Sunday Jets Notes: Impact Players, Line Combinations, and Scheifele

Impact and Complementary Players

It’s interesting to hear people analyze a certain player’s role or importance. Most assumptions about players are inherently imprecise, but none more so than the labeling of players by their supposed line. Terms like “1st line centre” and “2nd line winger” get thrown around a lot, and are meant to reflect a certain level of talent as well as expectations for offensive production. But how do you know if someone is suited to the 1st line or the 2nd line? Doesn’t it depend in large part on their linemates? The ice time they receive? The specific opportunities (1st unit pp?) they’re afforded by their coach?

A concept that’s equally subjective, but which may be more precise involves splitting players into two categories:

Impact players are those with the ability to “take over a game”. They have a very high talent level, and often make the players around them perform better. And while they perform better when paired with other highly skilled players, they aren’t dependent on their linemates to generate chances. These players are extremely rare.

Classic impact players include the game’s elite stars – Crosby, Ovechkin, Sedins, Perry, Stamkos, Kovalchuk, etc. Other players with game breaking talent but don’t have the numbers to show for it include Ales Hemsky, Martin Havlat, and of course Rick Nash. Younger impact players include Jeff Skinner, Jamie Benn, and Claude Giroux.

By contrast, complementary players tend to be one-dimensional in that they lack a certain skill or ability which hampers their ability to create their own chances (size, speed, or a general lack of skill). Though they may be very talented players in their own right, their play suffers when they aren’t paired with players whose natural attributes compensate for the skill or ability they lack.

Classic complementary players include Ray Whitney, Justin Williams, Milan Lucic, Andy McDonald, and Erik Cole. All of them have been very successful when paired with the right linemates, and quite ineffective at other times. (Three of the five played in Carolina when they won the cup in 2006).

Very few players possess all the skills – size, speed, skill (shot, puck-handling, vision & passing), etc. That’s why coaches try to balance their lines out – small players with bigger players; slow players with faster ones; a passer (or playmaker) with a shooter (or finisher), etc.

Naturally, the best teams are the ones with more impact players. Chicago had forwards like Toews, Kane, Sharp and Hossa – all of whom have tremendous skill, and enough speed and/or size to use their skill effectively. But in addition to those top players, they also had the right mix of complementary players with diverse skills. Their 3rd line was built beautifully – Bolland is a talented centre with good speed, skill, and a defensive conscience; though small, Versteeg is fast and skilled; and Ladd is a bigger guy with some grit who also had enough skill to keep up with the other two. All totaled, their three line attack was deadly.

Conversely, the worst teams are not only those who generally lack talent, but those whose talents don’t mesh. A good example is the Oilers of a few seasons ago – a team with many skilled players who amounted to less than the sum of their parts. Guys like Gagner, Nilsson, Cogliano, and O’Sullivan all had good individual skills, but they were all very small and created very little offence together.

The Jets are another such case. There are no clear impact players in the lineup (though Burmistrov looks to have that potential), and many of the players that are paired together don’t really fit. The “1st line” of Ladd-Little-Wheeler has been very poor during the season, and maybe that shouldn’t come as a huge shock. Blake Wheeler is a very skilled guy who skates extremely well for a big guy and looks to be able to do everything himself until he gets up to the net. He’s had many good chances, but he’s shown a tremendous lack of finish. Bryan Little is a small player with great speed and puck handling ability, but he may be misplaced as a centre. His best season in the NHL was in 2008-2009 when he scored 31 goals and 51 points as a right winger. Though he does have soft hands which can pass as well as shoot, he hasn’t shown the vision required of a #1 centre, who generally plays the role of puck distributer to his wingers.  Ladd is a player who does a little bit of everything, but is the very definition of a complementary player. He has good size, good speed, and a good shot, but he plays a very simple game and isn’t going to take anyone’s game to another level.

Conversely, the “2nd line” has been working quite well, and it’s not just because Burmistrov is the team’s best forward. For all the criticism he gets, Nik Antropov is a very good complement to Burmi. Burmistrov is fast, shifty, a great puck handler, and an excellent passer; Antropov is big, skilled, and has good play-making ability in his own right. Wellwood may be small and slow, but he’s very smart in the offensive zone and has a great set of hands. The quick touch passes and drop passes he makes just inside the zone help create good scoring chances; unfortunately this type of play is foreign to the likes of Ladd and Kane, who prefer to shoot the puck into the goalie’s gut from the top of the circle.

