With the departure of longtime blue-liner Tobias Enstrom in the off-season, and injuries stealing away almost half of Dustin Byfuglien’s season, there has been extra pressure in 2018-19 on the Winnipeg Jets defencemen usually cast in depth roles.

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Opinion

With the departure of longtime blue-liner Tobias Enstrom in the off-season, and injuries stealing away almost half of Dustin Byfuglien’s season, there has been extra pressure in 2018-19 on the Winnipeg Jets defencemen usually cast in depth roles.

The biggest change has arguably been for Ben Chiarot, who has gone from a clear third-pairing blue-liner who got about 15 minutes of ice time per game over the previous three years up to 18½ minutes this season.

The extra 210 seconds or so may not seem like a lot, but it is the difference between Chiarot ranking 194th in ice time per game among NHL defencemen last season to 134th this season.

There are 192 regular spots for defencemen in the NHL, meaning Chiarot was on the edge of that, essentially a high-quality seventh defenceman. There are 128 spots for top-four defencemen, meaning Chiarot is now on the edge of that designation, playing 57 per cent of his 5-on-5 ice time with Byfuglien on the Jets’ second pairing.

Considering that uptick, you would expect a player such as Chiarot — who has historically had a negative impact at even strength — to be struggling in a big way. But that hasn’t entirely been the case.

Let’s look at the last four seasons of Chiarot’s career to get some context.

 

It’s not a linear progression, per se, but Chiarot’s on-ice performance has been getting slightly better over time, with the biggest change this year being a monstrous improvement in passes to the slot.

Chiarot has seen his differentials improve in every way, but when it comes to shots, the Jets are still worse while he’s on the ice than when he’s off of it.

That has been balanced by his defensive impact: no defenceman on the roster has been on the ice for fewer passes to the slot against than Chiarot. And while there’s less offence produced overall while he’s on the ice, the drawback hasn’t been enough to make him a negative impact in that way.

Not everyone can be a positive-impact player relative to their own teammates, and being slightly below average is what should be expected from the fourth- or fifth-best defenceman on a team’s roster.

Combine that improvement with a career year offensively, doubling his career-best goal total of two (to four) and an increase in shots, and you’d be justified in assuming Chiarot has taken a big step forward at the age of 27.

The one hitch in this positive development is quality of competition and more minutes played per game are less impactful on performance than who is the player he is sharing the ice with, especially a blue-line partner.

As mentioned before, Chiarot has spent 57 per cent of his even-strength ice time with Byfuglien, a historically excellent defenceman who has missed a lot of time this season.

So how does Chiarot look with and without Big Buff? (Unfortunately I don’t have linemate data from Sportlogiq, but we can go to the Natural Stat Trick for similar statistics.)

 

Keeping in mind 50 per cent is the break-even point for these statistics, it’s important to note Chiarot has been able to maintain an even rating while Byfuglien isn’t sharing the ice with him. But while the pairing is fairly successful together, the Jets are heavily outshot while Chiarot is on the ice without Byfuglien.

Part of that drop in performance is going to be who Byfuglien is replaced with. It’s not like Chiarot is going from being paired with Byfuglien to riding shotgun with one of Josh Morrissey or Jacob Trouba. The Jets’ defensive depth falls off pretty quickly after Byfuglien, but those numbers don’t look great either way.

While Chiarot has improved both last season and this season, it doesn’t look to me like he can carry a defence pairing, especially one playing top-four minutes.

That’s not all bad news for the Jets, because if he can hang on while in top-four minutes with a player like Byfuglien, you don’t really have a big problem when at full roster strength.

However, while Byfuglien is missing time and Morrissey is out until the playoffs begin, it could be a bit of a rough ride for the Jets defence.

 

Andrew Berkshire is a hockey writer specializing in data-driven analysis of the game.

Andrew Berkshire

Andrew Berkshire

Andrew Berkshire is a hockey writer specializing in data-driven analysis of the game.

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