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?
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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.
I missed Brenden Dillon getting traded to Winnipeg, they really need somebody like that. pic.twitter.com/KR5SlewfZN
— Micah Blake McCurdy (@IneffectiveMath) July 27, 2021
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.
Nate Schmidt, traded to WPG, is an offensive defenceman who didn't seem to have a very nice time in Vancouver's system. Strong track record but the term is a decent risk. #GoJetsGo pic.twitter.com/ySnT8SrmLT
— JFresh (@JFreshHockey) July 27, 2021
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.
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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.
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.
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:
- Hellebuyck – 8,802 shot attempts.
- Frederik Andersen – 8,466
- Andrei Vasilevskiy – 8,110
- 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 firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.