How much will Jets’ defense improve after big offseason changes?

How much will Jets improve on defense after big offseason changes?
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Like plenty of other NHL teams, the Winnipeg Jets have been busy trying to improve their defense during this offseason. Rather than adding splashy free-agent defensemen, the Jets instead explored trades, landing Nate Schmidt and Brenden Dillon.

Maybe most crucially, they didn’t lose deeply underrated defenseman Dylan DeMelo to the Kraken expansion draft.

For what was a truly terrible Jets defense unit, that does make the offseason look like a big victory. Recently, The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun wondered if the Jets “won” the offseason (sub required).

If things work out the right way, the Jets could indeed be a lot better on defense. Will they actually be that much better, though? There are quite a few variables to consider — some big, some small — so let’s review some of the factors.

How much of Jets’ defensive struggles fall on Maurice?

For the past two seasons, the Jets have been jarringly bad on defense. Especially for a team with playoff (if not contending) aspirations.

By just about every underlying metric (shot share, expected goals, high-danger chances), the Jets were bad in 2020-21, and abysmal in 2019-20.

During that time, the Jets subsisted off of two things: a) Connor Hellebuyck carrying an enormous burden, and b) talented forwards outscoring any remaining problems. That format worked enough on a survival level, but also left Winnipeg exposed. Just look at that sweep at the hands of the Canadiens. The Jets didn’t just lose; they looked hopeless against a team with far better structure.

Over the years, I’ve often wondered: “How good of a coach is Paul Maurice, really?” From a perspective of actions alone, it sure doesn’t seem like Jets management is too concerned. Maurice has been with the Jets since 2013-14, and has rarely been out of a coaching job at the NHL level since 1995.

Lately, the question shifted slightly: how much should we blame Maurice’s system, and how much it boils down to personnel?

[Power Rankings: Best players still available in 2021 NHL Free Agency]

In losing Jacob Trouba, Dustin Byfuglien, and even Ben Chiarot, the Jets have still been stumbling to recover defensively.

To some degree, tactics point to Maurice asking as little as possible from his defensemen, while forcing his forwards to carry the load. Take a look at Jack Han’s breakdown, and you’ll see that the Jets just about command their defensemen to be innocent bystanders.

So, lately, forwards have asked to cover for defensemen in transition, and Hellebuyck’s asked to clean up a ton of mistakes. It’s largely been an untenable situation. With these offseason changes, Maurice and the Jets won’t have as many excuses about a sometimes clueless-looking defensive scheme?

But will they actually be better, at least in a way that matters? Let’s delve deeper.

Jets defense: additions, who needs to get better, and more

The Jets’ two big defensive additions are very different players, and come in with very different hopes.

If the hope is indeed to ask Jets defensemen to take few chances, and seldom make mistakes, then Brenden Dillon could fit like a glove.

On the other hand, the Jets are hoping that Nate Schmidt can shed a disturbing 2020-21 season, and be more like the dynamic defenseman we saw in Vegas.

That’s where the Maurice questions start to get pretty interesting.

For Schmidt to thrive, the Jets will probably need to allow him to “freelance” a bit. Or a lot. That style brings the risk-reward ratio that can sometimes leave coaches clenching their teeth.

In recent years, both the Canucks and Jets struggled to put their players, particularly defensemen, in situations to succeed. Meanwhile, the Golden Knights were able to get more out of a player like Schmidt.

[2021 NHL Free Agency Tracker]

Again, though — maybe it’s about personnel. Dillon gives Maurice a safe player with positive defensive results; Schmidt could really help the Jets in transition, and to get more offense from defense. Yet, the bad could heavily outweigh the good.

Frankly, Schmidt isn’t the only “reclamation project” for the Jets defense, either. If you look at the underlying numbers, Josh Morrissey‘s game has crashed since he lost Trouba as a defense partner.

How much will Jets improve on defense after big offseason changes? WAR-Josh
via Evolving Hockey

Yikes. It would be one thing if you could explain Morrissey’s struggles away by the aging curve. Merely 26-years-old, that argument doesn’t hold much water.

