What some viewed as the team’s biggest strength just a few seasons ago has quickly devolved into one of their biggest question marks. No, not the goaltending (was that ever a strength?) I’m talking about the D-corps of the Winnipeg Jets. Finishing an abysmal 4th for most goals allowed, no one can doubt there is a lot of work to do with this group.
The team is coming into the season with the likes of Jacob Trouba, Dustin Byfuglien, Josh Morrissey, Toby Enstrom, Tyler Myers and Dmitri Kulikov as the presumptive top 6 D-men. On paper, that might sound alright but from a practical standpoint, there are some pitfalls that have to be navigated.
· Will Jacob Trouba sign a long term deal? Will he be traded?
· Will Josh Morrissey suffer a sophomore slump?
· Will Byfuglien keep his high level of offense? Or Will his defensive lapses finally become too much?
· Will Toby Enstrom have enough gas in the tank for another season?
· Will Kulikov rebound to his Florida form or is his back injury too severe?
· Will Myers play anything close to a full season again? 3 major surgeries in one calendar year are worrisome.
You can see what I mean.
Now that isn’t saying everything is all doom and gloom.
While it is possible that Josh Morrissey could suffer a sophomore slump, his poise and mental fortitude has gotten him through some already tumultuous times in his short stint with the Jets. Not making the team his first couple attempts really put Josh into a down state of mind. However, in his time with the Manitoba Moose he was resilient and fought to claim his spot on the Jets top pairing, alongside Jacob Trouba. I believe he’ll be able to meet any adversity this season head on and be successful.
Tucker Poolman: The exciting 23 year old out of the University of Notre Dame has finally agreed to his ELC with the Jets, signing his pro deal back in March. The versatile right handed defender spent time last season playing both the left and right side of the blue line as well as upfront on the power play. He’s a big body and skates well. If injuries strike the Jets D-corps, Tucker could get his chance to show his stuff as early as this season.
Sami Niku; A late round draft gem in 2015, Niku has the offensive talent to be a near elite scoring D-man. He has been playing pro hockey in Finland for 3 years already and has also agreed to his ELC with the Jets. It would only take a couple injuries to see Niku suiting up for the big club. Even though a full season with the AHLs Manitoba Moose might be more beneficial while he adjusts to the North American sized ice, it’s only a matter of time before we see Niku lighting up the league.
How will the Defensive pairings look this year?
Morrissey – Trouba
(This should be the Jets top pairing for the next almost decade. Both Josh and Jacob are young and can drive the play at will. Morrissey’s slow and steady improvement over the course of the season last year and his ability to elevate his game late in the year really gave the Jets the left handed top pairing defender they had been missing. He was reliable, smart and strong on the puck. Exactly what the team needed. Trouba may have missed all the pre-season last year and he didn’t join the team until November 7th but that didn’t stop him from being arguably the Jets best player and certainly their best D. Trouba will be looking to capitalize on another massive season leading this team’s defensive unit (Hello contract year!) and hopefully sign a long term deal.)
Enstrom – Byfuglien
(The old reliable shoe. Yeah it’s getting older, yeah it’s a bit tattered and maybe it’s not as exciting as it once was but man it gets the job done. Enstrom and Byfuglien aren’t the top pairing “Thunder and Lightning” they were in 2011 but they know and complement each other’s game so well. Byfuglien can still be high end offensive piece but he seems to have lost the ability to carry lesser defenders. Toby Enstrom took a lot of heat from Jets fans last year, and while his offensive prowess has all but dried up, his ability to be a secure partner for a more adventurous player is still strong. Puck possession and shot suppression stats still have Enstrom as a capable top 4, NHL D-man. The caveat is, they need to find a way to keep both their minutes down, which leads me to…)
Kulikov – Myers
(The two biggest unknowns on the Defensive roster, Myers and Kulikov, are also the pieces that could have the biggest impact. If Kulikov finds the form he displayed as a member of the Florida Panthers and if Myers resembles the player brought over in the 2015 trade of Evander Kane then this bottom pairing could be a dominant unit and one that provides the type of relief a 32 year old Byfuglien needs to be successful. We all know Big Buff does his best when his minutes are managed around the 23 minute mark. If Myers and Kulikov can show they can handle the load a bit more, it’ll allow Maurice and Huddy to play Byfuglien less, keeping him fresh and effective. However if Kulikov’s back injury is too much to take, and/or Myers knees and hips and groin suffer another setback, we could be in for a long season watching Buff get burned late in games.)
While the future seems to be clear for the Jets on D, the “right now” is still murky. It’s going to take Paul Maurice, Charlie Huddy and Jaime Kompon working together to find a defensive scheme that fits this group if the Jets are going to have anything close to a playoff season.