The scrappy, hard-working Winnipeg Jets keep finding ways to win and are really starting to roll; they’re 5-0-1 in their past six games.
They are 9-2-1 in November and 15-9-1 overall, sit third in the Central Division at the all-important American Thanksgiving threshold. What might be most impressive is how they’re persevering with a patchwork defence that keeps taking hits.
Jets’ Blue Line Continues to Be Battered
The Jets will keep having to hold their blue line together with baling wire for the foreseeable future. Nathan Beaulieu, who missed all of October with an injury he suffered in the Jets’ final preseason game, is injured again after playing just nine games.
The veteran of 341 NHL contests was just getting up to speed and looking comfortable again when he took a puck to the hand against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Saturday. The team didn’t take him on their three-game West Coast swing, and head coach Paul Maurice said he’d be out at least a week.
Maurice chose to use Anthony Bitetto in Beaulieu’s stead Wednesday against the San Jose Sharks rather than call-up Sami Niku, much to the chagrin of the ever-growing group of fans frustrated that the slick-skating Finn’s “conditioning stint” has lasted nearly two months now.
If the Jets were still considering calling up Niku, it’s too late. The 2015 seventh-round pick, who was supposed to be an NHL mainstay this season and desperately needs big-league experience to continue his development curve, was knocked out in the second period of the American Hockey League’s Manitoba Moose’s 6-3 loss to the Milwaukee Admirals on Wednesday. It remains to be seen how much time he’ll miss.
Jets Don’t Have Many Internal Options
Bitetto picked up his first point of the season Wednesday in San Jose but isn’t someone who should be playing nearly 18 minutes (he logged 17:56 in his return to the lineup) or be on the penalty kill. The fact his average time on ice — 15:21 — is by far the highest of his NHL career shows how thin the Jets’ blue line has been. The only other option the Jets have is fellow waiver-wire pickup Carl Dahlstrom, who’s played just 59 NHL games and last dressed on Oct. 29.
There’s no one else to call up from the Moose, either. Logan Stanley has played only seven games this season and just two since returning to action after missing more than a month with an upper-body injury. The towering 6-foot-7 2016 first-rounder needs more seasoning.
Related: Jets Need Niku Now
The Jets also can’t call upon Ville Heinola. They sent the thoroughly impressive youngster — who excelled in just about every way during his eight-game stint earlier in the season — back to his Finnish club team on Nov. 8.
The Jets could certainly use their 2019 first-rounder right about now: their choice to return him to Lukko Rauma rather than keep him in the AHL — where they could keep closer tabs on him, gives him a head start in learning the North American game, and have him within arm’s reach for situations just like these — is an inexplicable one.
Of course, the Jets don’t have Dustin Byfuglien, either, as he continues to be missing in action after taking a sudden leave of absence in mid-September. The situation with the 33-year-old — who’s been gone so long this author sometimes forgets he even exists — is a true schmozzle. The players’ association recently filed a grievance against the Jets on his behalf because the team suspended him without pay and it’s increasingly difficult to see the saga ending with “Big Buff” back on the blue line.
The Jets are lucky Josh Morrissey didn’t have to miss any time after leaving Saturday’s game against the Blue Jackets after taking a puck to the knee. If he did, they’d be just about up the proverbial creek without a paddle.
Thankfully, Morrissey reported post-game Wednesday he feels “great” now and the three days off between games provided enough time to heal up.
Sbisa, Others Have Stepped Up
One player who has provided the Jets with some unlikely stability is Luca Sbisa. Although he got off on the wrong foot with Jets’ faithful — it was initially (but erroneously) reported he injured Patrik Laine after colliding with him during his first practice with the team — he’s proven to be a decent low-risk addition.
Viewed by most at the time of his acquisition as nothing more than a desperation pickup due to lack of blue-line depth, the left-handed shooting Sbisa has become a back-end mainstay. Until Beaulieu’s injury, he kept getting the call over Bitetto, who played with Sbisa on the third pairing Wednesday night.
There were questions as to whether Sbisa — after playing just nine NHL games last season and none this season prior to the Jets claiming him from the Anaheim Ducks in late October — would be anything but a liability.
It took him a little while to get going, but Sbisa’s showed his versatility, logging an average of 16:17 while playing his off-side. He was especially good against the Blue Jackets when he logged nearly 19 minutes after both his defensive partner Beaulieu and Josh Morrissey left with their aforementioned injuries.
The veteran of 516 games has been part of the reason the Jets’ penalty kill has lurched back to overall respectability after an abysmal start to the season, and while he “won’t serenade you with his offensive capabilities… he hasn’t had you expecting a heart attack every time he touches the puck in his own zone either,” as the Winnipeg Sun’s Scott Billeck put it. (from ‘Defenceman Luca Sbisa finds his peaceful place with Jets, Winnipeg Sun, 11/13/19).
The fact Sbisa’s not a big point producer is not to say he doesn’t have a heavy shot: he recently showed off his cannon at the Jets’ 2019-20 Skills Competition.
The 2008 first-rounder does have a goal and two assists, but more importantly, he is generally playing a simple, mistake-free game and allowing the Jets to worry about other things.
In addition to Sbisa, the team has leaned heavily on Neal Pionk. Pionk, who has exceeded expectations this season with his sturdy defensive play and offensive abilities, is second in ice time only to Morrissey and has recorded twelve points already.
Tucker Poolman has also been quietly sturdy and the offensive side he displayed last season with the Moose is starting to come around. He has five points in November, eight overall, and is not afraid to jump in front of some rubber either: he is third on the team with 20 blocked shots.
“His physical strength is showing. A lot of times when a young player comes in, they kind of deteriorate over time, they get worn down,” Paul Maurice said of the 23-year-old recently. “He looks like the opposite — a big, powerful man, and the heavy lifting and on-ice role that he takes is actually getting stronger.” (from ‘Poolman returns to California a different player,’ Winnipeg Free Press, 11/27/2019).
Is This Sustainable?
As explored off the top, the Jets keep winning despite their blue-line troubles. They are an incredibly tight-knit team and no one is taking anything for granted. Hard work beats talent on many nights.
They overcome everything as a fire-forged unit, and since separating Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler, their offence has been more consistent. The top line of Scheifele, Laine, and Kyle Connor especially, has really shined and just put up six more points in their dominant 5-1 win over the Sharks.
Outscoring their back-end problems will sometimes be the path to victory. However, it’ll be up to players such as Sbisa, Pionk, Morrissey, and Poolman to keep providing stability in lower-scoring games, because the defence will be patchwork for some time yet.
Declan Schroeder is a 26-year-old communications specialist and freelance journalist in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He holds a diploma in Creative Communications with a major in journalism from Red River College and a bachelors in Rhetoric and Communications from the University of Winnipeg.
Deeply rooted in the city’s hockey culture, the original Jets skipped town when he was two and the 2.0 version came onto the scene when he was 17.