Jets’ Journeymen Blueliners Face Tough Test

Three players who likely weren’t on the Winnipeg Jets’ radar at all at the end of last season — and certainly weren’t on their radar for starring roles — are now part of the main cast for the foreseeable future due to a depleted defensive corp that keeps getting dealt blow after blow.

The Ascended Extras

A trio of fringe defensemen who were only supposed to make cameo appearances for the Jets this season — and only if absolutely necessary — suddenly find themselves centre stage.

The first? Anthony Bitetto: A 29-year-old New York native signed in the summer as dirt-cheap depth in the wake of the Jacob Trouba trade and Tyler Myers’ and Ben Chiarot’s departures to significantly greener pastures.

Winnipeg Jets Anthony Bitetto
The Jets signed Anthony Bitetto in the offseason after taking losing Trouba, Myers, and Chiarot, but didn’t envision him being an everyday player. (Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports)

The second? Carl Dahlstrom: picked up off waivers from the Chicago Blackhawks just before the regular season began due to Nathan Beaulieu’s injury in the Jets’ final preseason game, Sami Niku’s nagging groin problem, and the uncertainty surrounding Dustin Byfuglien’s (still unresolved) leave of absence.

Related: Jets Have Much Uncertainty at Regular Season’s Outset

The third? Luca Sbisa, claimed in late October one day after the Anaheim Ducks signed the New York Islanders castoff and tried to send him down, as another depth option.

Most Battered Blue Line of All Time?

The Jets blue line, which has been patchwork all season, is at its thinnest point yet.

Related: Jets Need to Persevere With a Patchwork Defence

So how did we get to having not one, not two, but all three of these in the lineup at once as they were in the Jets’ 2-1 loss to the Anaheim Ducks and again on Tuesday in the Jets’ 5-1 victory versus the Dallas Stars? We get there thanks to three more injuries.

Luca Sbisa Winnipeg Jets
Luca Sbisa has been dressed in favour of Bitetto and Dahlstrom since late-October, but recent circumstances has forced the Jets to dress all three. (Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports)

Prior to recent circumstances, Sbisa was drawing in over Bitetto, and Dahlstrom was playing a generally low-key, mistake-free game, and was helping the Jets’ much-maligned penalty kill lurch back to respectability. However, recent blows to the blue line have forced the Jets to trot out all three.

Beaulieu — who can’t catch a break — is currently out week-to-week with an injury he suffered after taking a shot to the hand in Nov. 23’s tilt against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Nathan Beaulieu, Yanni Gourde
Nathan Beaulieu is back on the shelf. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Chris O’Meara)

Dmitry Kulikov, who, for better or for worse, was logging nearly 20 minutes per game, is out even longer — until at least the All-Star Break, head coach Paul Maurice revealed Tuesday — with an upper-body injury he suffered on Black Friday in Anaheim.

The fan above’s incredulity is well-earned, but what perhaps he didn’t know is that calling Sami Niku up isn’t an option right now — but it was a few weeks ago, for what it’s worth, when it became apparent from his AHL dominance that he deserved to be with the big club.

The slick-skating Finn, who was supposed to be a big part of the Jets’ defence this season but has played just one game in 2019-20, sustained another injury last Wednesday after taking a hard hit in the Moose’s game versus Milwaukee Admirals; he’s since missed their last three.

Trio Faces a Tough Test

Bitetto, Dahlstrom, and Sbisa aren’t shutdown guys and will likely struggle at times in a starring, rather than sheltered, role. All three’s possession numbers and expected goals for/expected goals against ratio are historically poor, which means their opponents have controlled the puck more than they have, and their opponents have scored more goals than their own teams have when they are on the ice.

Predators defenseman Anthony Bitetto
Anthony Bitetto played 114 games with the Nashville Predators over five seasons but was never more than a bottom pairing defenceman. The most games he’s suited up for in a single season was 36, which he did 2018-19 when he split time between the Predators and Minnesota Wild. (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

Aside from Sbisa, a veteran of 520 NHL games, they’re not experienced or used to logging heavy minutes. Bitteto’s played 144 games scattered over five seasons and averaged 12:10; his average ice time with the Jets of 15:10 is the highest of his career.

Dahlstrom has played in 61 NHL games and has averaged 17:49. It remains to be seen whether he and Bitetto — and even Sbisa, who played just nine games last season and 30 in 2017-18 — will get worn down as they play long stretches of games.

Winnipeg Jets Carl Dahlstrom
Carl Dahlstrom has played in 60 NHL games over three seasons. (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

Suffice it to say, all three are flawed. Nonetheless, they must do what they can to help the Jets “stay in the fight.”

Can Jets Still Succeed Despite Not Being ‘Analytics Darlings?’

One thing the 2019-20 Winnipeg squad has going for them is they have been fire-forged — they’ve faced a season’s share of adversity already, just 28 games in. They are an earnest club that works exceedingly hard regardless of the score and have gotten contributions from up and down their lineup. They just set a November record by posting 10 wins.

Related: Top 5 Moments from Jets’ Record-Setting November

There are many indicators the Jets should probably not be 17-10-1. Just a few examples are collective Corsi and Fenwick numbers below 50 per cent at five-on-five, 341 high danger chances allowed (fifth-most in the NHL) and an expected goals percentage at the bottom of the league.

Many point to these stats as evidence the floor will fall out from under the team eventually. So far, it hasn’t.

Patrik Laine Winnipeg Jets
Despite not being strong from an analytics standpoint, the Jets keep capturing victories. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)

“You know what? We probably will never get to be an analytics darling this year,” Maurice admitted recently. “For us to win games, we are going to need our goalie to be really good and for us to compete real hard. I’ll take that all day long because went can’t measure compete. The things we set out to be good at this year, how hard we contest the puck, what our gap is on the puck carrier, how many pucks we forced to be dumped. We’re pretty good in those departments. The things we can be good at, we are.”

(From ‘Jets put band back together to make music on power play,’ Winnipeg Sun, Nov. 30, 2019.)

Indeed, Connor Hellebuyck’s Vezina-calibre play — a 2.17 goals against average, .934 save percentage, .762 quality start percentage, and a 5.8 goalie points share — along with the team’s sheer determination, have carried them to many a razor-edge victory. The netminder will have to be as sharp as ever with Bitetto, Dahlstrom, and Sbisa all in, and everyone, from the top line down, will have to chip in on both sides of the puck, even if that means taking less risk on offence.

Could this be when the floor finally does fall out? Perhaps, but early results indicate perhaps not: against the Stars, the trio skated a combined 50:37, were a combined plus two, didn’t make any glaring errors, and held the Texan team to many one-and-done shot opportunities.

If the floor doesn’t fall out and the Jets keep winning, it’s tough to see it ever doing so on this squad that has overcome everything they’ve faced thus far.