The Winnipeg Jets blue line is in a fragile state, yet it has no choice but to brace up as the NHL’s deadliest tag team rolls into the city.
Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are tearing it up through the Edmonton Oilers’ first eight contests (7-1-0) of the 2019-20 campaign. The remarkable 22-year-old centre has scored five goals and set up a dozen others to share the scoring lead with Washington Capitals defenceman John Carlson (3G, 14A), while Draisaitl is right behind with six goals and 10 helpers.
The duo has speed and creativity, and plays huge minutes for the Pacific Division squad. McDavid is showing no lingering effects from a knee injury that required substantial rehab during the off-season, while Draisaitl already has six goals but is blossoming into a top checking winger as well.
Throw in a rejuvenated James Neal, the league’s top goal-getter with nine, and this won’t be a leisurely Sunday evening for the struggling Jets (4-5-0), who’ve lost three straight.
'He can use his speed at 1,000 miles an hour'— Josh Morrissey on Connor McDavid
No one within in the Winnipeg dressing room is looking for an easy way out of the funk.
Josh Morrissey has faced McDavid several times in his career and is wowed by the skill set of the former Hart Trophy winner, but certainly isn’t apprehensive about another meeting, particularly when the Oilers captain is already on a red-hot run.
It’s the kind of test the Jets defenceman relishes, and he’s as eager for the puck to drop as the 15,000-plus fans who’ll pay to watch the world’s brightest hockey star strut his stuff at Bell MTS Place for the only time during the regular season.
"They’re off to a hot start. When you’re playing against two guys like that and they’re feeling it as well, you have to be on your best. It’s a great challenge to have. Playing against two of the best players in the world, two guys who are on their game, and a team that’s really been on its game to start the season, we’re going to have to be ready (Sunday) night and be ready for that challenge," Morrissey said following practice Saturday morning.
"When you get a combination of that speed, skill and hockey smarts, (McDavid) has got it all. You don’t get tagged as the best player in the world — one of the top couple if that’s up for argument — without having all the tools in the tool belt. His ability to process the game at extremely high speed is really what makes him so difficult to defend. He can use his speed at 1,000 miles an hour, but he can think the game to keep up with that speed.
"When you get a chance to go up against one of the top teams in the league, but also one of the top players, you have to go after it and enjoy that opportunity to measure yourself against a great team and a great player," Morrissey added.
Morrissey will partner with Tucker Poolman on the club’s top pairing, Neal Pionk skates with rookie Ville Heinola and Dmitry Kulikov plays with Carl Dahlstrom. It’s the same setup head coach Paul Maurice used in a 3-1 loss to the visiting New York Islanders.
The Jets held the Islanders to 26 shots, the fewest they’ve given up in nine outings, and it was, perhaps, their best performance of the season, from a team-defence perspective. They just didn’t capitalize on several great chances to score on goaltender Semyon Varlamov.
Morrissey said it was, indeed, the kind of tight-checking effort the Jets needs on a consistent basis.
"There were a lot of good things from that game, and we saw a lot of good video from it. We couldn’t find a way to get past their goaltender, but we did a lot of good things. There are things we can build on from that game, have a day off (Friday), have a good practice (Saturday) and be ready to go against a team that’s playing great hockey (Sunday)," he said.
Overall, Edmonton has scored the second-most goals (31), while Winnipeg and an overhauled defensive corps — four new faces from last season — has surrendered the most (33).
The blue-liners have been maligned over some improper positioning, loose checking and reckless decisions, but Maurice stressed its still an inexperienced group and progress is being made.
"I don’t view our back end the way I feel it’s been looked at. Our back end isn’t something that has to be at its peak. It’s too young. But we gotta build this thing, and part of that is these guys rallying around a big day — getting excited about playing against a player like McDavid, and Draisaitl and Neal, the way he’s playing," he said. "We want those guys excited about the game because if they’re excited about the game, then I know they’re going to get better.
"We don’t know what our defence is yet. It’s not weak, but it’s inexperienced. Those guys can build an identity themselves, and that’s what we’re banking on. That’s the direction we’re going. I’m not going to apologize for our defence. They’re working their asses off."
Assistant sports editor
Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).