Speaking of Kane, I’m a bit torn on him. It’s obvious that he has great speed and strength, and a high skill level, but I’m disturbed by his single-minded desire to fire the puck on net. I’m sure he’d be more successful if he had someone crafty feeding him the puck in better spots, but that isn’t the case, and thus far it seems like he’s been taking most of his shots from the outside. He also shows a lack of ability (or desire) to use his linemates. I realize that he hasn’t had good linemates thus far, but the do-it-yourself approach hasn’t been effective.

 

Line Combinations

If I were Claude Noel, here’s what I’d do with the lines:

Line 1: Burmistrov-Antropov-Fehr

Burmistrov and Antropov should be a staple. I like Fehr to join them because he’s a finisher and a big body who could help convert the chances that Burmistrov is generating.

Line 2: Kane-Little-Wellwood

This line has a bit of everything – a finisher with size and speed (Kane), another with speed and skill (Little), and a smart player who can read the ice and set up the other two (Wellwood).

Line 3: Ladd-Maxwell-Wheeler

I know it isn’t realistic to have Ladd on the 3rd line, but I think that’s where he belongs. Maxwell has lots of speed and decent hands, and Wheeler is the driving force on this line who creates chances.

These combinations split up the players who have shown the ability to create chances out of nothing – Burmistrov, Kane, and Wheeler – so as to balance out the lines.

 

The Concept of Team Loyalty

After Thursday’s loss to Ottawa (the worst team in the NHL at that time), it appeared to many people that the Jets were going to finish very low in the standings. I suggested that the silver lining was a high draft pick next June which will bring in a great piece of the Jets’ future. I got one response over twitter suggesting that I was giving up on the team, and that I wasn’t a loyal fan. I wanted to quickly address that comment.

I understand the sentiment – an emotion-driven defence of one’s favourite team – but I was being rational. When I looked at the team prior to the year, my perception was that they were at best the 20th place team in the league, or around 10th in the Eastern Conference. I know from studying the NHL Entry Draft for a few years that the truly elite players tend to be drafted in the top 3 or so picks, and that the talent tends to drop off quite rapidly after the top-5. I also know that very few impact players change teams via free agency or trade, so the only reliable way to get one is to draft one. Naturally, these conclusions led me to believe that the best thing for the Winnipeg Jets organization is to tank the season and get a sure-fire offensive behemoth like Nail Yakupov, who not only has the potential to score a ton of goals, but can also raise the level of the players around him.

So in a way, I’m happy regardless of the outcome this season. When the Jets win, we have a celebration on our hands, and when they lose, chances are we’re improving the future of the club. Anyone who sees that as disloyalty is entitled to their opinion, but remember that, unlike people, not all opinions are equal.

 

Playing Where he Belongs

Mark Scheifele was sent back to junior today. I’ve already voiced my opinion on the topic in “The Ballad of Mark Scheifele – Slow and Steady Wins the Race” (Sept. 21), so rather than repeat myself, I’m just going to quote the article:

“Scheifele, and virtually all other teenage hockey players like him [should] go back to junior hockey and play with their friends and peers. [There] they can play huge minutes in all situations – even-strength, pp, pk, etc. They can build up their speed and strength. They can represent their countries at the World Junior Championships where they play the best players in the world in their age group. They can lead their teams through long playoff runs and (if playing in the CHL) try to capture the Memorial Cup – which is one of the toughest trophies to win in all of sports. (It’s like winning the Stanley Cup and then playing a 4-team tournament on top of that to decide the winner). Then, when they complete their junior career and turn pro at age 20, they can spend part of a season in the AHL and prove, against solid professionals, that they’re too good for the second-best league in the world. It seems to have done no harm to players like Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Danny Briere, Claude Giroux, Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, and Bobby Ryan, all of whom spent time in the AHL. So did Duncan Keith, Shea Weber, Zdeno Chara, Keith Yandle, Eric Staal, Thomas Vanek…the list goes on.”

Scheifele looked a bit overmatched out there, especially in regard to foot speed. The Jets unquestionably made the right call here, and they should be applauded.

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