An Unsolicited Love Letter to Adam Lowry (and other Jets thoughts)

The Winnipeg Jets have a bit of a 5 on 5 problem, one that they have had all year, despite leading the Central through January. Timely goals, exceptional special teams play and good goaltending have buoyed otherwise below average play in the middle of the ice at both ends. Simply put, at least for the first half the season, Jets were able to outscore their problems (see this article from Murat Ates’ from earlier in the year).

The problems have been diagnosed by smarter hockey minds than I. A couple of common ones identified have been over usage of the top line, Laine’s slump both due to his own play and lack of play driver on his line, and lack of defensive depth. Most of the solutions I’ve seen proposed involve lineup tweaks (and groaning at Coach Maurice’s resistance to do such) or roster changes.

In this post, I’d like to see if we can help with the first issue without either of those things.

As goes the top line, so goes the team. Dog-paddling to a point against the Sharks and the most recent shellackings by the quick forechecks of the Canadiens and Senators have not been kind to the Jets first unit.

Disclaimer: the sky is NOT falling. The Jets have a very strong roster, one that could get better by month’s end. We simply want to nudge the ship back in the right direction.

The problem: Overusage of the 26-55-X line. In the Montreal game, this line was employed against the top line and the results were BAD, burn-the-tape bad.  I’m not drawing conclusions from this one game (hence “burn-the-tape”) but it is indicative of a trend that has been trouble before (think before the fourth line found their groove) and could be trouble down the stretch, especially if the second line doesn’t start pulling their weight soon.

Assumptions:
Paul won’t ever break the magical bond that is 26-55-X despite the fact that the second line is begging for play-drivers, and 26/55 are seemingly getting gassed in games leading to turnovers, long shifts hemmed in their end and uneventful shifts in the offensive zone.

Solution: One we already employ. Let’s lean on the shutdown line a little more.  Paul is not shy to do this, but tends to match top lines against teams with a little more speed. But if we want 26/55 to save gas, make less mistakes, while also generating more offense, I think there’s more juice to squeeze out of 17 and his linemates. First, a story:

When Adam Lowry was declared the first star of the home game against the Stars earlier this year, the seats in the dimly lit Bell MTS Place were much emptier than they were ten minutes prior. An arena tends to look like that after two late goals secure a 5-1 victory, with traffic looming and post-game beers inviting. However, I was there jumping up and down and cheering as if he’d just scored the overtime game winner. I mean, he did score an effort goal off his own rebound out of the box and rendered the maligned Benn-Seguin line useless all game. I scoped out my two buddies who were in another section and we exaggerated to match each others’ goofiness. They know how much I love Adam Lowry.

One of the not-so-secret ingredients to the Jets surge last year was the “shutdown” line centred by Adam Lowry. This line can grind out minutes of puck control against top lines which limits the impact of their ice-time and creates ideal situations for our lines with more firepower.

The Adam Lowry line, with Brandon Tanev and the recent match-made-in-heaven Mathieu Perreault (previously Andrew Copp), is expected to emulate what the entire team intends to do every time they step on the ice. Maintain possession in the offensive zone, disrupt possession in the defensive zone. This doesn’t always result in goals, but it doesn’t need to.

Adam Lowry is a player who can please old-school hockey guys who could care less about what’s on the spreadsheet. His 6-foot-5, 210 lb frame leaves him well-equipped to succeed in the dirty spots of the ice, lay bone-rattling hits and be the first (well, 2nd if Buff is on the ice) to police any opposing player who gets too cute in the crease. The guy has grit by the truck-load. In today’s league, however, grit alone will not let you crack a lineup for a meaningful chunk of minutes.

That’s why it’s a great thing to have a guy like Lowry, who jumps off the screen in your grandpa’s living room AND jumps off the spreadsheet. He is an elite center for the role he plays and the prototype for other teams who need to maximize their value at the position.

Let’s see some numbers.

The reason why Adam Lowry is attributed with his line success is not just because he centres it. It is because his presence anchors the rest of the players who go over the boards with him, whoever they may be. The below graphic from HockeyViz (see info at the bottom) shows the impact that Lowry has on other players this season and last.

lowryad93
2018-19 so far
lowryad93-2017
2017-18

The with or without you charts are just one of the ways to measure individual impact of a player. My Tanev hating days are long over, love the guy, but check out 13 with/without 17. Pick whichever player you want, but 17 has helped nearly every player reach better shot generation and cessation in large enough sample sizes.

