“Who’s on deck?”
It’s a question you might think is more fitting to ask during a baseball game, but the Winnipeg Jets have been asking it quite often lately, too.
When it comes to their d-corps, the Jets have had to rely on the proverbial “next man up” extensively this year. As injury after injury to key personnel have left holes in their blue line all season long, they’ve had to plug those holes with whoever’s available.
For many other teams, losing core members of their defense leads to the dam bursting, a flood of goals against, and their playoff hopes being washed away.
Not for the Jets, though.
The defensive depth of the Jets has allowed them to quell the pressures of their opponents. It’s one of the key reasons they’re a lock for these playoff spots.
A Battered Battalion
The Winnipeg Jets d-line has been depleted often throughout this season.
Stalwarts have been on the shelf. Dustin Byfuglien missed twelve games with two different injuries. Jacob Trouba missed 20 games with an apparent ankle injury and was forced to leave Sunday’s game against the Stars after colliding with Jamie Benn.
Toby Enstrom was laid up for nearly eight weeks from mid-November to early January. Other nagging injuries have limited him to just five games in the last month. Dimtry Kulikov had been hampered by a laundry-list of minor ailments – causing him to miss 10 games – before he re-aggravating a back injury that limited him to 47 games last season on Mar. 8. He decided to opt out of a surgery that would have caused him to miss two months, but will still be out of commission for three-to-four weeks.
Overall, as of Mar. 16, the Jets have lost 72 defensive man-games to injury, more than all but seven NHL teams.
One Man’s Loss is Another Man’s Gain
The so-called “plugs” the Jets have relied on so much this year have turned out to be solid patches of cement.
Ben Chiarot, Tyler Myers, and Tucker Poolman have all been asked to shoulder more responsibilities as a result of injuries. The trio has filled the void admirably with solid play and have helped the team navigate the Central Division’s rough waters.
Ben Chiarot’s Big Shot
Ben Chiarot – who entered the year as the seventh defenseman and logged more press-box time than ice time early season – is now quietly enjoying a career year.
The 26-year-old has been a steady, nightly contributor over the last number of months – he’s made it tough for Paul Maurice to take him out of the lineup.
Maurice praised his physicality and quick feet in an interview with the Winnipeg Sun’s Ken Wiebe. Chiarot’s matched his point total from last season and been a physical presence.
“Things are clicking right for me right now, that’s all I can say really,” Chiarot told Wiebe. “I’m just playing on my toes and the coaches have confidence in me right now.”
Tyler Myers Playing a Big Role
Tyler Myers, the hulking 6’8″, 230-pound Texas product, has played a role even bigger than his stature.
Myers has played an expanded role on special teams. He’s gotten a lion’s share of power play time and it’s showed in his point totals – 16 of his 34 points have come on the man advantage, which ties a career high.
Myers is still prone to defensive miscues from time to time, and his average time on ice of 21:17 is actually down a little from previous years. The usual third-pairing defenseman isn’t exactly an offensive dynamo, but he deserves a lot of credit for making sure the Jets power play kept firing even when the big guns on the blue line were MIA.
Poolman and Morrow Providing Insurance
Tucker Poolman has done his share of biding his time in the press box and bouncing between the Moose and Jets this year. When he’s gotten a shot, though, he’s quietly done yeoman’s work.
The UND product is capable of playing both sides and brings his size to the lineup every time he’s in. At age 24 and with plenty of college experience, he’s no greenhorn.
Poolman is someone Maurice can call upon when needed and know won’t be a liability.
Kevin Cheveldayoff also boosted the Jets’ depth with a shrewd deadline move. He added Joe Morrow for the modest price of a fourth-round pick.
And there's your depth defenceman for the #NHLJets. As per @DarrenDreger, Joe Morrow, 25, left-hand shot. 5 goals, 6 assists in 38 games with Montreal this season. Former 1st round pick, 23rd overall, in 2011 draft. #wfp
— Mike McIntyre (@mikemcintyrewpg) February 26, 2018
Morrow has over 100 NHL games under his belt and has found some quick chemistry with Ben Chiarot. A restricted free agent at the end of the year, Morrow likely isn’t in the Jets long-term plans.
However, with injuries to Trouba and Kulikov since Morrow’s acquisition, the low-risk move looks like it will reap at least some reward and give the Jets some peace of mind down the stretch.
Not many teams could survive being as banged up on defense as consistently as the Jets. The Jets have not only survived, but they’ve thrived, despite their busy infirmary.
They can thank their deep pool of “next men up” for embracing their opportunities and helping them stay afloat near the top of the Central for that.
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.