Analyzing the evolution of the Winnipeg Jets defence over the last 5 years

Sep 29, 2022; Montreal, Quebec, CAN; Winnipeg Jets defenseman Nate Schmidt (88) skates during the warmup period before the game against the Montreal Canadiens at the Bell Centre. Mandatory Credit: Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 29, 2022; Montreal, Quebec, CAN; Winnipeg Jets defenseman Nate Schmidt (88) skates during the warmup period before the game against the Montreal Canadiens at the Bell Centre. Mandatory Credit: Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports /

If there’s one thing that’s become more and more clear to me over the years of NHL fandom, it’s that you need elite offense if you want to have any chance of succeeding with a below average D core.

I’m talking superstar depth, where your 3rd best forward is a star on any other team, and your 9th forward could play second line on other teams. The Blackhawks of 2010 come to mind, when Patrick Sharp was their 4th best forward, and their entire 3rd line was made up of decently skilled, two way younger players like Dave Bolland, Troy Brouwer, or Andrew Ladd. They happened to have great defense too, which is why it’s no surprise they won the Cup.

The Jets meanwhile, have been struggling to rebuild their defense since The Great Defenseman Exodus of 2019. A great group of forwards alongside Connor Hellebuyck can only take you so far. Their defense hasn’t been good enough.

Many of the Canadian teams over the last 5 years have fit this bill; Vancouver has iced a lethal top 9, but can’t keep the puck out of their own net. Ottawa’s top six last year looked among the league’s best, but it wasn’t enough to get them to the promised land. Edmonton and Toronto’s forward groups have been vicious for half a decade now; it’s been improving their defenders that has led to further success in the playoffs.

Winnipeg once had one one of the best groups in the entire league. An embarrassment of riches when it came to year in, year out consistency. For three years straight, the Jets were able to send out some combination of Dustin Byfuglien, Josh Morrissey, Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers, and Ben Chiarot, icing one of the best right sides the NHL had to offer. Everyone was on a good contract, too; Chevy really had very little work to do every off season regarding the defense.

That all changed in the summer of 2019 when Trouba was traded, Myers and Chiarot signed elsewhere, and Byfuglien decided to keep fishing. It’s something the Jets have been battling ever since, and is the reason the Jets points percentage has dropped below .600 every year since then, after posting .695 and .604 points percentages in the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons, respectively. It’s amazing the Jets even managed a 37-28-6 record in 2019-20 with the defense they had, and is a huge testament to Connor Hellebuyck’s brick wall like features and a vicious, balanced scoring group. The top defensemen in total ice time that year were Pionk, Morrissey, Kulikov, Tucker Poolman, Luca Sbisa, and Anthony Bitetto, while Dylan DeMelo was added near the deadline.

That is not good.

Would you prefer Kulikov and Poolman as your 3rd and 4th most used defensemen, or Trouba and Myers?

The Jets had a lot of work to do.

Let the defensive rebuild begin

The acquisition of DeMelo near the deadline in 2020 was the beginning of a long, slow, very Kevin Chevyldayoff-esque attempt at rebuilding a defense that was once one of the best in the league.

DeMelo’s been a smart addition, one that only cost a 3rd round pick. He’s given the right side a much needed boost, and he’s been a player capable of playing alongside Morrissey, although he’s probably best suited as a 4th defenseman, a 2nd pair accent to the team’s better defenders. But he’s been a steady, defensive presence since acquisition, and re-signing him to a reasonable contract extension has only made the original cost even better.

The Jets made no significant addition in the summer of 2020; the headline addition was Derek Forbort (who was solid, but never going to really move the needle), and in the Covid-caused North Division of 2021, the Jets top 6 defenders in order of total ice time were Morrissey, Pionk, Forbort, DeMelo, Poolman, and the somewhat impressive in sheltered minutes version of Logan Stanley.

That is also not a great group. Once again, Hellebuyck proved his worth.

And eventually, Chevyldayoff recognized that, finally bolstering the Jets defense after two years of icing an extremely concerning group on the back end. Yes, Pionk had two nice seasons immediately after coming over from New York, and yes, Dylan DeMelo was doing well in improving the top four. But that group hit glass with their clearances more than tape, and it was a much different team to experience when it came to breaking out from the back.

Enter Brendan Dillon and Nate Schmidt.

Both players were acquired purely for draft capital, but their impacts and feel in the lineup have been very different.

Schmidt was acquired with 4 years left on a contract that paid him $5.95 million per season. Already a declining asset, he was a terrible fit in Vancouver and ultimately was the beneficiary of a Vegas blue line that had plenty of opportunity in its first few seasons. He put up good numbers there, but as their back end improved, Schmidt became expendable. It’s great that an undrafted player got his pay day, and for a 3rd round pick he was a cheap addition. But he has an offensive profile, one we already have with Morrissey and Pionk, he now plays in a 3rd pairing role, and he’s blocking younger defensemen from opportunity. He’s a fith defenseman at best, and we’ll be chewing on his nearly $6 million salary for another two years. It hasn’t been Chevy’s best move, although I understood it at the time. It’s the term that’s been the killer.

Dillon, meanwhile, was the far more expensive addition that summer, costing two 2nd round picks. And he’s been worth both. Dillon is the mobile, mean defender we’ve needed since Trouba left, and has been a stalwart on the penalty kill. Particularly last year, where the Jets finished with the 7th best penalty kill in the league. He’s turning 32, and is a UFA at the end of this season. Whether he stays or goes, the cost of acquisition will have been worth it. Dillon has been a top penalty killer and a very necessary staple to the top 4.

It would be good for Chevy to extend him, but would need to be very careful about term. Schmidt and Pionk are already on poor contracts.

Defense has improved over the last few seasons, but not without mistakes

There’s no denying that the defense core has improved since that fateful summer of 2019. But by how much? It’s hard to assess that sometimes with the odd combination the Jets possess: erratic defensive play from forwards and an elite, top three goaltender.

But ultimately, this was a group capable of helping a team make it to the playoffs, and one that played a big part in a top 10 penalty kill. You have to wonder how this team would have looked without Schmidt this year, as both Ville Heinola, Logan Stanley, and Declan Chisholm have been knocking on the door for a while. Not to mention losing Jonathan Kovacevic to waivers.

But the difference from 2020 until now is stark.

It’s not even close. The fact we even played to a decent record in 2020 while looking at that group is shocking. Kulikov and Poolman as your 3rd and 4th defenceman? Yikes.

And so, here we are. With an improved but still not great group of defensemen.

The Jets’ current group of defencemen take up 32.5% of the cap, or almost a third. Pionk and Schmidt’s contracts are the albatrosses, though I have held out hope for Pionk to bounce back. Schmidt just is what he is: a $6 million 3rd pair defencemen.

As it stands, Our dynamic Dillion/Dylan duo – Brendan Dillon and Dylan DeMelo – are in the final year of their contracts. Given that they led our Jets in penalty killing ice time by a wide margin last year, it would be prudent to retain at least one or both of their services. If not, the Jets would have major holes again to fill this coming summer. Declan Chisholm or Logan Stanley could serve that mission, and I’m admittedly unsure of Kyle Capobianco’s skills profile.

Looking ahead, Schmidt and Pionk’s combined $11.8 million comes off the books the year after, providing future flexibility.

Of course, we do have the studly Josh Morrissey locked up through 2028.

And as long as he doesn’t develop a sudden affinity for ice fishing, he’ll be around for another half decade.