Could those new additions help Morrissey get back on track, one way or another? That’s a tough question to answer.

Underhanded? Some ‘addition by subtraction?’

Interestingly, the Jets may present some subtle tactical challenges from a “handedness” perspective. Look at their roster, and you won’t see many right-handed defensemen. Even some players comfortable playing on the right side are left-handed shots.

NHL teams chased right-handed defensemen this offseason, often to a degree of self-sabotage.

Instead of obessing over handedness, Adam Oates-style, the Jets sought sheer improvement on defense.

Darkly, there might be some “addition by subtraction.” Not only did the Jets add potentially better players on defense, they also lost some blueliners who might have been anchors. Derek Forbort and Tucker Poolman are out of the mix. Between the additions of Schmidt and Dillon, and maybe some more opportunities for Sami Niku, Logan Stanley, and Ville Heinola, there could be more room for improvement.

Small two-way losses?

While not glaring, the Jets did lose some defensive value among their forwards, however.

At 33, Mathieu Perreault‘s in the range of diminishing returns. Even so, he’s been a diamond in the rough for quite some time.

Hockey Viz Perreault

Mason Appleton generates similar results — positive defense, middling offense — and the Jets lost Appleton to the Kraken.

By no means is that the end of the world, mind you. For one thing, the all-defense addition of Riley Nash could mitigate some of those setbacks. The “eye test” fooled people into thinking too highly about Pierre-Luc Dubois‘ two-way prowess, but it wouldn’t hurt if he could settle in with the Jets a bit more, either. (And, hey, they didn’t lose Paul Stastny.)

Perhaps most importantly, the forward group might be an area that improves if Maurice integrate those Jets defensive additions in a beneficial way.

For years, there have been rumblings that the Jets’ star forwards struggle more defensively than many realize. The questions bubble up often enough that Maurice blew a gasket when asked about Blake Wheeler‘s so-so underlying metrics.

Could the Jets get more from their forwards, defensively speaking, by asking them to do less? It’s an interesting thought.

Hellebuyck or bust?

There’s one more factor that could offset even an improved Jets defense.

What if Connor Hellebuyck falls off after the Jets leaned on him so much, for so long?

Since 2016-17, Hellebuyck easily leads all goalies in games played with 289. (Sergei Bobrovsky ranks second with 271 GP.) During that span, Hellebuyck’s the only goalie to make 8,000 saves. Only four goalies even faced 8,000 shot attempts since 2016-17:

  1. Hellebuyck – 8,802 shot attempts.
  2. Frederik Andersen – 8,466
  3. Andrei Vasilevskiy – 8,110
  4. Bobrovsky – 8,043

Wear-and-tear can be a difficult thing to gauge with goalies. Look at Vasilevskiy. When he first became a starter, he admitted that fatigue became a factor for him. Yet, he’s been an incredible workhorse during the Lightning’s repeat Stanley Cup runs.

Like 27-year-old Vasilevskiy, at least Hellebuyck is in his prime years at age 28.

Personally, there’s some concern that teams can break down a goalie like a less extreme version of NFL teams giving running backs too many “touches.”

That’s of greater concern for Hellebuyck because, unlike Vasilevskiy, those minutes haven’t been easy. There’s at least some risk that the Jets might improve on defense right as Hellebuyck might hit a wall.

With that in mind, it’s a bit unfortunate that the Jets didn’t poke around a bit more for a backup they could lean on. Maybe it won’t matter — the Lightning repeated while it was easy to forget that Curtis McElhinney was even around — but it’s at least a mild gamble.

Overall, the Jets figure to be better on defense

For all of that hand-wringing, the Jets absolutely deserve credit for improving their defense.

It’s up to Paul Maurice to make better meals with what sure looks like a higher-quality list of ingredients. To make it all work, they’ll need to be smart — and more than a little bit lucky.


