Jets’ Samberg Should Stay in Lineup Over Stanley When Dillon Returns

The Winnipeg Jets are facing a defensive dilemma with Brenden Dillon set to return to the lineup as soon as Thursday, and will have to decide whether to remove a promising prospect or an underperforming regular.

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The promising prospect is Dylan Samberg, and the underperforming regular is Logan Stanley. The Jets should go with the former.

Samberg Strong in First Two NHL Outings

Samberg was strong and not sheltered in the first two NHL games of his career. His debut last Thursday against the Detroit Red Wings — when Dillon and Stanley were both in COVID protocol — was nearly perfect. The 22-year-old played 17:52, blocked a team-high five shots, and dished out three hits. He also snagged his first-career point, assisting Andrew Copp’s game-opening goal.

Related: Jets’ Prospects & Depth Will Be Tested By COVID Outbreak

The 2017 second-rounder stayed in the lineup for Tuesday’s game against the Washington Capitals, playing 10:57, posting a plus-one rating, and registering one shot to go along with one hit.

Samberg also proved he can perform well in a penalty-killing role. With Stanley — who has the second-most penalty killing time on the Jets’ — out Thursday, interim head coach Dave Lowry showed trust in Samberg to fill that role. The 2017 second-rounder led all Jets’ defensemen in PK ice time with 3:57 and the Jets killed off all five penalties.

He didn’t have as big a PK role against the Capitals, playing just 32 seconds, but the Jets were only shorthanded twice.

Samberg Has Chemistry With Fellow Minnesotan

Dave Lowry also set Samberg up for success, pairing him with fellow Minnesotan and offseason workout partner Neal Pionk. Putting Samberg with a familiar face and relative veteran contributed to his confidence.

“We grew up probably 10 minutes from each other, went to a high school of only about 600 kids and obviously played for the same youth program, same high-school program and same college program,” Pionk told the Winnipeg Free Press on Saturday. “And to be not only playing together but to be paired together in an NHL game, it was pretty special. I’m sure the whole town watched on Thursday night.”

From ‘D-Men impress in debut,’ Winnipeg Free Press, Jan. 15, 2022.
Dylan Samberg Winnipeg Jets
Samberg has found quick chemistry with Neal Pionk. (Photo by Dave Reginek/NHLI via Getty Images)

Pionk was impressed with what he called Samberg’s “veteran looks,” noting a couple of plays in particular.

“Samberg had the puck on the wall, pinned against the wall a couple of times, and instead of just shovelling it out in the neutral zone, he found a pop centre, or he found me on the weak side. It’s little plays like that where you’re not necessarily expecting a guy in their debut to make,” Pionk said.

Stanley Hasn’t Excelled This Season

Stanley was always considered a project who many thought would never become a viable NHL defenseman. He only saw his role burgeon — suddenly and unexpectedly — in the shortened 2020-21 season.

He played 37 games and was dependable, but he hasn’t taken a similar leap forward this season. He possession numbers have taken a dive — his CORSI has dropped to 44.6 from 50.6 and his Fenwick has dropped to 46.0 from 51.3. That’s a big problem considering possession was one of his biggest strengths last season.

Logan Stanley Winnipeg Jets
Logan Stanley’s game hasn’t progressed much since last season. (Photo by Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images)

While he hasn’t played terribly by any means, his foot speed is still an issue and his decisions with the puck in the defensive and neutral zone have been suspect at times. While he just came out of COVID protocol prior to Tuesday’s game, it was one of his worst showings in recent memory, as he was minus-2 and seemed outmatched by the Capitals’ aggressive play style.

Despite his size, he is not the second coming of Zdeno Chara, nor is he the second-coming of Dustin Byfuglien. He is a third-pairing defenseman and the Jets need to be realistic about his ceiling. He is more revered by the fan base than he should be, likely because he’s created some viral moments like his “victory” celebration after scrapping with the Maple Leafs’ Wayne Simmonds in a December barn burner.

Samberg Is a Top Prospect, and Should Be Treated As Such

Samberg has been one of the Jets’ most highly-anticipated prospects since being drafted. His intelligence, poise, and ability to make the right play at high speed — all of which he’s put on display in a small sample size — are just some of the reasons he’s been long-projected as top-four mainstay of the future.

The future is now. Dave Lowry has a chance to differentiate himself further from the departed Paul Maurice by giving his young players a chance to prove their worth at the NHL. Stanley saw an opportunity when back-end injuries arose last season and took it, establishing himself as a consistent defenseman when the Jets were thin on the back-end.

Dave Lowry Winnipeg Jets
Dave Lowry should treat Samberg like the top prospect he is and keep him in the lineup. (Photo by Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images)

But that was last season and this is now. With the Jets trying to stay in the playoff conversation, Samberg has more upside and deserves the opportunity to make his mark. As the road trip rolls on through Nashville, Boston, and Pittsburgh, the Samberg/Pionk and Josh Morrissey/Dylan DeMelo pairings should stay together, while Nate Schmidt and Dillon should make up the other pairing (Schmidt on his off-side, which he prefers anyway.)

This would give Dave Lowry three viable defensive units he could deploy evenly. Not running players into the ground with too much ice time will be important as the Jets enter a very busy portion of their schedule, with seven games slated between now through Feb. 1.

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