Jets Face Tough Decision in Light of Brenden Dillon’s Struggles

After a 3-2 loss to the Los Angeles Kings over the weekend, the Winnipeg Jets are all but out of the playoff race, with giving them a 1 percent chance to sneak into a playoff spot. There is plenty of blame to go around, but one reason the team has struggled is partly due to the two veteran defensemen that the Jets acquired in the offseason. With both Brenden Dillon and Nate Schmidt failing to find their rhythm, the Jets’ defence core has been underwhelming outside of a bounce-back season from Josh Morrissey.

Over the past two games, Dillon has been demoted to a third-pairing role with Logan Stanley and is mainly used in high-leverage situations and on the penalty kill. Despite his $3.9 million cap hit, he doesn’t seem to be pulling his weight with the Jets, given the price tag they paid to acquire him.

Dillon Has Struggled Alongside Neal Pionk

Ever since Dillon was acquired for two second-round picks, he was labelled to be Neal Pionk’s partner on the Jets’ second pairing. Unfortunately, he has yet to live up to that label and has seen a major drop in production in almost every major stat category.

Brenden Dillon2020-21 (WSH)2021-22 (WPG)
High Danger Chance %48.35%43.65%
Corsi %47.20%45.07%
Goals for %54.81%47.58%
Scoring chances % 48.33%45.07%
Stats via

Pionk has failed to re-create the production that earned him a four-year, $5.875 million contract in the offseason. Not only is Dillon struggling on his own, but one of Winnipeg’s most reliable options on defence last season has taken a major step back.

Despite Pionk’s breakout season coming with a “stay-at-home” defenceman in Derek Forbort in 2021, I think he would benefit from playing with another offensive-minded defenceman, on a pairing that could have over half of their shifts start in the offensive zone, and be used to create more than defend. Schmidt and Ville Heinola would be the best fit for an offensive-minded pairing alongside Pionk. 

Explore a Trade to Make Room for Internal Options

Whether it’s coaching or failing to build chemistry with teammates, Dillon has looked a step slow all season and leaves the Jets with a tough decision in the offseason. Due to his low cap hit, he should have some value if they looked to move him to a defenceman-needy team.

Luckily for the Jets, internal defence prospects such as Heinola, Dylan Samberg, Stanley and Declan Chisholm have all gotten games under their belt at the NHL level this season. More recently, Heinola has settled in nicely on a second-pairing tandem with Pionk and is slowly starting to find his groove as an NHL regular. He’s recorded three assists in the four games since returning to the lineup and has shown off his offensive instincts and his elite ability to make clean zone exits.

Ville Heinola Winnipeg Jets
Ville Heinola, Winnipeg Jets (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

For these young players to develop, the Jets will have to move off of one struggling veteran option for them to get their chance. Between the two most movable options in Schmidt and Dillon, the low cap hit and penalty-killing abilities make Dillon the more attractive option.

Jets Might Choose to Hope for a Bounce-Back Season in 2022-23

General manager Kevin Chevyldayoff will likely resort to hoping that Dillon has a bounce-back year after he turns 32 this November, which is well past his prime. To make that work, Dillon will have to resume the current sheltered, penalty-killing specialist role that he is in. This would be the least proactive option for the Jets. Dillon is aging and there are plenty of replacement options within the organization that would be cheaper and arguably produce better on-ice results. 

Brenden Dillon Winnipeg Jets
Brenden Dillon, Winnipeg Jets (Photo by Darcy Finley/NHLI via Getty Images)

After this season, Dillon will still have two years remaining on his contract. Trading him before his value drops substantially would be in the Jets’ best interest. With a new coaching staff presumably taking over the team next season, what they value in a defenceman will have a major impact on how this blue line looks next season.

If they are looking to play an up-tempo and generally offensive style, Heinola and Chisholm should be given extra looks in that system. In that scenario, Dillon would likely be moved. If they are looking to play more of a physical and defensive style, then Dillon, along with Stanley and Samberg, should thrive. 

With his struggles in the current system, it’s hard to believe Dillon will thrive next season in the same role he’s currently attempting to improve in. Do the Jets bank on a bounce-back season or move him to make room for younger players? This is just one of many tough decisions that Chevyldayoff will have to make this offseason.

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