James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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    Ducks hire former Leafs, Islanders assistant Greg Cronin as head coach

    Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

    ANAHEIM, Calif. — The Anaheim Ducks have hired veteran NHL assistant and AHL head coach Greg Cronin to be their new head coach.

    Ducks general manager Pat Verbeek announced the decision to hire the 60-year-old Cronin, who will be a first-time NHL head coach.

    Cronin has 12 years of experience as an NHL assistant with the Toronto Maple Leafs and in two stints with the New York Islanders. The Massachusetts native has been the head coach of the AHL’s Colorado Eagles since 2018, and he spent six years as a collegiate head coach at Northeastern.

    Verbeek called Cronin “the ideal fit” to take over a young, rebuilding team.

    “I felt we needed a teacher of the finer points of the game, and someone who has worked extensively over time with talented young players, helping them develop into successful NHL players,” Verbeek said. “Greg has done all that and more.”

    Cronin replaces Dallas Eakins, whose contract wasn’t renewed in April after the Ducks finished their fourth consecutive losing season of his tenure. Anaheim finished in last place in the overall NHL standings at 23-47-12.

    The Ducks never finished higher than sixth in the Pacific Division during Eakins’ four years in charge. They’ve missed the playoffs in a franchise-record five straight seasons, and Anaheim was the NHL’s worst defensive team of the 21st century by several measures during the just-completed season.

    Cronin takes over a struggling team that is still loaded with young talent, including the No. 2 overall pick in the upcoming draft and a wealth of farm prospects seemingly ready to break into the NHL. Anaheim has a solid long-term base with playmaking center Trevor Zegras, two-time All-Star Troy Terry and promising forward Mason McTavish.

    Cronin has never led an NHL bench, but he interviewed for the Boston Bruins’ vacancy a year ago.

    He becomes only the Ducks’ fourth permanent head coach since Henry and Susan Samueli bought the franchise from Disney in 2005, joining Randy Carlyle, Bruce Boudreau and Eakins.

    Canadiens sign Cole Caufield to 8-year, $62.8 million extension

    David Kirouac-USA TODAY Sports

    MONTREAL — The Montreal Canadiens signed Cole Caufield to an eight-year, $62.8 million contract extension.

    The deal, which will pay the 22-year-old winger an average annual salary of $7.85 million, runs through the 2030-31 season.

    Caufield scored 26 goals and added 10 assists in 46 games in 2022-23 before he underwent season-ending surgery on his right shoulder in February.

    Despite missing nearly half the season, Caufield led the Canadiens in goals for the second consecutive season, tied with Nick Suzuki.

    Montreal selected Caufield in the first round (15th overall) of the 2019 draft.

    Since making his NHL debut in 2020-21, the forward has 84 points (53 goals, 31 assists) in 123 NHL games.

    Vegas Golden Knights come back to beat Florida Panthers in Game 1 of Stanley Cup Final

    Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

    LAS VEGAS – Back in the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in five years and trailing the Florida Panthers less than 10 minutes into Game 1, the Vegas Golden Knights sent a very clear message.

    “We were ready,” Jonathan Marchessault said.

    Ready and dominant. Vegas rallied from an early deficit, got the go-ahead goal from Zach Whitecloud with just over 13 minutes left and arguably the best save of the playoffs from Adin Hill and beat Florida 5-2 Saturday night to take the lead in the best-of-seven series.

    “We kept out composure, and it was good,” said Marchessault, one of six original Knights players left from the start of the franchise in 2017 who scored the tying goal in the first period. “We just wanted to play the right way and be disciplined, and tonight we were able to be the better team.”

    Whitecloud put Vegas ahead, a crucial penalty kill followed and captain Mark Stone scored an insurance goal that was reviewed for a high stick and confirmed. Reilly Smith sealed it with an empty-netter to make the score look more lopsided than the game.

    The combination of that offense and Hill’s 33 saves put Vegas up after a feisty opener between Sun Belt teams who wasted little time getting acquainted with big hits during play and plenty of post-whistle pushing and shoving.

