Paul Maurice has shuffled his defensive deck with the hope of unearthing a solid pairing — or, more accurately, three.

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This article was published 7/1/2021 (504 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Paul Maurice has shuffled his defensive deck with the hope of unearthing a solid pairing — or, more accurately, three.

With much of the same group from last season returning for a truncated 2021 NHL campaign owing to COVID-19, many believed the Winnipeg Jets defensive pairings were already set in stone. But if training camp this week has revealed anything, it's that the Jets back end will feature a more balanced approach than previous years.

Where the Jets would often ride their best talent in the top-four, leaving the last pairing to fight for ice time, Maurice will look to distribute the minutes a bit more evenly this season. At least that's the plan to start with, as the Jets prepare for opening night Jan. 14 at home against the Calgary Flames.

"If you just go over the last three years, you’re talking about three major different looks. Last year, Tucker (Poolman) was a rookie coming in and Neal Pionk is really coming out of his first full year pro. Then we had Ville Heinola playing," the Jets coach said on Thursday following Day 5 of training camp. "We had everyone playing defence last year. I think (assistant coach) Charlie Huddy took a couple of shifts one night. So, we want to get a little bit of balance."

Maurice added: "You’re not running defencemen into the 25- to 27-minute (category) in our group this year. The schedule won’t allow it. So, we do have a bit more of a balance."

Poolman, coming off his first full season in the NHL, returned from injury Thursday and immediately took over the right side on the top pairing with Josh Morrissey. Maurice says the 27-year-old will have to show that his development over the off-season warrants such a promotion, hinting he has another lineup at the ready if Poolman requires more time.

The second pairing includes Neal Pionk and Derek Forbort, a veteran right-handed defenceman who was signed to a one-year deal after spending last season between the L.A. Kings and Calgary Flames. That leaves a third paring of Nathan Beaulieu and Dylan DeMelo.

DeMelo arrived at camp just months removed from signing a four-year deal worth US$3 million per season. After being acquired in a trade with the Ottawa Senators just prior to last year's trade deadline, he showed chemistry playing beside Morrissey, creating the expectation the duo would make up the club's top pairing in 2021.

Instead, DeMelo has been pushed down the depth chart. He doesn't see it as a demotion, but rather an opportunity to spread out some of the talent. He's also comfortable playing with Beaulieu, having spent some time with him last season after arriving in Winnipeg.

"When I signed here it wasn't necessarily to play with a single player, it was to play with the whole team," DeMelo said. "It doesn't matter who I'm playing with. I just try to bring the same approach and the same style with whomever I'm playing with. It's with Beau right now, and I think we've had a good start together."

Maurice said the current pairings also shows an even distribution of size. With the Jets playing all their games within the All-Canadian division this season, they're set to play some of the league's heavier teams. Beaulieu and Poolman both clock in a 6-2, while Forbort is 6-4. Meanwhile, Morrissey, Pionk and DeMelo are all six feet.

Another reason for the shift, Maurice noted, was to better complement the forward combinations. He's identified pairings he believes will be able to exit the defensive zone quicker, which should take some pressure off the defence and goaltender Connor Hellebuyck, who figures to have another busy season in net.

"There’s a bit of complement with each pair that we have then in terms of size and in terms of speed and puck movement, that we have people who can do that off each pairing," Maurice said. "We’ll move those around for sure as we go but we want to take a look at this, get them some comfort together."

 

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.