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A case for better defence

Porous Jets need to improve goals-against or post-season berth is a pipe dream

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Claude NOEL will have the entire Jets Nation looking over his shoulder in the days to come -- not to mention a good many of the team's 13 or 14 forwards -- watching for his every twitch, his every pencil move regarding his line combinations.

And while they're all preoccupied with that, the team's most important mission will be the same from now until the end of this whirlwind NHL regular season on April 27, and maybe beyond.

Cut. Down. Goals. Against.

A lot.

On the front lines of that battle will be the defencemen, and right off the bat, Zach Bogosian's wrist injury is a subtraction for an unknown number of weeks.

As of today, this mission will be largely left to pairings of Dustin Byfuglien and Toby Enstrom, Mark Stuart and Ron Hainsey and some mix of Grant Clitsome and Paul Postma, and Zach Redmond and Derek Meech, who worked in tandem on Wednesday.

Will the matches be right? Will the pairs work effectively? Does it take chemistry, the word so often applied to forward trios?

"Absolutely that matters," Hainsey said after Wednesday's training camp day at the MTS Iceplex. "The one thing that trumps it all is communication. If you have two guys who communicate with each other, then it makes life a whole lot easier.

"The shorter answer to it is of course that's important and the more you get to know a guy's tendencies, it's easier and you can be a step ahead of the opponent.

"But even if you don't have that, communication can overcome it if you have to play with different guys."

Winnipeg was red-lighted 246 times last season, averaging three goals per game. Being 12th of 15 teams in the conference in that department pretty much summed up the Jets' place in the pecking order. And so, where to start?

"The positive thing we have going into this season is that most guys are comfortable with each other," said Mark Stuart, who by the looks of this week's camp, is to be Hainsey's partner and among the team's top four on the blue-line.

"Buff and Toby have played together for a long time and last year I played with different guys, Ron a little bit, Bogo a little bit, Buff a little, Johnny Oduya a little. I'm comfortable with those guys."

Stuart sees the blending with a partner as important, but not unchangeable.

"I would say it maybe doesn't take as much time with D to get familiar as forward lines do," he said. "I think with D it's more feeding off what each other does, whether it's an offensive guy with a defensive guy, feeding off each other's skills. Maybe one guy jumps up more and the other guy backs him up, but it's about being responsible.

"You get to know what his tendencies are and he knows yours, so you can play better position," he said. "It doesn't mean it's always one guy doing one thing, like backing up the guy who jumps up. It's a give and take."

The defensive pairings and goalies Ondrej Pavelec and Al Montoya obviously matter most.

But don't cut the forwards out of this equation.

"They play a large role," Hainsey said. "Whoever ends up being the low forward, it's usually the centre but not always, they are acting as the third defenceman in one way or another.

"A guy like Olli (Jokinen), who has improved his defensive play over the past decade to the point where he is just flawless back there, who knows how to do it and communicates well, it's only going to benefit us a ton. It's going to make it easier to get his line up (the ice) and then he'll be up there supporting them. Having a guy like that can be invaluable, really."

The search for cohesiveness will continue, undoubtedly with its days of progress and days of setbacks.

"No matter what level you're at, there's always teaching," Stuart said. "It's always a learning experience. You're not going to get everything right on every night. You want to make things second nature."

tim.campbell@freepress.mb.ca

Wednesday's combinations

DEFENCE

Toby Enstrom -- Dustin Byfuglien

Mark Stuart -- Ron Hainsey

Grant Clitsome -- Paul Postma

Derek Meech -- Zach Redmond

FORWARD

Maxime Macenauer -- Bryan Little -- Blake Wheeler

Evander Kane -- Olli Jokinen -- Kyle Wellwood

Alexei Ponikarovsky -- Alex Burmistrov -- Nik Antropov

Mark Scheifele -- Jim Slater -- Chris Thorburn

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 17, 2013 D3

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