    “It’s exactly what we expected,” said Vegas defenseman Shea Theodore, who scored his first goal of the playoffs and ended a 27-game drought dating to March 7. “That’s how they wanted to play. We were just trying not to play into it.”

    That stuff is just beginning. Game 2 is Monday in Las Vegas.

    Before the Panthers even get a chance to respond, they ratcheted up the physical play late after falling behind by two. A handful of penalties resulting from a fracas with 4:24 remaining left the Florida bench well short.

    The outcome was determined long before that.

    After falling behind on a short-handed goal by Eric Staal that sucked the life out of the crowd of 18,432, the Golden Knights rallied for their ninth comeback win this playoffs. Marchessault – known since arriving in Las Vegas for scoring big goals – answered before the end of the first period.

    Early in the second, Hill made a desperation stick save to rob Nick Cousins of what would have been a sure goal. The save was reminiscent of the one Washington’s Braden Holtby made against Vegas – in the same crease – five years ago.

    “That’s an unreal save – it’s a game-changer,” coach Bruce Cassidy said. “You need those saves at key moments.”

    Giving up a tying goal to Anthony Duclair with 10.2 seconds left in the second did not slow the Golden Knights’ momentum much. Whitecloud’s goal, with two-time Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky screened and unable to see, fired up fans once again.

    Bobrovsky, in the final for the first time, downplayed any reason for concern after stopping 29 of 34 shots and losing for just the second time in 12 games this postseason.

    “I played a good game,” Bobrovsky said. “I played a solid game. They created some good chances other than goals. They had lots of good scoring chances, and that was fun.”

    Part of the fun came when play was stopped.

    Less than 10 minutes in, Hill was none too happy about Nick Cousins crashing into his crease and gave the agitating Panthers winger a jab that incited a handful of scrums. During the second period, Matthew Tkachuk let Vegas’ Nic Hague know he wasn’t thrilled about a hit in the corner on Cousins and a collision with Brandon Montour after the whistle.

    “If guys are going to come in my crease and try to push me around, I’m going to stand my own ground,” Hill said. “I’m not going to do anything too crazy or get too wild, but, yeah, I’ve got to stand up for myself.”

    Florida coach Paul Maurice, back in the final for the first time since 2001, displayed a similarly calm demeanor as he did all the way back in the first round, when his team fell behind 1-0 then 3-1 to NHL-best Boston before winning in seven.

    “It’s going to be tight,” Maurice said. “Everybody breathe.”

    The Golden Knights are in the final for the second time in six years of existence, five years after making it in their inaugural season. Vegas won the opener in 2018 and lost the series to Washington in five games.

    The Panthers are back playing for the Cup for the first time since 1996. Florida got swept by Colorado in that final 27 years ago, 18 months before Tkachuk, the team’s leading scorer this playoffs, was born.

    It’s the 66th different matchup of teams in the Cup final in NHL history and the 46th since the expansion era began in 1967-68. This is the first time since Washington-Vegas and just the third time since the turn of the century in which the final features two teams who have never won the league’s championship.

    Penguins name former Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas as director of hockey operations

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    PITTSBURGH (AP) Kyle Dubas wanted to take a breath and take a break after being fired as the general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

    Then the Pittsburgh Penguins called.

    The break ended shortly thereafter.

    Dubas joined the Penguins as the team’s president of hockey operations, less than two weeks after a somewhat ugly exit from Toronto following a second-round playoff loss to Florida.

    The 37-year-old Dubas goes from one type of hockey crucible to another. In Toronto, he was tasked with helping the Maple Leafs emerge from two decades of postseason futility. In Pittsburgh, his mission will be to prop open the Stanley Cup window for Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang a little longer.

    All three are 35 or older and haven’t won a playoff series since 2018. Yet Dubas believes strongly the issue isn’t the age of the franchise’s core but deficiencies elsewhere on the roster. Dubas replaces Brian Burke, who was fired along with general manager Ron Hextall in April after the Penguins failed to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2006.

