opposition’s zone than their own but still gets out chanced and out shot will not likely outscore their opponent’s sustainably into the future.
With the MLA trio on the ice, the Jets have controlled 54.9 percent of all shots (Corsi), 54.3 percent of unblocked shots (Fenwick), 54.6 percent of shots on net, and 56.3 percent of Corsica’s definition of a scoring chance. If we use Corsica’s expected goal model, which adjusts unblocked shots for shot quality factors, we expect this line to control 53.1 percent of all goals given the number and quality of shots both teams are garnering.
The median third line typically puts up a Corsi% of 49.5 percent, so the line is well above the median. In fact, the line’s 54.9 percent Corsi rating places them just under the 90th percentile for third lines. Essentially, the line directs relatively more pucks at their opponent’s net than about 90% of all third lines.
Of course, someone has to put the puck in the net.
Typically speaking, teams score about 2.16 goals per sixty minutes when their third line is on the ice. The Jets have put six goals on with the trio on the ice together, three from Matthias, two from Armia, and a third from a defenseman. This paces them at about 2.59 goals per sixty minutes, which is more typical of a second than third line.
The only issue for the line has been their goals against. The line has allowed as many goals against as they have created; however, the team’s 0.908 save percentage with the three together on the ice is highly unsustainable even with the Jets’ goaltending struggling at their current levels.
Hockey statistical types, such as myself, are often classified as hating intangibles and the human factor. There is a mix of truth and untruth in that though. It is true that many of us are skeptical on value and virtues of these overly heralded intangibles, like grit, leadership, and chemistry.
Honestly, we believe for these intangibles to have their impacts. The issue is that these intangibles are too often used as a crutch to sing praises of less than deserving player’s or excuses for poor roster management decision making. Hockey is ultimately a goal scoring contest, so the on-ice results must always matter significantly with evaluating a player’s overall contributions.
The MLA line has a lot of size and grit, but more importantly they are garnering exceptional results. The trio seem to have a lot of chemistry together, even at an analytical level. Matthias has been a week shot-metrics player most of his career despite being an exceptional even-strength goal scorer relative to his ice time. Armia has been an elite defensive player in shot metrics and seems to be coming into his own as a deceptive. While Lowry has his weaknesses and is the least offensively gifted of the three, he has done well getting in front of the net and putting in rebounds throughout the season and help win battles to keep control of the puck.
The line on paper should work and they have the numbers behind them to prove it.
Not all has gone well this year for the Winnipeg Jets. The team currently sits in 6th last for points percentage with over half the season in the bank. Already, the likelihood that the Jets make the playoffs is significantly falling with every game.
Despite all the troubles, there have been some positives up front…
Patrik Laine looks like a potential elite goal scorer and his two-way game has improved greatly over the season. Nikolaj Ehlers is emerging as one of the NHL’s most dynamic wingers. Blake Wheeler and Mathieu Perreault are still elite performers in advance metrics. While Mark Scheifele’s two-way game has taken a bit of a step back from last season, his offensive game is still pacing at top-speed.
In addition, the Jets look to have constructed a solid third line around Joel Armia, Shawn Matthias, and Adam Lowry.
The roster is still imperfect. The top-six still needs some fixing (and to be healthy). The Jets defense could use a new third pair. The fourth line is a mismatch of odd pieces with Andrew Copp, Nic Petan, and Chris Thorburn together. The goaltending, penalty differential, and special teams has been extremely subpar.
However, the Jets have some legitimate useful pieces and depth. Fixing the team is not easy, but it is possible.
All numbers are courtesy of corsica.hockey unless otherwise noted
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