TAMPA, Fla. — This was always going to be an uphill battle for the Winnipeg Jets, whose defensive group was a mere shadow of its former self when the 2019-20 NHL season began.
Yet, here’s Winnipeg at the first-quarter mark with an 11-8-1 record and occupying third place in the Central Division, just a point back of the Colorado Avalanche, one point up on the Dallas Stars and two ahead of the Nashville Predators.
It’s early, indeed, but the Jets have managed to "stay in the fight," a phrase uttered by team personnel so often Manitoba Public Insurance should begin stamping it on licence plates.
With what’s still considered a patchwork blue line, Winnipeg is doing it with a commitment to team defence.
Head coach Paul Maurice and his staff have a scheme in place that puts the onus squarely on the collective work of five skaters on the ice, and that requires a buy-in from all forwards. That includes young wingers such as Patrik Laine, Nikolaj Ehlers and Kyle Connor, who can do damage in the offensive zone but have had trouble in the past concealing their warts in the defensive end.
Laine has, undeniably, been engaged physically in his own end and seems far more aware of his responsibilities with and away from the puck. He said helping prevent goals has been his primary objective this season — an odd proclamation from guy who’s scored 36, 44 and 30 goals in three NHL seasons.
"To be able to be defensively responsible, that’s what’s going to be key this year. Not looping, not cheating, it’s not going to get us much in those situations. That’s been my focus, trying to be a better all-around player," Laine said Friday following practice at Amalie Arena.
Laine has scored four goals in 20 games this season but has a team-high 14 assists, including three Thursday night in a 4-3 victory over the Florida Panthers.
"You’re going to get your chances to score, especially if we’re playing against the other teams’ best players. They’ll cheat. As long as we’re playing defence well, we’ll get those chances," Laine said. "It doesn’t matter who’s back on defence for us, we still have to help our defencemen. Last year, it was Mysey (Tyler Myers) and Benny (Ben Chiarot) and this year it’s (Neal) Pionk and (Anthony) Bitetto. It’s a good group and we’re there to help."
Winnipeg takes on the Tampa Bay Lightning this afternoon in the second game of a four-game road trip.
The Jets received stellar goaltending from Laurent Brossoit at BB&T Center in Sunrise, Fla., kept their mistakes to a minimum and generated just enough offence to produce their fifth win in regulation.
There were a few glamorous moments. Laine’s primary assists on goals by Ehlers and Mark Scheifele were pretty to watch. Defenceman Josh Morrissey was dynamic in both ends of the rink, and the checking line of Adam Lowry, Andrew Copp and Mathieu Perreault drew some tough assignments and still finished plus-one.
It wasn’t an overpowering performance, but strong enough, and Winnipeg has been furnishing similar efforts with regularity. Six victories have come by way of either overtime (four) or shootout (two).
They aren’t doing it with an all-world defensive corps, not after a major exodus in the summer of key players such as Jacob Trouba, Myers and Chiarot and the shocking absence of Dustin Byfuglien, off on a personal leave.
In their place, Pionk and former Moose standout Tucker Poolman have assumed prominent roles, joining Morrissey, Dmitry Kulikov and Nathan Beaulieu — all regulars at the end of the 2019-20 campaign. Journeymen newcomers Bitetto, Luca Sbisa and Carl Dahlstrom have all been shuffled in and out of the lineup.
Propping up the patchwork blue line is No. 1 goalie Connor Hellebuyck, who has been exceptional and resembles the puckstopper who nearly won the Vezina Trophy two seasons ago.
Maurice’s best-laid plan for team defence was charted in the summer. It wasn’t a complete overhaul but definitely included adjustments.
Save for Morrissey and Pionk, this is not a mobile group, so forwards have been instructed to get back hard, help retrieve pucks and be deep enough to accept those feeds.
And the five-man unit lives and dies with aggressive pursuit, challenging opposing puck carriers before damage occurs.
"We’d say maybe we have to sacrifice a little bit of puck movement, then our forwards can’t put our defence in a position where puck-moving is the critical piece to their game. We just have to support the puck. We can’t stretch our game out," Maurice said.
"The easiest way to defend is aggressively. All of that is driven in some ways by the forwards, allowing the defencemen to be aggressive. How we read the rush, how we covered the slot in the defensive zone. We still have lots of room to improve but it’s been good. The willingness has been good."
Ehlers, who was a deadly scorer in junior with the Halifax Mooseheads of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, said only now, in his fifth NHL season, is he feeling confident in his ability to be an effective two-way player.
"I’ve been working on my defensive game since I came to Winnipeg. The coaches have helped me, the positioning, getting pucks out of the zone on my side, and I think it’s going the right way. I think I’ve taken a huge step and that feels good," said Ehlers, who is tied for the club lead in goals (eight) with Scheifele. "It’s something I gotta keep working on.
"I’ve realized if you want your offence, you gotta get out of the D-zone, and you do that by being in the right position, starts and stops and battling hard on the boards."
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).