    “I heard a lot of people that were highly skeptical of the team’s ability to contend here and the way I view it, if the people want to bet against (Crosby, Letang and Malkin) they can go ahead and do so,” Dubas said. “But I’m going to bet on them and go with them here. I think it is a group that’s capable of contending to win a championship.”

    Crosby and Malkin were excellent for much of last season and Letang showed remarkable resiliency while dealing with multiple setbacks, including a stroke and the death of his father. Yet save for a 14-2-2 stretch in November and December, the Penguins struggled to find consistency and ultimately stumbled down the stretch to snap the longest active playoff streak in major North American Sports.

    While the Penguins do have $20 million in cap space and the 14th overall pick in this month’s NHL draft, significant changes or upgrades could be difficult in the short term.

    Dubas inherits a team that was the oldest in the NHL last season and is littered with question marks, particularly in goal and the forward group outside of Crosby, Malkin and Jake Guentzel.

    Two-time All-Star goaltender Tristan Jarry will become a free agent this summer and was beset by injuries over the second half of the season. Forward Jason Zucker, who served as the emotional sparkplug for long stretches, is also scheduled to hit the open market and may have priced himself out of town.

    Pittsburgh also has several aging players with full or partial no-movement clauses, including 38-year-old forward Jeff Carter, 30-year-old Bryan Rust and 35-year-old defenseman Jeff Petry.

    “I think that those are obviously very real situations, everyone knows that they exist,” Dubas said. “To me the effect on it … is what we can add in terms of depth pieces? What we can add in terms of younger players? That’ll be the real key.”

    Dubas does plan to hire a general manager to fill the vacancy created when Hextall was let go after a short but largely unfruitful tenure. Dubas will serve as the GM on an interim basis until early July.

    Dubas comes to Pittsburgh after nine seasons with the Maple Leafs, including the last five as general manager. Toronto won a postseason series for the first time since 2004 this spring before falling to the Florida Panthers in the Eastern Conference semifinals in five games.

    Shortly after the Maple Leafs’ playoff exit, Dubas said that he wasn’t sure if he wanted to remain in Toronto. His contract was set to expire on June 30, but team president Kyle Shanahan opted to pre-emptively fire Dubas instead. Toronto hired former Calgary Flames general manager Brad Treliving as Dubas’ replacement.

    Dubas helped build the Maple Leafs into a regular-season power during his tenure. Toronto set single-season records for wins and points, and went 221-109-42 in his tenure. Dubas also didn’t shy away from big moves – he fired Stanley Cup-winning coach Mike Babcock in November 2019 and replaced him with Sheldon Keefe – but struggled to find the right mix in the playoffs until this spring.

    In the end, advancing beyond the first round for the first time since 2004 wasn’t enough for Dubas to remain in Toronto.

    He joked he was maybe a little “too honest” during his season-ending press conference with the Maple Leafs when he expressed reservations about returning. Shanahan’s abrupt decision to move on came as a bit of a surprise, and Dubas planned to take some time to hit the reset button before looking for another job.

    Yet the Penguins – who’d already been given clearance by the Maple Leafs to interview Dubas – provided a compelling reason to speed up the timetable. Dubas’ due diligence included speaking to Crosby and longtime coach Mike Sullivan to take the pulse of a leadership group that remains firmly in place.

    Dubas called them “some of the best competitors” in hockey. Competitors that have – for one reason or another – been unable to recapture the magic of their runs to back-to-back Cups in 2016 and 2017.

    Time is running out for Crosby to put his name on the Cup for a fourth time in a career that will almost certainly end in the Hall of Fame. Dubas knows he’ll be judged in part on whether he can make that happen. After taking more than six weeks of searching before landing on Dubas, Fenway Sports Group Chairman Tom Werner believes Dubas is up to the challenge.

    “Our philosophy is giving Kyle and his associates the best possible resources to win,” Werner said. “Kyle’s been very articulate today about his path to success … we’re very confident that Kyle will execute the plan he’s articulated to us.”