Byfuglien Injury Exposes Jets’ Defensive Depth

The Winnipeg Jets’ defense looks both mobile and intimidating when Dustin Byfuglien is in the lineup. Recently, the Jets have learned how their blue line looks without him, and it’s not a pretty picture.

No defense should live and die by a single player, especially one who arguably isn’t part of their top pairing. Yet the loss of Byfuglien, even short-term, left the Jets’ defense in a bad way at the start of their six-game homestand on Oct. 14.

Against the Carolina Hurricanes that Sunday, the Jets surrendered a whopping 43 shots. It was the second time on the year the Jets had given up so many shots and won, and it was only heroics from Laurent Brossoit that earned them the victory.

Jets defenseman Dustin Byfuglien
Dustin Byfuglien being out for any length of time leaves the Jets defensive depth suspect. (Photo: Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports)

Then, the Jets were outshot and beaten 5-4 by an Edmonton Oilers team that had not scored five goals in total all season long. The defense was a disaster in the third period as the Oilers ate the undermanned Jets’ D-corps alive.

All of a sudden, a Jets team that had three defensemen who would be top-two on any NHL team had just the top pair, followed by two pairs of depth defenders. None of Tyler Myers, Joe Morrow, Ben Chiarot, or Dmitry Kulikov have played like top-four defensemen this year.

So where does that leave the Jets? Trading for players with their cap situation as tight as it is can be beyond tricky, especially when the whole NHL knows you need help in a spot. Ask the Edmonton Oilers what defensemen cost when the league knows you desperately need them.

Sami Niku, Tucker Poolman Among Depth Options

Before the year began, we predicted Tucker Poolman would have a much larger load to shoulder this year in Winnipeg. We also predicted Sami Niku would be ready to pitch in on the left side in a big way. Both players began the year in the AHL. Oops.

Now, both of those things could still happen. As Kyle Connor proved last year, being sent to the AHL isn’t the end of your season by any means. In fact, it was about this time last year that Connor rejoined the Jets and began a scoring tear.

The loss to the Oilers, in which the Jets blew a 4-1 lead, was ample evidence that changes need to be made on the blue line. Chiarot was hard-pressed to win foot races against even Milan Lucic, nevermind the Oilers’ speedier forwards.

Both Niku and Poolman had strong but brief showings in Winnipeg last year. The Jets reluctance to bring them up so far might’ve reached the point of no return in the Oilers loss. If Byfuglien is out much longer, the Jets cannot continue with the current top six.

Edmonton entered play that night with one of the least successful offenses in the NHL, despite the presence of Connor McDavid. That they torched the Jets for four goals in the third period and overtime speaks volumes about the biggest need of the Jets right now.

Unfortunately, Winnipeg’s depth on defense isn’t getting any better in the long term. Niku and Poolman will help an awful lot, but a troubling offseason means the future of Winnipeg’s back end is now even more in question than ever.

Jets’ Future Uncertain on Defense

Morrissey and Trouba are evidently the best two blueliners in Winnipeg right now. That’s true even when Byfuglien is healthy. They had the unenviable task of shutting down McDavid in the Oilers’ loss and get the tough match-ups most nights.

Morrissey has three assists in two games, two of which have come on the power play, since Byfuglien went down. His presence is not a concern. Yet both he and Trouba have had contract troubles in recent years.

As the Jets’ latest loss proved, losing either of Morrissey or Trouba would be crushing. Byfuglien is still a huge part of the defense, but he’s not young any longer. The Jets’ options to replace Morrissey and Trouba are few.

Niku, for instance, is more of an offensive defenseman and may never be the shutdown type Morrissey has become. Poolman’s ceiling is unlikely to be as high as Trouba’s.

Tucker Poolman Winnipeg Jets
The Winnipeg Jets could use defenseman Tucker Poolman right now, but he’s not likely to take on the same responsibilities as Trouba. (Photo: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports)

It’s too early to say what Logan Stanley’s future holds as he embarks on his first pro campaign. The same is true of Dylan Samberg. Even if he turns out as well as some have projected, the Minnesota-Duluth stud is years away.

Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, the Jets have issues with depth on defense. Maybe Niku and Poolman would fix those issues, or maybe they would play like young players thrust in over their heads.

The fact that these two AHL sophomores are the best options the Jets have back there is worrying. The draft-and-develop model that has turned Winnipeg into a powerhouse of forward talent hasn’t had the same impact yet on its rearguards.

If Winnipeg wants to take a run at the Stanley Cup, that needs to change in a hurry. Players are going to go down hurt. This time it was Byfuglien. What if next time the injury bug bites it claims one of Morrissey or Trouba?

If that happens, the Jets are in real trouble. Last year the team shored up its forward depth with a trade deadline acquisition. This year it seems Kevin Cheveldayoff has his work cut out for him on the back end.