Jets blue line ready for takeoff after last season’s struggles

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The Jets have been seeking a new defensive identity for over a year. Without Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers, Dustin Byfuglien and Ben Chiarot, getting together an established defensive corps has been a struggle.

Between the injuries and uncertainty a year ago, Winnipeg couldn’t keep a cohesive defensive group on the ice, not to mention create that identity, with all the restructuring.

Despite this, they finished last season with a respectable 201 goals allowed, 12th best in the league, behind Vezina Trophy winner Connor Hellebuyck. Yet, even with Hellebuyck at the helm, the Jets ranked in the bottom third of the league in shots against, scoring chances against, and expected goals against.

It wasn’t all that long ago the Jets were a 114-point team. Things went down quickly, being upset in the First Round of the 2019 postseason and missing out altogether last year with their defensive in shambles.

Between Hellebuyck and a solid forwards group, it’s not like the Jets are a disaster. A defense that has any semblance of an identity should set them on the right track.

The question is how quickly that identity can come together in a shortened season.

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There won’t be a ton of time to adjust on the fly. A schedule as condensed as this season’s leaves little room for error, and a poor start can be too big a hole to dig out of. Luckily for the Jets, the all-Canadian North Division isn’t exactly bursting with elite clubs.

There’s certainly room for them to get into a playoff spot, with four of the seven Canadian clubs making the postseason. 

Some of their defensive questions can be answered in the form of Josh Morrissey and Neal Pionk with the addition of Dylan DeMelo. That’s a core that can be built up from. DeMelo playing alongside Morrissey should also alleviate Morrissey’s struggles from last season, when he was paired all over the map.

The rest goes downhill rather quickly, and that’s where concern lies.

If youngsters Ville Heinola and Dylan Samberg elevate their game it puts the Jets in a better position, but it’s tough to rely on newly-minted NHL defensemen to solve all the woes from the previous group.

More likely, though, two of Nathan Beaulieu, Tucker Poolman, Luca Sbisa and Sami Niku will fight for a spot on the third pairing, while new addition Derek Forbort would likely skate with the Jets leading minutes-eater in Pionk.

Heinola has played top minutes for Finland at the World Junior Championship in Edmonton, so he could come into camp hot and see himself in a major role if he performs.

Forbort’s presence alongside Pionk should make for a solid defensive pairing. Pionk made drastic strides last year to be one of the Jets only true positives, and Forbort’s hefty defensive experience with the Kings and Flames can only help.

There weren’t a ton of reliable defense-first options for them a year ago, so Forbort just being there is an upgrade.

Pionk can run a lot offensively; he was in the top five last season in points per minute at 5-on-4. His power play presence is excellent, and can only get better with time if the 25-year-old has some reliable help on defense and doesn’t have to play as strenuously. 

Perhaps the best case scenario is one of the young guys seizes a spot on the third pairing and Beaulieu or Niku recover from last season. Even if that possibility remains in flux, a more solid top four is going to set the Jets in a direction they never had the opportunity for last year.

Pionk could take another leap and Forbort and DeMelo solve some issues. All in all, the Jets defense has to feel a bit more comfortable.

The Jets still have a lot of problems to get through — signing Jack Roslovic, who is seeking a trade, and figuring out Patrik Laine — but any sort of established defensive identity is going to have them on a better track.

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Marisa Ingemi is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop her a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow her on Twitter @Marisa_Ingemi.

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