Jets rearguards no longer bring up rear of scoring stats

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THE Winnipeg Jets blue-line has been downright offensive this season. Unlike recent years, that’s actually a very good thing.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 15/11/2021 (447 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

THE Winnipeg Jets blue-line has been downright offensive this season. Unlike recent years, that’s actually a very good thing.

It’s no secret the club struggled to fill the void caused by the departure of reliable rearguards including Dustin Byfuglien, Toby Enstrom, Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers, Ben Chiarot and Dmitry Kulikov from the high-flying squad that made it to the Western Conference Final in the spring of 2018. Not only were they a mess at times in their own end, but they struggled to generate much of anything at the other.

But the additions of Neal Pionk, Nate Schmidt, Brenden Dillon and Dylan DeMelo, along with the continued development of Josh Morrissey and Logan Stanley, have given the Jets a versatile top six that is once again a strength, rather than a weakness.

Winnipeg Jets' Dylan DeMelo, left, scores on Los Angeles Kings goaltender Cal Petersen during the third period in Winnipeg on Saturday. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

Consider this: With seven goals and 28 assists through 14 games, Winnipeg’s defencemen trail only those from Anaheim (43), Minnesota (42), Florida (41), Vegas (40), Colorado (36) and Edmonton (36) for most combined points in the NHL. Further, 35 of the club’s 124 combined points are from the blue-line, which accounts for 28 per cent of all production. Last year, that number was just 17 per cent (81 of 464 points).

There are two major reasons for this: The first, and most obvious, is personnel. Pionk (10 points), Schmidt (10) and Morrissey (6) are all mobile, puck-moving players who aren’t afraid to jump into the rush. They’re also key pieces of a power play unit that can be potent. The second is a systematic change, with coach Paul Maurice preaching right from the start of training camp the desire to be more aggressive, essentially coming in waves as a four or even five-man attack rather than simply three forwards and two defencemen.

“That’s an important part of the way the game is played, so that wouldn’t just be a Winnipeg Jets thing,” Maurice said Monday following his team’s practice at Canada Life Centre. “Right now we’re trying to play inside a little more than outside, get more pucks to the net. From an offensive point that’s where we’re trying to drive our game at, getting traffic to the net.”

The added degree of risk has been rewarded at times, including a huge short-handed goal from DeMelo last Saturday against Los Angeles with just over six minutes left in the third period that tied the game. Stanley drew the assist, his second of the night, and the Jets ultimately prevailed in overtime to improve to 8-3-3.

“The pickups we made this off-season, getting (Schmidt) and (Dillon), they’ve been huge for our team and fit perfectly,” said Mark Scheifele, who scored the winner against the Kings and certainly appreciates the boost from the back-end that can make the life of a forward much easier.

“I also think it’s made Pionk, Morrissey, Stanley and DeMelo, it’s made them better. It’s pushed them more and it’s motivated them more. It’s not even just on the offensive side of things, it’s passes coming from your own goal line. They’re on the tape, good passes that lead to odd-man breaks, O-zone possession and whatever it is. Those are the things you notice, the little plays that they’re making, the simple plays that not everyone will see. That’s been a huge change this year.”

There’s always a concern about jumping into the rush and abandoning defensive responsibilities, but the early returns are promising in that department. After surrendering 14 goals in the first three games, in which they went 0-2-1, Winnipeg has given up just 23 in the last 11 games, going 8-1-2.

“Any time it’s a new season, you’re implementing new systems, new personnel, and new players. Like myself, with every game you’re getting more and more comfortable,” said Dillon, who came over in a summer trade with Washington and has cemented himself on a second-pairing with Pionk, behind the top tandem of Morrissey and Schmidt.

“We have a lot of offence up front and a lot of guys that can make plays, and find you with nice passes. I think that’s a luxury we have as defencemen being able to get up and being available, they’re going to find you, you just have to keep your stick on the ice. It’s always nice getting rewarded like we have the last couple games. I think for a guy like DeMelo and Stan, and these guys to be able to chip in and help out, it makes it that much sweeter for team victories and have some success like we’ve been having as a team.”

These next two contests should be a good litmus test, considering the explosive Edmonton Oilers are the opposition for a home-and-home that begins tonight in Winnipeg and ends Thursday in Alberta.

“If you’re not on defensively, they’re going to light you right up,” said Maurice. “But we’re a pretty good offensive team, too.”

Winnipeg seemingly has a blueprint for shutting down the likes of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, who were mostly held in check during a four-game sweep of the Oilers in the first-round of the playoffs last spring. But they’ll have their hands full with the league’s top two scorers, who have led Edmonton to an 11-3-0 start.

“I don’t think any team in this league wants to play run and gun against the Edmonton Oilers. I don’t think you’re going to win that battle, no matter how good you are,” said Scheifele.

“When you have Connor McDavid getting to go up and down the ice, there are not many guys in this league that can stop him. Our style of game, we have to play tough defensively and make it hard on them to get to the interior side of us. It’s just a matter of playing our game. We know what to expect. We obviously played them a lot last year and we know how great they’ve been playing as of late. We’ve got to play our game. You can’t take any shifts off, you can’t get away from our structure and when you do, those guys take advantage and make it a pretty tough game to stay in.”

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Sports columnist

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

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