There were many nights this past winter -- way too many for Kevin Cheveldayoff's liking -- when the Winnipeg Jets GM would glance out of his perch in the press box and see a good chunk of his defensive talent in civvies and lined up at the food trough.
Just to recap, the Jets' D-men's hurts list went like this:
-- Dustin Byfuglien: 16 games missed
-- Ron Hainsey: 26 games missed
-- Toby Enstrom: 20 games missed
-- Zach Bogosian: 17 games missed
-- Derek Meech: 75 games missed
All told, 12 different defencemen suited up for the Jets in 2011-12, and the fact they were able to keep the puck out of the net many nights is a testament to their deep talent pool at the position and the often brilliant play of Ondrej Pavelec.
"The injuries proved we had enough depth to keep us competitive on the defensive side," said Cheveldayoff in a recent chat with the Free Press analyzing the team's depth chart in advance of next week's NHL draft.
"But the negative is it's never fun when you lose some of your best defencemen for 20-plus games... Enstrom, Byfuglien and Ron Hainsey missed a great period of time, too. And while Bogo (Bogosian) didn't miss a substantial amount of time, we did miss him at some key times down the stretch, which hurt us."
It doesn't take an expert to figure why the Jets were spectators in the Stanley Cup tournament.
Winnipeg finished 26th in goals-against per game, at 2.95. And while those defensive numbers represent an improvement -- the Atlanta Thrashers were 29th in goals-against in 2010-11 at 3.20 -- they are still part of an ugly trend that has followed the franchise north.
In the last five years, all non-playoff seasons, Atlanta/Winnipeg has finished 30th, 29th, 23rd, 29th and 26th in goals allowed.
"We did improve in a lot of defensive categories," said Cheveldayoff. "Our shots-against, for example, were down (from 32.2 to 30.1). But there's no question there has to be continued improvement to reach the next level."
All that said, it would be mildly surprising if the Jets went with a defenceman with the ninth overall selection in next week's draft -- should they hang onto the pick and not trade up, down or out of the first round.
In an organization desperately working to upgrade its overall depth, the defensive position seems less a need than exists up front and in goal.
But the Jets, tentatively at least, will take the best-player-available approach next week in Pittsburgh. The draft, after all, is rarely about the short term, but more about finding future building blocks.
What's in the Jets' system:
DUSTIN BYFUGLIEN: For all the criticism about his fitness and his occasional ill-timed forays, consider this: Byfuglien finished tied for second to Ottawa's Erik Karlsson in scoring among defencemen. FYI: Age: 27. 2011-12 numbers: 66 GP, 12G, 41A. Contract: Four years remaining on current deal that pays him $4.25 million this year (with a $5.2-million cap hit)
TOBIAS ENSTROM: Slick and skilled, he plays a finesse game and is Byfuglien's safety net. FYI: Age: 27. 2011-12 numbers: 62 GP, 6G, 27A. Contract: One year left on a deal that pays him $4.5 million (with a $3.75-million cap hit).
ZACH BOGOSIAN: A budding superstar whose game improved dramatically under Charlie Huddy. Still just 21 and now with 264 games under his belt. FYI: Age: 21. 2011-12 numbers: 65 GP, 5G, 25A. Contract: One year remaining on deal signed last September that pays him $3 million with a $2.5-million cap hit.
RON HAINSEY: Intelligent, stay-at-home defenceman brings a veteran presence. FYI: Age: 31. 2011-12 numbers: 56 GP, 5G, 8A. Contract: One year left at $3 million (cap hit is $4.5 million).
MARK STUART: All grit and effort. The proof? Finished tied for eighth in the NHL with 182 blocked shots. FYI: Age: 28. 2011-12 numbers: 35 GP, 2G, 1A. Contract: Two years remaining; will earn $1.7 million this season.
GRANT CLITSOME: Waiver-wire pickup from Columbus showed some flashes -- decent shot, strong on forwards and a solid skater. FYI: Age: 27. 2011-12 numbers: 63 GP, 4G, 13A. Contract: One year left at $1.4 million (cap hit is $1.25 million).
RANDY JONES: Veteran defender appeared in just 39 games and his future with the Jets is uncertain. FYI: Age: 30. 2011-12 numbers: 39 GP, 1G, 1A. Contract: Unrestricted free agent earned $1.15 million last season.