I included 2017-18 because it’s just so beautiful. A relic of time months ago where team defense wasn’t just a theory, it was a way of life, championed by 17 and the Jets blue-liners.

As stated before, middle of the ice defense has been an issue especially compared to last year. Early in the year people were concerned with Bucky’s performance and a lot of it was warranted. However, a big part of his success last year was due to the well-documented ability of the Jets to ensure the shots that reach the net were from the perimeter, giving him a chance to make the play.

Let’s go back to HockeyViz to see how Lowry helps this issue with his isolated impact relative to league average heat-maps.

2018-19 so far

2017-18

Again, compared to the dominance of 2017 (I mean, come on) this year has been a step back. Hot spots in the middle of the ice are haunting a lot of Jets skaters this year. However, 17 is still personifying a path forward for the Jets defensively and should be relied on to control the shots in our zone.

Based on history, leaning on Adam Lowry a little more in tougher matchups in order to give Mark and Blake a breather is a strategy Paul shouldn’t shy away from.But really, in conclusion, I cherry-picked a current potential issue and proposed a non-innovative solution  in order to talk about my favourite Jet.

Follow my Adam Lowry fan account on Twitter: @kKostyy

All visualizations are from HockeyViz (@HockeyViz) created by Micah Blake McCurdy (@Ineffective Math). Follow him, become a Patron, and destroy your friends and Twitter trolls with indisputable evidence in the form of pretty pictures! Link: https://hockeyviz.com/

I Got a Golden Ticket

 

Live playoff hockey is just different. At least, if you are part of a fanbase that understands that.  The terrific performances of Carrie Underwood and Sheryl Crow, the epic image of Taylor Lewan of the Tennessee Titans drinking his weight in Bud Light off  of a catfish. These were spectacles that will be forgotten in time as they do not represent what playoff hockey is really about.

For the players, it is about extreme focus, speed and physicality.  It is moving your feet, your eyes, the puck, and repeating this sequence for sixty minutes. It is the idea that one wrong movement will open the door for your counterpart to strike. It is knowing that any loose puck can save or end your night.

As a fan, you pay to get into the building to feel even a sliver of that intensity. Or if you can’t afford it, you flock to a beer-for-ballot ticket raffle at a local restaurant on a weekday, risking your health and wallet, only to lose (sigh).

I first had my first taste of playoff hockey as a neutral fan in the Pepsi Centre in Colorado. Well, neutral fan may be disingenuous. I wanted the Avalanche to kick the  Predators teeth in.

And if I didn’t on the way there, I did as soon as walked through the door.

That’s a fanbase who understands the implications of playoff hockey. They nuture the  hatred for opposing players that grows as the series does. They swivel in their seats with each flick of the puck. They chant when the boys need a pick-me-up. They scream at the refs when they feel cheated and they explode when the puck goes in the other net.

Most importantly, their entire mood is dictated by the outcome.

If you remember Game 4 of that series, the Avs fell down 3-0 in what was basically a clinic in forechecking and backchecking by the Preds. They rallied late but it was to no avail. I spent most of the time just watching Nathan McKinnon skate around (another perk of live hockey, what a treat). The building was deflated with a realization that would soon be confirmed later that series. They bargained with themselves that the team could steal one in Nashville, but everybody knew what was coming.

They had paid a lot of money to get there, and a great lot of them felt awful by the end of the night.

The concept of allowing your mental health be affected by the outcome of a game played by overpaid, grown men is one that I have struggled with most of my adult life. It is something you learn to deal with as a sports fanatic.

You stop cancelling plans to watch the game (although, what good are plans if they are not to watch the game?), you stop scrutinizing the box scores and the actions of players off the field of play. You learn to be realistic about the outcome of each move your team makes, each play that goes your way and those that don’t.

But all of that realism goes out the window once you are there in the flesh.

Golden Ticket

On Monday I had the divine privilege of being inside Bell MTS Place for the second Western Conference Final game in Winnipeg history. Myself along with two of my coworkers won tickets through a late office ticket raffle that we did not expect to see for the rest of the year. There was practically no time for the excitement to set in as we rushed from work to get to our barn.

I am not sure I will ever have fortune to experience anything like this again.

