It’s been a bad month for the Winnipeg Jets’ blue line.
Rugged, sturdy defenseman Ben Chiarot is the most recent departure in what’s been a mass exodus from the Jets’ d-corp. On Thursday, he signed a three-year deal with the Montreal Canadiens, becoming the third experienced d-man this offseason — following closely on the heels of Jacob Trouba and Tyler Myers — to leave town.
Without Chiarot, Trouba, and Myers, the Jets’ defensive lines — if they played today — would look something like this:
Those are some problematic pairings. Dustin Byfuglien is pushing 35 and missed half of last season to injury. Nathan Beaulieu — even though we advocated for re-signing him — is not statistically a shut-down guy. Sami Niku, Neal Pionk, and Tucker Poolman, while promising, are unproven, with just 156 NHL games between them.
You can debate the exact pairings (whether Dmitry Kulikov would slot in over Poolman, for example) but it’s obvious the Jets’ defence is in a sorry state.
If they go into October with their current personnel, they’ll likely have not much more on their hands than a bundle of losses and a pair of exhausted goaltenders.
Jets Need a Short-Term Blue Line Solution
The Jets have drafted well and possess a number of promising defensive prospects. However, the problem is none of them are ready to make the jump next season. Hence, the Jets need addition D help to bridge the gap between now and when players such as Declan Chisholm, Ville Heinola, Dylan Samberg, and Giovanni Vallati are ready for the big-time.
It was just a few days ago that we broke down five free agent defence targets the Jets could actually afford, given that they don’t have a lot of money for anyone not named Kyle Connor or Patrik Laine.
Now that we know Chiarot isn’t coming back to Winnipeg, however, the landscape changes. His departure should force the Jets to invest in their blue line.
The Jets need to take the money they were willing to pay Chiarot — Ken Wiebe reported the team offered the 28-year-old an AAV close to $3 million over four years — and earmark it for locking down an experienced defenseman who can make an immediate impact. That money should be a rainy day fund, not touched for Connor, Laine, or anyone else.
As Mike Mcintyre tweeted Thursday: “The fact the (Jets) were in on Ben Chiarot until the end tells me they are still looking to boost the blue-line.”
Jets (Still) Have Free-Agent Options
Free Agent Frenzy has died down and many players already have new homes, but there’s still some decent defenders out there.
Ben Hutton remains one of the most compelling options. Nobody’s locked down the former Vancouver Canuck, and he could be a good fit — a rough equivalent to the now-departed Chiarot.
A veteran of 276 NHL games, the left-hander would likely be a lock for a top-four job. Hutton averaged nearly four more minutes per game than Chiarot in 2018-19 and saw time on the power play and penalty kill, too. Hutton’s possession numbers are admittedly none-too-pretty, but keep in mind he’s spent his entire career with a squad that has been in rebuild mode and has never finished above .500 in any of his four seasons.
Hutton made $2.8 million in each of his past two seasons — just about the amount the Jets were willing to pay Chiarot.
Another defender who could come in around the $3 million mark is Michael Del Zotto. In fact, that’s exactly what the 29-year-old made over his past two campaigns.
Del Zotto, a former-first round pick, has bounced around recently: in January, the Canucks traded him to the Anaheim Ducks, and less than two months later, the Ducks flipped him to the St. Louis Blues. He played seven games for the Blues and was part of their playoff roster, but didn’t see any action during the Blues’ rip-roaring romp to Stanley Cup glory.
Hutton and Del Zotto aren’t the only options. The Jets could also seek out big-bodied and physical Stanley Cup winner Adam McQuaid — who spent 2018-19 between the New York Rangers and Columbus Blue Jackets but is better known for spending nine seasons patrolling the Boston Bruins’ blue line — or Luca Sbisa — who played just nine games for the Vegas Golden Knights last season but has suited up for more than 500 since being drafted 19th overall in 2008.
McQuaid would command more than Sbisa, but both of them would certainly come in under $3 million.
Jets Need to Ink Someone ASAP
The longer the Jets sit on their hands, the fewer players will be available. They could always swing a trade, too, and perhaps ship out Bryan Little’s or Mathieu Perreault’s contract in the process — those two deals have handcuffed them and have been part of the reason for their inability to retain their unrestricted free agents.
However, trades haven’t worked out well for the Jets lately: we saw last month with the Trouba deal how a team can get taken advantage of when they aren’t in a position of strength. The Jets aren’t in a position of strength here either.
It’s still early July, but the sooner something gets done, the better. Given the new weapons their Central Division opponents have already added to their arsenals, the Jets will be in tough to make the playoffs next season unless they add some fortification to their now-shaky back end.