With the Jets closing in on the start of the season there are number of spots still up for grabs. We already looked at the third line to see who might fit alongside Roslovic and Perreault and we also examined the defense to see who would be the best partner to Dustin Byfuglien.
While these battles are important, perhaps the biggest question mark heading into the 2018-19 season is the second line centre position.
Jets fans seem to be divided about who should be on the second line. I don’t think anyone would argue that both Ehlers and Laine are skilled enough to be second line players in the NHL, however, some people think that Ehlers and Laine need to be separated to realize their full potential.
This problem is compounded by the fact that Bryan Little doesn’t appear to have the best chemistry with the youngsters. It seems as though Ehlers and Laine need to have the perfect centremen between them to make the line reach the next level.
The other option is to split up Ehlers and Laine and put them on separate lines. This option is especially intriguing when looking at some of the advanced stats from last year. This also opens up an entire new world of possibilities as the combinations are virtually endless when mixing everyone across three lines.
This article will give four options of players to centre the second line as well as which linemates would be the best fit with them.
Bryan Little – Underrated To Overrated?
It wasn’t that long ago that Bryan Little was considered one of the most underrated players in hockey.
#NHLJets HC Paul Maurice on Bryan Little:"He's a really underrated two-way player…He carries a big load here and has since I've been here"
— Ken Wiebe (@WiebeSunSports) December 28, 2015
Little has been scoring at a fairly consistent rate throughout his career. Since coming to Winnipeg he has scored over 40 points every single season (except the lockout shortened year) and has scored over 20 goals in four of the past seven seasons.
Unfortunately Little is not getting any younger and he is coming off his lowest points per game totals since 2009-10. This steep decline is concerning because Little is at the beginning of a long contract extension that runs all the way until 2023-24.
If so much money is tied up with Little, it makes sense to try and get as much out of him as possible. Giving him the opportunity on the second line could help rejuvenate him and prolong his career if he rebounds with a solid season.
The Jets can get the best out of Little by playing him with Perreault. Looking at all of Little’s linemates from last season, Perreault is easily the player who provides the biggest boost to Little’s metrics.
As you can see, Perreault’s number appears waaaaaaaay off to the ‘good’ corner of the charts. If Perreault is on one wing, then Ehlers should be on the other as this trio had phenomenal advanced stats last year including a CF% of 62.38% and an xGF% of 63.39%. Both of these numbers drop when Ehlers is switched for Laine which means if the Jets want to maximize Little’s value, it should be with Perreault and Ehlers, not Ehlers and Laine.
Jack Roslovic – Super Sophomore
Potentially the biggest threat to Little’s job is Roslovic. Roslovic burst onto the scene after having a great start to the season in the AHL. While Roslovic has mostly played centre growing up, he moved to the wing once he made it to the Jets last season.
It is expected that Roslovic will make his way back to centre this season but the question is whether it will be on the second or the third line.
With such a small sample size it’s tough to determine who would have the best natural chemistry with Roslovic. It would likely be worth a shot to play Ehlers and Laine with Roslovic to see how they fit together. Both Roslovic and Ehlers have plenty of speed and they would be fun to watch on the rush and in the offensive end. This speed would also allow Laine to get more space around the net as the defenders have to cover more ground against speedy possession players like Ehlers.
Is it time for #NHLJets to give Roslovic a look between Ehlers & Laine?
— Aavco Cup (@AavcoCup) September 22, 2018
With three other strong lines, this line could be sheltered and reserved for a friendly, offensive, deployment strategy which would help mitigate the lack of defensive ability.
Roslovic wouldn’t be guaranteed to succeed on the second line but the offensive upside would be worth a try even if it isn’t a long term solution. With a small sample size, he should be tested with Ehlers and Laine to see if it would be successful. If the situation doesn’t work out Roslovic will likely find a home on the third line with the likes of Perreault, Petan, or Vesalainen.
Adam Lowry – Possession Monster
There is no doubt that Lowry is the Jets best defensive centre. It could even be argued that Lowry is the Jets best defensive player overall. He’s a big, strong player that can shutdown the opposition’s best players on a nightly basis.
Everyone knows that Lowry can defend, but could he show some offensive flair given the opportunity?
This article contains all the answers you really need. The answer is yes, Lowry has the potential to showcase some more offense if given the chance.
He even might be a good fit between Ehlers and Laine because of his heavy possession game. He is able to get on the forecheck and separate the man from the puck with his hard work and physicality. This puck tracking would help Ehlers and Laine who haven’t quite developed those skills yet.
I do have a feeling #NHLJets Adam Lowry has a big year if he stays healthy…like 15 goals, 40-45 pts kind of year…
— Jim Toth (@JimTothSports) September 21, 2018
It might be risky and seem to be an odd fit, but Ehlers, Lowry, Laine could turn into a unique two-way line if given the chance.
Blake Wheeler – Superman
Blake Wheeler can do anything he wants. While some people are quick to point out the flaws with his new contract, Wheeler remains a valuable part of the Jets lineup. After Scheifele went down with an injury last year, Wheeler seamlessly moved to centre ice where he played with Connor and Laine for a stretch of games.
Best quote of the night might have been Paul Maurice on Blake Wheeler:
"His play at centre has been outstanding to the point it gives you pause about having to take him out of the middle."
— Murat Ates (@WPGMurat) February 4, 2018
The on-ice totals were encouraging as they out-scored their opposition 9-3 at five on five. This sounds great, and it is, but their underlying numbers showed this wasn’t going to last forever. Their adjusted CF% was a measly 48.27%, by far the lowest of Wheeler’s season. Their expected goals were even worse as they only were expected to score 46.48% of the goals while on the ice. This mark was also Wheeler’s lowest out of any combination.
This data shows that while Wheeler’s line appeared to be performing well with him at centre ice, it’s success wasn’t sustainable and was bound to come back to earth if kept together all year.
Moving Wheeler back to centre is an option if injuries arise but he is best suited on the wing where he can drive possession with his speed and strength.
Honourable mention – Andrew Copp
While I don’t think Andrew Copp should be the player to make an appearance on the second line, I noticed some interesting numbers while doing some research.
Out of all of Laine’s different combinations last year, playing with Ehlers and Copp produced the best CF% at 60.87%. This number was significantly better than his second best combination, Wheeler and Roslovic where he had a CF% of 54.12%.
This trio of Ehlers, Copp, and Laine produced the second best CF% for both Ehlers and Copp as well.
It's telling that Andrew Copp is staying at centre — over Bryan Little. Blake Wheeler called Copp a "Swiss Army knife" this morning. #NHLJets
— Scott Billeck (@ScottBilleck) March 18, 2018
While I don’t think Copp should be the one to win the job of second line centre, his excellent results albeit in a small sample size should at least warrant another look at some point during the season.
Who Will Win The Spot?
While the ideas of putting Wheeler, Lowry, or Copp in the second line centre position are fun to entertain, there is a very small chance of it actually happening on the ice. Maurice is likely going to choose between Little and Roslovic for the opening game. Even though some fans are suggesting that Roslovic can overtake Little, Maurice is most likely going to pencil in Little as the second line centre given his history with the club.
The only thing left to see is if Ehlers and Laine are with Little or if they are broken up and used in a different combination. That will have to wait until October 4.