Decimated Defence: Can Jay Harrison Keep Jets Flying?

The Winnipeg Jets had to make a move. General manager Kevin Cheveldayoff isn’t known for making trades, but given the injuries to his core group of blueliners he was left with little choice. The team’s top four defensemen, Zach Bogosian, Tobias Enstrom, Jacob Trouba and Mark Stuart are all out for an extended period of time.

You can only go so far down the depth chart and call up so many players from the AHL and still be competitive. And so, with the news of Stuart’s injury it wasn’t long after that the Jets acquired Jay Harrison from the Carolina Hurricanes in exchange for the Ottawa Senators’ sixth-round draft pick in the 2015 draft.

Is it enough? Can the Jets stay on the playoff bubble over the next month with the addition of just Harrison and no other defenceman?

 

Carolina Hurricane Jay Harrison - Photo By Andy Martin Jr
Jay Harrison – Photo By Andy Martin Jr

 Jay Harrison

Harrison is a 32-year-old from Oshawa, Ontario and he offers great size at 6’4″, 220 pounds. He has all the tools of a classic stay-at-home blueliner. His size and strength gives him an advantage along the boards and in protecting the the crease. He has a long reach which can help in forcing players outside. However, he lacks speed and can therefore have problems slowing fast, skilled forwards from entering the zone. He’s not going to replace the likes of Enstrom or Trouba and no one should expect that. It’s not plausible for Cheveldayoff to acquire a skilled, top-four type of bluliner for anything less than a decent prospect. Instead, Harrison gives the Jets some depth when they need it most and if anything, takes on a role similar to that of Stuart.

As for the first couple games without their top four defensemen and with Harrison, well, it’s been good and bad.

Games vs. Boston and Philadelphia

Harrison made his Jets debut against the Boston Bruins. On his first shift he hit Grant Clitsome with a pass, he fired a shot on goal which was stopped, but Evander Kane knocked home the rebound. The Jets defence was led by Dustin Byfuglien who has stepped into the role of the team’s top blueliner. Harrison, Clitsome, Paul Postma, Adam Pardy and IceCaps standout Ben Chiarot made up the rest of the defence.

The Bruins came out flat in the first, but picked up the pace in the second frame. Torey Krug got Boston on the board, however the Jets held strong defensively after that. With the help of Michael Hutchinson who made 16 stops in the third period and 30 on the night, Winnipeg held on for a 2-1 victory. A good system? Great Goaltending? Luck? Maybe a little of everything.

On Sunday night against the Flyers, things went a bit differently. Less than a minute into the game the Flyers got a 2-on-1 and Jakub Voracek took advantage as Clitsome was the lone defenceman back. The Jets would respond quickly with two goals before the midway mark of the period against 33-year-old Rob Zepp, who was making his NHL debut.

Mathieu Perreault had a great game and notched the lone goal in the second period. Skip ahead to the five-minute mark of the third period: Jets up 3-1 needing to kill 15 minutes to skate away with their third straight victory.

That didn’t happen.

With three Winnipeg players standing in front of the net looking on, Vincent Lecavalier deflected home a wrist shot from the point. On the third goal it was again a case of frozen feet. Off a faceoff to the left of Ondrej Pavelec, Harrison and Byfuglien and seemingly all three forwards got caught standing still while Lecavalier notched his second goal of the game. That made it three all and doesn’t account for a couple of other defensive breakdowns, including one where two Flyers somehow got behind the Jets defence in deep, only to wire one of the bar.

In overtime it was Voracek taking advantage of a Byfuglien turnover behind the net and winning the game 10 seconds in.

Paul Maurice had this to say after the game, according to Patrick Williams of NHL.com. “We stopped making simple plays,” Maurice said. “It’s not that we couldn’t make a simple play. We stopped trying to make a simple play and opted for a safe option. You just can’t keep kicking the puck into the neutral zone.”

Continuing to execute Maurice’s system is crucial. Consistent, physical play in the defensive zone is a must and the Jets’ blueliners cannot be caught out of position, as was the case against the Flyers. However, it’s not enough to simply get the puck out of the defensive zone. The Jets must find a way to control the puck and start a breakout from deep in their own end. With Trouba and Enstrom out, there isn’t a skilled puck-moving defensemen so this will be a task tackled by committee. It’s going to take players stepping up and doing something they’re not accustomed to, whether it’s Harrison, Clitsome, Pardy, etc. As Maurice mentioned, at times it’s just making a simple play, a quick outlet pass for example, instead of just flipping the puck up into the neutral zone.

Winnipeg has 41 points through 34 games. They currently hold down a wild-card spot sitting fourth in the Central Division and seventh overall in the Western Conference. Vancouver, Calgary and L.A. trail the Jets by just a few points, although they are all Pacific Division teams and all are struggling latley. The Central opponents are further behind and include Minnesota (35 points), Dallas (33 points) and Colorado (32 points). This slight advantage in the standings gives the Jets a little breathing room, but any major slide could cause them to drop out of the top eight quickly. It’s only a matter of time before teams like the Kings get back to playing at a high level.

If the Jets come up just a few points shy of the playoffs, it’s likely that this portion of the season will be looked back upon as the reason why.