The energy in the stands when the players take the ice is unmatched anywhere else in the league. The Whiteout shining through the dimmed lights of the pre-game, the power of fifteen-thousand people shouting “True North!” during our anthem. The first “Go Jets Go!” that lasts well through the first shift. To find a comparable scene you would have to go back to 2011, even then you would be hard pressed to find a crowd like that one.

And then, intense silence.

The silence of a fanbase that understands the implications of every faceoff, every movement, pass and puck bobble. Every individual dialed in to the game. All of us trying to tune into the mind of our favourite players, how they see the ice in front of them, why they make the decisions they do.

The silence is broken up by gasps as pucks sail through the crease and rattle off posts. The desperate screaming at a puck that sneaks through the five-hole of Fleury, hoping you can yell the dumb, piece of rubber into the back of the net. Disapproving ooh’s as a pass misses the tape by a millimeter, or bounces off the boards at an incorrect angle.

And it’s difficult. Especially difficult when ten minutes of dominance are wiped away by five minutes of mistakes that leaves your team down 2-0. The teams rely on home ice for two things, the energy of the crowd and the last change. But the former is hard to come by from a group of individuals as intense about hockey as Winnipeg is. They just focus too much on the minute movements of the game.

It sounds like an awful cop-out, I know. I even tweeted out a plea to the crowd to get loud during Game 4 of the Nashville series (one of the really boring, trappy games). I couldn’t understand the idea that you pay to be in that building, have the opportunity to be that energy and cannot contribute.

They want to be that energy. They want to be more than a half-hearted “Go Jets Go” chant, or unearned “Fleury” chirp. But the game needs to allow them to be. Too much of their emotion is attached to the outcome.

Because when Kyle Connor squeaked a shot through the body of Marc-Andre, the building erupted.

I have never heard a building sound like that. Not without the help of several hundred watts of guitar amps. The goal horn was drowned out by deafening white noise. The red-light signalled a man-made earthquake caused by thousands of white-clad bodies shifting their weight to the ceiling at the same time.

It was absolutely electric. The same electricity that I have felt throughout the city for a month, in my apartment, in the bars and the street-party. It manifested into a beautiful ground-fault, surging through 300 Portage Avenue at minute 7:17 of the third period.

And then it was gone. Not more than a minute and half later.

High Ceiling, Low Floor

None of us go to live sporting events to watch our team lose.  Before the game, you are excited just to be there. But nothing can prepare you for the emptiness associated with a loss. Snapping out of the trance of the game wondering what just happened. Leaving a building wishing that you had cheered a little harder. What could have been if the puck moved a couple inches to the left.

That is the gamble you take when you enter that building. You lay your emotional well-being in the hands of strangers who want nothing more than to return it full of memories that make up a victory.

There’s absolutely nothing like it. When the sum of all those electric moments outweigh the deflating ones. When the fifteen thousand of you now share in a moment, trapped in time, that can never be erased by past or future puck-drops. Watching the team on the ice, a band of brothers who created that moment, celebrate with you.

The Jets are 1-2-2 this year when I am at the game, and have yet to beat Vegas, so you can aim the blame at me (but then I also get the credit for our unconvincing 4-3 win against a checked-out Sabres team). But that won’t ever stop me from chasing that high you can’t get from the television or the box score, even if it comes with a lower low.

The series is 1-1. It wasn’t going to be a sweep, shame on any of us for thinking so. Ryan Reaves can take his shots at his hometown crowd for the lack of volume, but maybe he should focus on playing hockey, something he’s struggled with this year. I’m sure the Vegas crowd will be loud, I’m not so sure that it will be in sync with the hockey game.

Envy doesn’t describe the feeling I have for the fifteeen thousand that will enter Bell MTS Place for at least one more game. At the same time, I recognize their potential pitfall. Depth that I avoid by staying on my couch at home.

But as soon as that Vegas red-light flashes. As soon as the camera zooms in on Fleury looking behind him, wondering what happened. I will be shaking my head, longing for that white-noise that consumed me on Monday.

IMG-1753
“Live at the Whiteout.” The calm before the storm. Courtesy of a fellow sports addict: Scott Mandziuk | @scottmandziuk
IMG-1752
Maximum pre-game hype. Everyone out of their seats. Taken by another friend, edited by Scott Mandziuk | @scottmandziuk

Please, Return to Your Seats

As the puck dropped on Thursday, a sudden wave of calm ran over me. I started to take to heart what I wrote in my last blog post. The idea that, regardless of outcome, this had been a magical season that had our Winnipeg Jets storming the gates of hockey superiority.

