March 19, 2019

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Lesser lights on D getting big minutes

Kulikov, Niku seeing more ice due to injuries

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES</p><p>Winnipeg Jets' Dmitry Kulikov will be logging big minutes in the absence of Tylers Myers and Dustin Byfuglien on the team's back end.</p>

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Winnipeg Jets' Dmitry Kulikov will be logging big minutes in the absence of Tylers Myers and Dustin Byfuglien on the team's back end.

Winnipeg Jets coach Paul Maurice warned that it would look a little bit different, even though he vowed to change little.

Without defencemen Dustin Byfuglien and Tyler Myers — two big men, both figuratively and literally — on the blue line, Maurice knew it wasn’t going to be status quo when his team hit the ice Friday night against the Detroit Red Wings.

Inevitably, the lineup would be different, but the systems and game plan remained the same.

“You don’t make a whole lot of changes, but it’s probably going to look a little different than it does when those two big men are in your lineup,” Maurice said. “They both, in a different style of game, generate a fair amount, generate some zone time with their ability to keep pucks in.”

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Winnipeg Jets coach Paul Maurice warned that it would look a little bit different, even though he vowed to change little.

Without defencemen Dustin Byfuglien and Tyler Myers — two big men, both figuratively and literally — on the blue line, Maurice knew it wasn’t going to be status quo when his team hit the ice Friday night against the Detroit Red Wings.

Inevitably, the lineup would be different, but the systems and game plan remained the same.

"You don’t make a whole lot of changes, but it’s probably going to look a little different than it does when those two big men are in your lineup," Maurice said. "They both, in a different style of game, generate a fair amount, generate some zone time with their ability to keep pucks in."

The Jets were able to pass their first test Friday, edging the Red Wings 4-2 in front of a packed house at Bell MTS Place.

The loss of Byfuglien, who averages a team-high 24:30 of ice time, and Myers, who is around 20 minutes but was playing much more than that with Byfuglien out, meant there would be plenty of opportunity for those logging fewer minutes to play a more meaningful role.

For Dmitry Kulikov, the Jets’ growing list of walking wounded meant a promotion from the third pairing to the second, alongside Ben Chiarot. Kulikov was averaging just 12:41 per game, but, playing the right side as a left-handed shooter, he logged 20:02 of ice time against the Wings and was a plus-2.

"Twenty to 22 minutes is an ideal range," Kulikov said before the game. "Because you’re in the game, you’re keeping yourself in the game. When you don’t sit on the bench and wait for your shift, it makes it easier to anticipate plays and readwhere the puck is going to be or where the play is going to develop."

That Kulikov’s preferred playing time was nearly double what he has been averaging didn’t surprise Maurice. With the depth of the Jets defence, it’s near impossible to play everyone the amount they want, particularly on a right side that, when healthy, includes Byguglien, Myers and Jacob Trouba.

"There wouldn’t be a player, and this is a good thing, on that blue line that hasn’t sat in my office trying to figure out how he can get more minutes," the Jets coach said. "They all do it in their own way. It’s a different conversation with each one of them. But they all want to play more."

Any ice time seemed good enough for rookie Sami Niku. The 22-year-old was named the American Hockey League’s top defenceman last season, scoring 16 goals and chipping in 38 assists for 54 points in 76 games with the Manitoba Moose. Niku scored in his first and only NHL game last season, in a 5-4 overtime win over the Montreal Canadiens April 3.

Defenceman Sami Niku played on the third pairing with Joe Morrow and collected over 12 minutes of ice time Friday.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Defenceman Sami Niku played on the third pairing with Joe Morrow and collected over 12 minutes of ice time Friday.

But Niku’s been used sparingly with the Jets this year. Earlier in the season, he played a stretch of five consecutive games when the club hit a string of injuries, including the loss of Byfuglien, Kulikov, Josh Morrissey and Joe Morrow. He was recalled from the Moose again on Dec. 31, though was a healthy scratch through the first five games before finally getting the call Friday.

"It’s always hard when you don’t play. You just practise and do workouts, and that’s it," Niku said.

Niku, who played alongside Morrow on the third defensive pairing, finished Friday with 12:51 of ice time. He looked rusty early on, which was understandable after having not played for two weeks. But he settled in as the game went on, and finished plus-1.

Morrissey and Trouba shouldered most of the workload, matching up much of the night with Detroit’s top line of Dylan Larkin, Tyler Bertuzzi and Gustav Nyquist. Trouba racked up a team-high 24:19 of ice time, while Morrissey was second among Jets defenders with 22:47.

Trouba and Morrissey were on the ice for Detroit’s first goal, which came midway through the second period with the Jets on the power play. Aided by a defensive breakdown, Luke Glendening scored the short-handed marker, converting on a pass from Filip Hronek, as the two went in alone on Laurent Brossoit. They were also part of the penalty-killing unit for the Jets that surrendered the Red Wing’s second and final goal, the power-play marker cutting the Jets lead to 3-2 early in the third period.

The current predicament on the blue line might not last long as Myers is listed as day-to-day. When Myers collided awkwardly with the boards early into the third period of Thursday’s 3-2 road loss in Minnesota and didn’t return, the prognosis looked bleak. Now, there’s a chance he could be ready for Sunday’s home game versus the Anaheim Ducks.

"You’re thankful that it wasn’t too, too bad," Maurice said.

Even if Myers doesn’t return so soon, there’s reason to believe the Jets will be fine. They’ve been through similar situations over the last two seasons.

Of Winnipeg’s 51 man-games lost this season, 33 have come on the back end.

It’s created situations at times where Maurice has had to give big minutes to inexperienced players, such as Friday. Like the young players who reap the benefit of increased playing time, he prefers it that way.

"It’s a whole lot easier to go in the lineup and play. Because all these guys who come up are playing big minutes for their American league teams, and they come up here and get shifted to a different role," Maurice said. "You don’t get to the NHL because you were a fourth-line player on your last team. You were the A-guy. So it’s easier if we can get them out there more. But they’ve got to do enough good things to make that happen."

jeff.hamilton@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @jeffkhamilton

Jeff Hamilton

Jeff Hamilton
Multimedia producer

After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.

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Updated on Friday, January 11, 2019 at 11:58 PM CST: Adds photo

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