The Winnipeg Jets have an odd problem. After years of surviving on defence when left-side stalwart Toby Enstrom was hurt, they are now entering the season without him. This was to be expected and has been obvious for a long time. While it is understandable to not have a second pairing defenceman playing on the third pair in case of injury, it is not understandable to enter the season without a plan to replace the player when they are lost.
There was hardly a market for good defencemen during free agency, but there had to have been a market to potentially trade for one to solidify the defence beyond the mess that it is now. Last year it was at it’s best when both Dmitry Kulikov and Tyler Myers were on the third pair with a first pairing of Josh Morrissey and Jacob Trouba with Enstrom and Dustin Byfuglien on the second pair.
Thankfully the Jets still have Morrissey and Trouba and they cannot afford to lose them. They also cannot afford to lose Byfuglien who more than anything is going to have to anchor the second pairing like never before. When Enstrom was at his best, he allowed Byfuglien to roam all over the ice while he sat back and managed the wayward moments with ease. Even as he declined, he complemented Byfuglien perfectly.
With Enstrom gone, Paul Maurice has had to try new players beside Byfuglien knowing that this is no temporary fix and that someone has to be able to handle those minutes beside Byfuglien. Interestingly enough two players who would seem like shoe-ins for an audition, Dmitry Kulikov and Sami Niku, were not given a shot beside him. When it comes to Kulikov, maybe they do not want to push him too much following off-season back surgery. In the case of Niku...maybe they think he is too young? Either way, Joe Morrow, Ben Chiarot, and Tyler Myers on his off-side have all been tested alongside Byfuglien.
I have included Kulikov because it is concievable that he can play beside Byfuglien in the regular season. Before I get to Joe Morrow, the other three players have played their roles well. Chiarot is the exact type of player you want being the seventh/eighth defenceman: he is older, he can fill in in a pinch, and he does not lose development time when not playing. Myers was great in his role last season on the third pairing with Kulikov. Kulikov was great in his role beside Myers on the third pairing. Joe Morrow on the other hand is a player who gives as much as he takes. He can score own goals and goals for his team frequently. He played beside Shea Weber last season and he looked out of place there. Like Chiarot, he is a fine seventh defenceman, but not much else.
The key number on the chart above is the relCF% or Corsi-for relative to their team. This means that Morrow does not get punished for being on the Habs nor do any of the Jets get rewarded for being on a stronger team. If we consider that Kulikov and Myers recorded their numbers playing on their strong sides, it would make the most sense to for Kulikov to be promoted and for Myers and Morrow to get butter-soft third pairing minutes in the offensive zone where they make a positive contribution.
On paper the Jets should be a good team. Their forwards are deep and look like they will be able to withstand a lot. Their goaltending should be solid; at least their starter is great. Their defence is a question mark though and that is a problem. The Jets often look lost in the defensive zone and adding in a shaky second pairing to that already fire-drill-like play could lead to some tense moments. They can survive not having a conventional second-pairing defenceman because Byfuglien can carry someone, but they need to give him the right player to carry and as of right now, that player has not even gotten the chance to play beside him.
What does this all mean for the Jets? It means that they might be an under-performing team next year. It is unlikely, but it is possible. However, as TJ Maughan pointed out last night the Washington Capitals started last season with Aaron Ness, Taylor Chorney, and Brooks Orpik and they won the Stanley Cup. A lot can change during the season, but this is definitely something to watch for as the year progresses.