I was in a bar with fourteen other guys around a large round table we’d reserved for the game. The table had a lazy-Susan that we filled with multiple mini-kegs of beer. Nursing a cold I had caught from the late night on Monday, I decided to drive for my roomate and I. My roomate also happens to be one of my best friends and a major hockey fan, so we’d been through this a few times in the past month. In fact, I’d celebrated Jets wins and lamented the losses with most of these boys. In our apartment, downtown at the street party, we had made (and lost) a lot of memories.

And it all culminated to this moment, this game.

A single game would decide if we could keep doing this every second day. A dead even series between the two best teams in the league had definitely delivered on the hype.

“It certainly lived up to the extremes.” Paul Maurice, when asked if the series had done just that, stated through his normal, calculated squint. “I thought I’d be able to describe the games to you better than — if I had to go back and tell you how they went, they would seem so unusual.”

You could say that again. It was exhausting, honestly. I can’t even imagine how the players on the ice feel. Each game was like a world-class chess match where both Grandmasters had to walk a tight rope while playing. The strategy needed to be sound and the execution needed to be even better. When you first tuned in, you hoped the Jets had the opportunity to play their game. In the case of Game 7, they would need to steal that opportunity.

They did just that.

“Win or lose. We wanted to play our game. It’s what has given us success all year — that was it. Just keep it pretty simple”

Blake Wheeler, normally no-nonsense in a media scrum, gave his Captain’s speech with a sense of disbelief in how successful they were at doing it. I know that disbelief isn’t the word, because this team believes in themselves more than anyone. That belief is the bare-minimum for finding success at a high level in anything. But I think Wheels accidentally let on how special he thought what they had just accomplished was.

Or how special his team is.

For me to attempt to describe the game to you in terms of plays, match-ups, Corsi or any literal hockey term would be dishonest of me. I can tell you that Mark Scheifele set some sort of record and that the Paul Stastny trade looks like it might work out.

In reality, I spent most of the game jumping up and down, screaming in a public venue with fourteen of my friends. It was pure elation. The look in the eyes of every person there is something I won’t forget.

Fans of this team feel like they have played twelve games of post-season hockey, seven against a rival who stood eye to eye, went blow for blow. The weeks of cheering and agonizing, the hits to my body and bank account, the hours of conversation and analyzing every pass had come to a glorious head.

“… we’re just happy to keep playing for them” 

Wait, what? Oh, right. We’re only halfway.

And there’s no time for rest. I haven’t even stopped clapping at the curtain closing on the still frame of our hero standing victorious at the end of the latest battle.

But that’s why hockey provides the best playoffs in all of sports. The decisive grind of baseball, the individual showcases of basketball and football-like physicality, all wrapped into a two month meat-grinder ending with glory for few and heartbreak for most.

Ladies and gentleman, please return to your seats. The second act of the best play yet to be written starts tomorrow evening in our barn, and we will need you to get loud.

wpgwhiteout_2
At the Whiteout Street Party. Game 2 of the Wild series. Feels like years ago.

“We did it, we actually did it, let’s go!!!!” my best friend exclaimed in the bar, in the car, in the parking lot of our building, and finally in our apartment.

Cheering in a Crowded Empty Room

Welcome to Kosty’s Corner!

No, I don’t have a sharp-dressed, veteran national treasure on the left for comedic relief. Or the smooth, calm narrative voice of the guy on the right. But we can all aspire to find a voice as iconic as those two.

Sports are the last form of pure, unfiltered reality entertainment. They are an infinite source of characters, story lines, plot-twists, happy endings and tragedies. For the less dramatic, they provide a wealth of statistics, ripe for analysis, trending and predicting future outcomes.

I’ll be posting my opinions, analysis and stories on baseball, football and hockey in the form of raw ramblings on this site, and hopefully find my feet as I go. Along the way, I hope that you find something you can relate to or enjoy.

To quote Grapes himself:

“A million comedians starving to death and you’re trying to be one” – Don Cherry

Well, there’s a million people talking sports on the internet, but I need to do it. My girlfriend would really like to talk about something else.

If you want to comment on something, chat, argue, or scream at me your best bet is @kKostyy on Twitter!