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This article was published 8/2/2019 (477 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Dustin Byfuglien is finally back in the Winnipeg Jets lineup, and back in the spotlight, after missing more than a month to injury. In his absence, the blue-line pairing of Josh Morrissey and Jacob Trouba rose to the occasion.
Morrissey’s low turnover rates in dangerous areas are a sign of his defensive growth, and the pair’s ascension has been key in reducing Byfuglien’s ice time in 2018-19, allowing the veteran to stay fresh and put up career-high point-per-game numbers.
Trouba and Morrissey have been a constant, a stabilizing force on an NHL team that has struggled a bit defensively compared to where it was at this point last season, playing tough minutes against the best lines opponents can muster and carrying the play.
The change for the Jets when the top pairing is on the ice and when it’s off is glaring — which only increased in focus while Byfuglien was hurt. Looking at the differentials the Jets put up while Trouba and Morrissey are on the ice compared to when they’re on the bench gives us an idea of their impact on a game.
Affected most is high-danger chances, an area in which the Jets have struggled this season compared to last, with the duo pushing the needle by about five per cent. The shot and shot-attempt differentials are similarly strong, however their impact on passes to the slot appears to be weak.
Context is everything though: when it comes to shot location, pretty much any player with the will to take a bit of punishment can stand in front of the net and generate a few high-danger scoring chances. The talent level in getting to the dangerous areas across the NHL is one where parity is strong. That isn’t true of high-end playmaking; like passing to the slot.
The average fourth-liner can get to dangerous areas and shoot the puck; they just don’t have the skill of the average first-liner to actually beat goalies. Quality of competition has a strong influence on passes to the slot, and it’s common for top-pairing defenders to be on the ice for more passes to the slot against than second- or third-pairing defencemen.
While the Jets’ control of passes to the slot is lessened when Morrissey and Trouba are on the ice, they still control about 53.4 per cent. The Jets are one of the strongest teams in the NHL at making and defending those plays, so keep in mind that, despite the relative statistics, the overall differential remains positive.
The top pairing’s influence hasn’t been limited to defensive play either.
For example, Morrissey and Trouba have been on the ice together for more than 30 per cent of Winnipeg’s total time spent at 5-on-5, and in that time, 37.5 per cent of Winnipeg’s 5-on-5 goals and 40.2 per cent of their high-danger chances have occurred — an exceptional impact on offence for a defensive pair.
Both are involved in 2.86 scoring chances created per 20 minutes of ice time — third- and fourth-best on the team — instead playing more of a supporting role to keep plays in the offensive zone, and transition the puck up the ice in order to get more offensive-zone time.
They stand out in creating offence is passes to the slot, an area where defencemen can often have trouble. Trouba and Morrissey are tied for the 34th-most passes to the slot per 20 minutes among defencemen at 0.77. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s an area where the average defenceman chips in less than 0.5 every 20 minutes.
On the defensive side, Trouba and Morrissey excel at getting in the way of opposing offences.
When looking at pass blocks, there are a few elements to consider: how often is the player getting into lanes where they have an opportunity to block passes? How often do they let those passes get through them?
Jets blue-liner Dmitry Kulikov plays a style that keeps him in passing lanes more often than most. However, he’s been less effective at blocking those passes than Trouba and Morrissey, who risk more by playing less safe but make up for it by being more efficient in their block attempts, and more talented in recovering and moving the puck forward once a pass is interrupted.
This is one stat that shows Byfuglien can get caught running around a little bit, but it’s worth noting that, after Trouba and Morrissey, he ranks third on the Jets in the percentage of passes he can get to that are blocked.
Morrissey is a bit better at blocking passes, while Trouba is the one who usually gets to the ensuing loose puck, leading all Jets defencemen in defensive-zone loose-puck recoveries. The pair form a versatile combination when exiting the defensive zone, as well.
Trouba is the Jets’ most adept defensive-zone puck-mover, leading the team in outlet passes and stretch passes by a wide margin. Morrissey leads the defence in skating the puck out of the defensive zone.
They can lean on each other when pressured too much by opposing forechecks, and find each other efficiently with D2D passes, both boasting a team-high 84 per cent completion rate.
The complimentary skills and chemistry they’ve developed have taken them from a strong second pairing last season, to a strong first pairing this season — and they only seem to be getting better.
Andrew Berkshire is a hockey writer specializing in data-driven analysis of the game.
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