MARK FLOOD: So many in the organization like his game and his compete level, but he still spent a ton of time in the press box. FYI: Age: 27. 2011-12 numbers: 33 GP, 3G, 4A. Contract: An unrestricted free agent on July 1, Flood earned $525,000 last year.
PAUL POSTMA: A seventh-round draft pick in 2007, Postma is coming off a solid season in St. John's in which he had 13 goals and 31 assists in 56 games. Named the IceCaps' MVP and top defenceman, he also played in his second straight AHL All-Star game. Coaches want him to continue to work on his defensive game -- his -14 plus/minus rating tied for last on the IceCaps. He's listed at 6-foot-3 and 184 pounds, but management wants him to add upper-body muscle.
On the rock/in the minors
ARTURS KULDA: The big Latvian turns 24 this summer, and in a nine-game stint with the Jets, showed his understated game transfers well from the AHL. Had six goals and 14 assists in St. John's.
BRETT FESTERLING: Solid D-man, but others on the depth chart seem to be moving ahead.
ZACH REDMOND: Jets' brass love the former Fresno State star's upside. Had 31 points in first full pro season with the IceCaps.
DEREK MEECH: Coming off a nightmarish season ravaged by injuries. but was spectacular in the playoffs for the IceCaps. An unrestricted free agent.
JASON DESANTIS: Now 26 and an unrestricted free agent, he's never made it to the bigs. Good numbers in St. John's with 43 points in 66 games.
TRAVIS RAMSEY: Former Manitoba Moose, but well down the Jets' depth chart.
BEN CHIAROT: Fourth-round pick by the Thrashers in '09, Chiarot split last year between St. John's and the ECHL.
JULIAN MELCHIORI: Third-round pick had a decent camp with the Jets last year before heading back to junior and finishing in St. John's. Signed a three-year deal with the team in March.
WILL O'NEILL: Former University of Maine co-captain joined St. John's late in the year after signing with the Jets. Sixth in scoring among NCAA defencemen last year.
JOHN NEGRIN: One-time Flames prospect was acquired for Akim Aliu this winter.
JAKE MARTO: One-time UND regular joined St. John's after spending most of the year in the ECHL.
In the system
ZACH YUEN, TRI-CITY AMERICANS (WHL): Fourth-round pick in 2011 had 12 goals and led the WHL with a +45 plus/minus rating.
BRENNAN SERVILLE, UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN (NCAA): A third-round pick in 2011, the Jets like his hockey smarts. Suited up for 34 games with the Wolverines last winter as a freshman.
CODY SOL, KITCHENER RANGERS (OHL): Big dude (6-5, 242) with a bit of a mean streak, this '09 draft pick returned to junior as an over-age and was solid.
AARON HARSTAD, COLORADO COLLEGE (NCAA): Seventh-round pick a year ago, just finished his first season of college hockey.
ANDREY ZUBAREV, MOSCOW OBLAST ATLANT (KHL): Left the organization's system for the KHL. Sixth-round pick in 2005.
PETER STOYKEWYCH, COLORADO COLLEGE (NCAA): Winnipegger was drafted in the seventh round in 2010 and had three assists in 26 games in his first year with the Tigers.
The NHL's best
By comparison, a look at some the NHL's top defencemen:
1. Erik Karlsson, Ottawa: 81 GP, 19G, 59A
2. Brian Campbell, Florida: 82 GP, 4G, 49A
3. Zdeno Chara, Boston: 79 GP, 12G, 40A
4. Alex Pietrangelo, St. Louis: 81 GP, 12G, 39A
5. Shea Weber, Nashville: 78GP, 19G, 30A
Other notable D-men: Nik Lidstrom, Det. (retired); Alex Edler, Van.; Kris Letang, Pitt.; Duncan Keith, Chi.; Jack Johnson, CBJ, Drew Doughty, LA.
5 D-men (not Jets) who become unrestricted free agents on July 1:
1. Ryan Suter, Nashville -- One of the potential jewels in this summer's market.
2. Dennis Wideman, Washington -- The 29-year-old had 11 goals and 46 points this year.
3. Matt Carle, Philadelphia -- Had 38 points for the Flyers this year. Now 27.
4. Jason Garrison, Florida -- Undrafted, the 27-year-old Garrison is coming off a career year with 16 goals.
5. Filip Kuba, Ottawa -- Veteran Czech, now 35, earned $3.7 million last year.
This is the third instalment in a series. Thursday: Part 4 -- Centres