PITTSBURGH — Josh Morrissey is OK. But I’m not sure the same can be said for the current state of Winnipeg’s battered blue line, even with the No. 1 defenceman slated to return to action tonight in Pittsburgh after a one-game injury absence put a scare through the entire organization and its fan base.
"He’s passed everything, he feels good, strong, got through the day. He’s good," head coach Paul Maurice declared Monday afternoon after Morrissey got through a full practice with his teammates.
Encouraging news, for sure. But that hardly has a 1-2-0 Jets team that has given up 14 goals through three games out of the woods. It’s difficult to imagine how this gets much better, or easier, with the current group on the roster. The effort is there. But the talent level is lacking on a team that has been scored on first every game, has only played with a lead for 143 seconds and is giving up too many Grade A chances to simply try to outscore its problems every night.
It may occasionally work, as it did Friday against the New Jersey Devils. But it’s not a long-term recipe for success.
Something’s gotta give, even if the Jets have a barely a nickel to spend due to having to keep salary-cap space available should defenceman Dustin Byfuglien decide to continue playing hockey and return to the team. When he will make his decision remains unknown, with the Jets essentially held hostage on the bulk of his US7.6-million hit until he does. A money in, money out trade seems to be the only tangible option at this point.
And as we saw Sunday night with the injury to Morrissey, the line between being competitive and a complete tire fire is razor thin these days. The Jets were forced to roll out a defensive lineup against the New York Islanders that wouldn’t have put a scare into many American Hockey League teams. The result was an entirely predictable 4-1 loss that flattered the visitors, with goalie Laurent Brossoit the only reason it wasn’t a complete blowout.
Ville Heinola, the Finnish rookie who was never expected to compete for an NHL job this fall, played just over 23 minutes.
"He’s 18 years old, for God’s sake," Maurice said following the game, in a comment that could be taken either as praise for the young player or a major distress signal going up. Perhaps a little bit of both in these circumstances.
Carl Dahlstrom, who was plucked off the waiver wire days earlier and hadn’t participated in a practice with the Jets, finished third in ice time with just under 20 minutes despite only learning he was playing after Morrissey collided with a teammate during the pre-game warm-up.
That’s another big red flag right there.
Maybe Sami Niku can help. The talented Finnish defenceman is finally healthy and was called up late Monday from the Manitoba Moose and could be in the lineup against the Penguins after Dmitry Kulikov left the team for a personal family matter.
Niku was limited to just one pre-season game due to a groin injury and was sent to the Jets’ AHL affiliate at the end of camp for more conditioning. He played a pair of weekend games in Texas, registering two assists, and would appear to be a marked improvement over fringe NHL players such as Dahlstrom and Anthony Bitetto.
A Morrissey-Niku pairing, coupled with the Heinola-Neal Pionk duo that has been together early in the season, could make an intriguing top four, albeit a vastly undersized group but one that can skate like the wind and move the puck well. That would leave the likes of Kulikov, Tucker Poolman, Dahlstrom and Bitetto to compete for the final pairing, at least until Nathan Beaulieu returns in about three weeks from an injury.
The Jets caught a break Monday after Pittsburgh announced centres Evgeni Malkin and Nick Bjugstad will miss significant time with injuries suffered in the previous game. But Pittsburgh still has plenty of offensive firepower, led by Sidney Crosby.
Maurice was asked if No. 1 goalie Connor Hellebuyck was itching to return to the net.
"Not if you watched the game (Sunday) night. It was kind of a joke about how many saves (Brossoit) had to make, but I think both goalies would be looking to play tomorrow," said Maurice.
Hellebuyck is expected to get the call, looking to rebound after a tough opening-night loss to the New York Rangers in which he was beaten five times on 31 shots.
"A little bit surprised, but it doesn’t bother me. I’m here whenever my name is called I’m going to do the best that I possibly can. I like where my game is at and I’m eager to get back at it," Hellebuyck said Monday of sitting for two straight games in favour of Brossoit.
"Experience helps everything. In my case, I’ve gone through a lot. I’m going to put this behind me and use it as motivation."
Hellebuyck didn’t want to discuss what kind of conversation he had with Maurice about the decision, suggesting it was already in the rear-view mirror and that there’s a good competition going with Brossoit.
"I’m playing, right? So, who cares about the past. I’m looking forward to (Tuesday). I’m going to give my A game and you know what, we’re going to have a good bounce-back game," said Hellebuyck.
"I think we are pushing each other a little more this season. You can tell he’s a great goalie, but you know what? So am I. This is only going to make both of us better and in the long run."
Since his last start, Hellebuyck has spent a lot of time doing video review of his work, identifying areas in need of improvement.
"Just locking some things down, controlling my rebounds, moving the puck well and making sure that I’m playing the puck well and making it easy on everyone in the defensive zone and being that rock back there. I want the guys to trust me and I know that they do, so I want to make sure that they’re not having a blind trust," said Hellebuyck.
"Just tighten things up. Like I said after the (season-opener) game, I liked my game there. But there was definitely a switch I turned over. In practice, I brought a little more energy. It’s that little one per cent that is going to change everything."
PPG Paints Arena has been a house of horrors for the franchise, with the last victory in Pittsburgh coming by either the Atlanta Thrashers or the Jets happening way back in 2006. That’s a span of 18 games. Winnipeg was blanked here 4-0 in its only visit last season.
It’s going to take a heck of an effort, maybe even a small miracle at this stage, to keep that streak from extending to 19.
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.
Updated on Monday, October 7, 2019 at 10:49 PM CDT: Adds photos
12:21 AM: Fixes typo