WINNIPEG – There were no marquee free-agent signing and no blockbuster deals.
So why are the Winnipeg Jets expecting their defence corps to be an area of improvement in 2021?
First and foremost, the turnover on the back end is nothing like it was last off-season, when the notable departures included Jacob Trouba via trade, Ben Chiarot and Tyler Myers in free agency and Dustin Byfuglien becoming an unexpected late scratch after losing the desire to play.
That type of churn would have been challenging for most teams to overcome and the Jets were no exception.
On too many nights, the Jets were reliant on superior goaltending to keep them in games, which is one of the reasons Connor Hellebuyck ended up winning his first Vezina Trophy.
This is not to suggest the defence corps alone was at fault for the increased volume of high-danger scoring chances the Jets surrendered last season. But with elite goaltending and a skilled group of forwards, it’s impossible to ignore the defence corps took a step back. The Jets went from having one of the deepest — and expensive — blue lines to one that was patched together by waiver claims and budget-conscious depth players.
While Winnipeg didn’t break the bank and bring in a star, they made several necessary adjustments this off-season, retaining the services of trade-deadline acquisition Dylan DeMelo and bringing in Derek Forbort. They also made one-year deals to keep Nathan Beaulieu and Luca Sbisa, who provide experience, leadership and familiarity.
Kulikov supplied some steady minutes last season, including plenty on the second pairing with Neal Pionk, but encountered several injuries during his three-year tenure and never really met the expectations of a guy that carried a contract with an average annual value of $4.33 million.
The combined value of the deals for DeMelo ($3 million for four seasons) and Forbort ($1 million for one season) don’t add up to that total. But this isn’t about the simple allocation of dollars.
DeMelo immediately helped stabilize the Jets’ defence. Although he isn’t going to fill the highlight reel, his strengths are more nuanced. He’s patient under pressure and thinks the game at an elite level, which allows his partner to play with confidence and know that an outlet is almost always available. DeMelo has an offensive side to his game, but flourishes in a shutdown role.
In addition to meshing well with Josh Morrissey on the top pair, DeMelo’s arrival pushed Tucker Poolman down to the third pair — which, given his NHL experience, is a spot he is more likely to succeed in.
Forbort dealt with a back injury last season that limited him to 20 games (before suiting up in 10 more during the playoffs with the Calgary Flames), but prior to that he missed only five games over three seasons.
While he’s not a flashy player who is going to put up a lot of points, the Los Angeles Kings trusted him enough to use him extensively on the top pairing with Drew Doughty. Forbort brings a physical element to the group and he’s known for his ability to block shots and clear the front of the net. He should also provide a boost to the penalty kill, which is an area the Jets need to be better at this season.
Morrissey is the undisputed leader of the Jets’ defence corps. By his own admission, there were some ups-and-downs last season, which were understandable given the circumstances. His most frequent defence partners during the past three seasons (Trouba and Byfuglien) were gone and Morrissey was forced to shoulder a big chunk of the load.
As the season wore on, Morrissey got back to utilizing his strengths and providing the consistent play he’s become known for. Upon returning to training camp in July, Morrissey revealed the shoulder injury he suffered prior to the trade deadline in 2019 impacted his summer training and that he used the time during the pause to get stronger.
Morrissey, who signed an eight-year extension prior to training camp (which kicks in this season and carries an AAV of $6.25 million) and was named an alternate captain, holds himself to a high standard. You can expect him to build on the career-high 31 points he recorded and on the chemistry he and DeMelo began to forge last season.
Pionk performed admirably after coming over from the Rangers in the deal for Trouba, exceeding the expectations of many observers who didn’t know what the Jets were getting. He was sixth on the Jets in scoring, chipping in a career-best 45 points (nearly doubling the 26 he had the year previous) while averaging more than 23 minutes per game.
Now it’s up to Pionk to show that’s a level he can continue to play at.
Many have pondered whether the Jets could — or even should — have done more to address their needs.
It’s a fair question, but it’s important to remember there are several forces at play.
Even without signing restricted free agent Jack Roslovic to a new deal, the Jets are currently over the salary-cap ceiling. Yes, some relief is likely coming as Bryan Little is expected to be placed on LTIR, but the Jets have three internal candidates that could determine whether or not further help is required.
Two of the Jets’ top prospects are 2019 first-rounder Ville Heinola and 2017 second-rounder Dylan Samberg.
Heinola, 19, is off to a tremendous start to the Liiga season, producing a goal and 14 points in 19 games with Lukko Rauma. The 20th overall pick is getting ready to head to Edmonton with Team Finland for his third appearance at the world junior hockey championship, where he’s expected to play a pivotal role.
Just how the delayed start to the season impacts both Heinola and Samberg remains to be seen. Samberg is two years older and more mature physically, but hasn’t played a game since March, when his junior season at the University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs campaign came to an abrupt end.
Heinola figures to enjoy the benefit of having more than 25 games under his belt at a high level of competition by the time he arrives at Jets’ training camp. For a guy who already got his feet wet with eight NHL games last season, one could easily make the argument Heinola could once again force his way onto the opening-day roster.
The wild card is Sami Niku, who entered last season looking like someone who was going to challenge for regular duty, only to suffer through a number of injuries and frustrations that limited him to 17 games with the Jets and 18 with the Manitoba Moose.
Niku’s mobility and vision are two qualities that should serve him well, but it’s up to him to work his way into the discussion – especially since he’s no longer exempt from waivers.
Two other big factors are left to consider, the first being the Seattle Kraken expansion draft, which is slated for this summer.
Barring something unforeseen, the Jets are expected to protect Morrissey, DeMelo and Pionk, so adding another D-man with term doesn’t make a lot of sense — unless he’s a significant upgrade.
With a shortened season looming and the pandemic impacting the bottom line of all teams, there’s a belief that some clubs with decisions coming for expansion or that are looking to shed salary could be interested in making moves well before the NHL trade deadline.
If that’s the case and none of the internal options work out for the Jets, the opportunity to dip into the LTIR funds will be something general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff explores.
Should the right player be available, the Jets would look to strike — just as they did at the last three NHL trade deadlines when working to bolster the second-line centre position.
Even without another deal, you can be sure Paul Maurice and his coaching staff are a lot more comfortable going into training camp than they were in September of 2019.
This isn’t a group with a bunch of headliners, but the supporting cast has the ability to be steadier than a lot of observers think.
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