The Winnipeg Jets’ defensive depth is being tested in a big way at the same time the team is struggling mightily to put together a 60-minute effort.
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On Thursday against the Canucks, the Jets were without four blue-liners. They were missing their entire top pair as Dylan DeMelo missed his third straight game due to injury and Josh Morrissey sat out his second-straight game in COVID protocol.
Promising rookie Dylan Samberg missed his second-straight game Thursday with an upper-body injury after dressing for six straight to begin his NHL career and is out week-to-week. Logan Stanley missed his second-straight game as well with an upper-body injury, and was placed on injured reserve Wednesday.
Schmidt and Dillon Paired By Necessity
Brenden Dillon and Nate Schmidt have played together on the first pairing for the past two games. The two prized offseason acquisitions — snagged from the Vancouver Canucks and Washington Capitals on consecutive games in July —were immediately pegged as top-four defenders, but not envisioned as partners.
Before Samberg’s injury, Schmidt played with Morrissey, but has spent the bulk of the season with Neal Pionk. Dillion has played a bit with Pionk too, but mainly with Stanley.
With Dillon on the right and Schmidt on his off side, they were tasked on Tuesday with shutting down the Florida Panthers’ high-octane offence and were tasked on Thursday with handling the top guns of a rejuvenated-under-Bruce-Boudreau Canucks’ squad.
The Jets lot both games and allowed a combined 10 goals. On Tuesday, Schmidt was minus-1 and Dillon was even as each played more than 23 minutes in a 5-3 loss.
On Thursday, Schmidt led all Jets’ defenders in ice time with 24:51 and actually managed to be plus-one while Dillon was even and third in ice time with 21:48 —10 seconds behind Pionk — in a demoralizing 5-1 defeat.
Kovacevic Makes NHL Debut
The absences also paved the way for Jonathan Kovacevic to make his NHL debut Thursday.
The 6-foot-4, 208-pound right-shot defender has played a key role for the Manitoba Moose this season, recording seven goals and seven assists for 14 points and a plus-11 rating in 32 games.
Kovacevic skated 10:21, registered one shot, and was even. It is hard to judge on such a small sample size in a game the Jets were obviously quite frustrated, but for the most part, the 24-year-old looked calm and confident in his reads.
His only major blemish came in the late stages of the first period when his clearing attempt up the middle was intercepted and led to a Canucks’ chance.
Heinola Has Struggled In First Two Forays
A sizeable portion of “Jets’ Twitter” had been clamouring for more playing time for smooth-skating Finn Ville Heinola, who seems to have been overlooked on a number of different occasions this season.
Those wanting to see the 20-year-old 2020 first-rounder — who has two goals, 14 assists, and a plus-3 rating for the Manitoba Moose in 24 games— in action got their wish as he played in the Jets’ past pair of games.
Heinola struggled in his season debut Tuesday versus Panthers while paired with Nathan Beaulieu. He played 10:40, but looked rusty as his turnover led to Mason Marchment’s game-opening goal, a man got behind him for a breakaway at one point, and in the late second had to slash Sam Reinhart to save a goal.
Interim head coach Dave Lowry cut Heinola some slack in his Tuesday postgame comments, saying Heinola was thrust into action at the last minute (Morrissey didn’t enter COVID protocol until late afternoon) and hasn’t been with the team for a great amount of time.
In his encore against the Canucks, Heinola looked jittery and unsure of himself in 12:25 of ice time. Once again, he took a penalty (cross checking on Elias Petterson) and it led the game’s opening goal.
The Athletic’s Murat Ates, a keen observer as any, summed up Heinola’s play as such: “There is panic in Ville Heinola’s game right now that is outstripping his many gifts. He can and will be better — patience is the game — but no denying that a brilliant passer has some hot potato to his game at the moment.”
Ates is correct: Heinola hasn’t been good, but his talent levels and what he’s shown at the AHL level means there’s no need for panic.
Jets’ Skies Just Keep Getting More Turbulent
The Jets have a number of flaws that opponents are readily exploiting. They’ve lost six straight and are fading further out of the postseason conversation despite having 42 games remaining.
They have not been a particularly resilient bunch, nor have they finished many of their Grade-A chances. Despite being hyper-talented on paper, they have been wholly disappointing and do not appear to be a team on the cusp of turning things around; they have, perhaps, reached rock bottom.
The depleted defence and lack of back-end chemistry are just two more things they’ll have to overcome if they want to stop this once-promising season from going down the drain.
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Declan Schroeder is a 27-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.