The Winnipeg Jets coaching staff and players don’t need to be told a significant improvement with their five-on-five defensive play will be a must if they are going to survive — and perhaps thrive — in the re-aligned all Canadian Division this season. They are well aware of that.
And while the “external” expectation is the Jets need to make a deal to add a top-four-caliber blueliner to be considered a serious contender, the indication from the first four days of training camp is the plan will be to “spread” what wealth they have at that position, especially with a condensed schedule of playing 56 games in 114 days.
That would seem to be a lot of the rationale for having Josh Morrissey, Neil Pionk and Dylan Demelo play in separate pairings, at least for now.
“There’s a compliment with each pair we have in terms of size and in terms of speed of puck movement that we have,” said Head Coach Paul Maurice Thursday. “People can do that off each pairing. We’ll move these around for sure as we go, but we’ll take a look at this. Get them some comfort together.”
So that would indicate Jets fans could see a combination of Morrissey-Tucker Poolman, Pionk-Derek Forbert, and Demelo-Nathan Beaulieu come opening night next Thursday when the season starts with a home game at Bell MTS Place versus Calgary which will be broadcast on 680 CJOB starting at 5pm with the pre-game show and then the play by play at 7pm..
And Demelo, for one, is not at all surprised to be playing with someone other than Morrissey in what was widely expected to be a reunion of Winnipeg’s shutdown pair from last summer in the Edmonton bubble. Especially when he decided to forego free agency and ink a four-year deal for US$12 million back in October.
“When I signed here it wasn’t necessarily to play with a single player. It was to play with the whole team,” said Demelo. “Obviously playing with Beau — I started off with him so it was an easy fit for me — I’m very comfortable playing with him. When I got switched with Josh it was the same type of type of thing.
“I just try to bring the same approach and the same style with whoever I’m playing with.”
“It’s with Beau right now. We’re still trying to read off each other a little bit and work out some kinks. We can be a real good pair and that’s my expectation for us.”
Morrissey spent the first three days of camp partnered with Sami Niku. But on Thursday it was Tucker Poolman getting the chance to skate alongside Winnipeg’s No.1 defenseman. Poolman missed the early part of camp with an undisclosed injury, but Maurice is optimistic the former University of North Dakota standout will make strides from his first full NHL season, which began with him playing with Morrissey before an injury sidelined the veteran for a couple of games.
“We don’t know if we really understand that pair yet because we’ve moved people around and got to different combinations,” said the Jets coach. “We just felt that Tucker’s finish to the back half of his year was really strong after he came back off injury. He’s such a big man and skates so well, he can keep pace with the bigger, faster guys you see in the upper parts of lineups.”
And Demelo says the Canadian, or Scotiabank Division as it will be referred to this season, is chock-full of those kinds of players. “There’s no secret there is some serious star power in this division. Even if you look through just the center of the ice. There’s a lot of good players on every team,” pointed out the former Ottawa Senator and San Jose Shark.
“It’s going to be our job to eliminate chances, get the puck out of our zone as quick as possible, get it to the forwards. Coaches have been harping on eliminating chances right in that house-area in the slot. Hopefully, we can do that, and that’s going to be a big part in helping our goalies out too. Obviously, they faced a lot of pucks last year.”
It has been well documented about the high level of Grade A chances Connor Hellebuyck faced on a nightly basis, and how that factored into his selection as the Vezina Trophy winner. And while Winnipeg hasn’t added that marquee name on the blueline experts and fans feel is a must for the team to move forward, Maurice believes the addition of centers Paul Stastny and Nate Thompson will make a big difference in limiting those high scoring probability chances.
“These are defensemen. They work low with those D’s. We feel we’ve gotten better in the middle of the ice with those two men coming in, from where we were last year,” said Maurice in explaining what Stastny and Thompson will bring to the mix. “That’s going to be a great help. You’ve added Forbert. Development time on Tucker Poolman. Development time on Pionk for that matter.”
Maurice says he had no issue with the heart or compete level of last year’s defense when it came time to forging an identity, and he doesn’t want that to change. But there is an acute awareness of the need to improve in those high danger areas, and that is being addressed in the lead-up to the start of the season.
“We have minor changes maybe in all of our systems this year, which is fairly normal,” Maurice said. “But we added two guys that play low that are going to be really, really good at it and that’s going to have a big impact for us.”
Demelo sees that as being cause for optimism as well. “I think it’s as simple as this. The less amount of time you can play in your own end, the better. As a defenseman, you’re the one going back to the puck first, and that first touch is crucial,” said the eighth-year pro who gets high marks on the analytics front, even though that isn’t reflected in the points column for the most part.
“They don’t count third, fourth, or fifth assists. A huge job for defensemen nowadays is breaking the puck out. It may be a series of plays you have to make. Little five-foot plays, three or four of them, to get you out of your zone. But it starts with that first touch. If you can get back first and get that touch, it’s either you pop to the center, you roll F-1 and pop it, or you go D-to-D. If we can all get support and outman them down low when there’s contact, that’s how you get it out of the zone in a lot of cases. It’s not as clean as you’d like it to be every time.”
So for the time being, the greater emphasis on team-wide responsibility on defense and having that blueline balance is what Maurice, his staff, and the players are focused on as they prepare for what amounts to and “every-other-night” schedule. And the coach knows the group of six he begins with next Thursday night will almost assuredly not be the same six he goes to war with for the 55 games that follow.
“We had everybody playing defense last year. I think (assistant coach) Charlie Huddy took a couple of shifts one night,” joked Maurice in reference to the 10 different blueliners who dressed for at least one regular-season game. “We’ve got a game card that’s got a different set of D pairings on it that we might look at. You’re not running D-men into the 25-27 minutes in our group this year. The schedule won’t allow it.”
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