The Winnipeg Jets learned the hard way in 2018-19 that defense can make or break an NHL team. Luckily, they seem to be on track to turn it back into a strength.
Between injuries to Josh Morrissey and Dustin Byfuglien, and some perplexing personnel decisions, the Jets defensive depth was exposed in both the regular season and the playoffs. General Manager Kevin Cheveldayoff did his best to solidify the position at the trade deadline, but defense is a long game. There aren’t many examples of hastily assembled patchwork defense cores winning a Stanley Cup.
If the Jets recent draft pattern is any indication, they’re well on their way to building their own solid defense core, even though they’ve lacked the high picks of their earlier seasons. They used their first two picks at the 2019 Draft on defensemen.
It’s not the first time the Jets have looked for defensemen on the draft floor. Suddenly, the Jets’ left side on defense looks like a future strength, even if the present is still a little shaky.
Morrissey represents the future on the Jets left side. He’s become their No. 1 defenseman in almost every aspect, and while he hasn’t quite caught Byfuglien in terms of offense, his scoring prowess is growing.
Beyond Morrissey, who seems a certainty to be the big fish on the Jets blueline for the long term, there are plenty of questions. Suddenly, however, there are plenty of promising answers.
Poolman, Niku Provide Immediate Help
While many of the Jets prospects, 2019 first-rounder Ville Heinola included, are at least one season away from any major impact, there are more instant reinforcements on the horizon. Several of the Jets past picks are starting to climb the ranks.
The biggest climber since his draft season in 2015 has been Sami Niku. Though he suffered through a down season as he was badly underused in 2018-19, his puck-moving skills remain top-notch, perhaps the best of any prospect in the organization and certainly of all those NHL ready.
In an era where smooth-skating defensemen who can pass or skate the puck ahead as the situation dictates are prime commodities, Niku could be a huge part of the Jets defense this season. Given a chance on the power play, he could reinvigorate a second unit that struggled most of the season.
The other source of immediate help, not as flashy as Niku but perhaps steadier, is Tucker Poolman. Poolman’s short but sweet stint in 2017-18 led many observers (this one included) to think he was ready for a much bigger role in Winnipeg.
An injury-plagued follow-up campaign never saw him return to the Jets, but it did see him play some of his best hockey yet with the AHL’s Manitoba Moose. He posted 25 points in 43 games and was relied upon in all situations.
Barring injury troubles, Poolman should be ready for NHL duty this coming season. Tyler Myers seems increasingly likely to leave town on a very pricy contract, and that coupled with Jacob Trouba’s departure would open the door for him.
But while immediate help is all well and good, the Jets also need to build for the long-term future. Looking up and down their depth chart of prospects, they seem to have already figured this out.
Samberg, Heinola Among Future Studs
Defense increasingly looks like the deepest position in the Jets prospect pool. They’ve only selected three defensemen in the first round in their history, but one, Morrissey, has already panned out beautifully and the other two are well on their way.
One of those two is Heinola, of course. Though his offensive numbers weren’t as eye-popping as some other prospects, it’s worth pointing out he did so against men in the Finnish Elite League, and actually had better draft season numbers than Dallas Stars Calder Trophy candidate Miro Heiskanen.
Great pick for Winnipeg in Villa Heinola. He’s a “poor man’s Miro Heiskanen” as multiple scouts told me— Ryan Kennedy (@THNRyanKennedy) June 22, 2019
The Heinola selection was instantly popular with the advanced statistics portion of the Jets fanbase. Should his numbers swell next season as he gets more opportunity, the pick will look better still.
Samberg plays a wildly different style, but is an equally interesting prospect. The bruising defenseman keeps opposing teams on their toes and looking over their shoulders, but he also moves the puck well and produced more offense (19 points in 39 games) in his second season in the NCAA with the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs.
Since joining the Bulldogs straight out of Minnesota’s high school ranks, Samberg has won back-to-back national titles and played in back-to-back World Juniors representing the United States. He’s not as slick of a puck mover as Niku, but projects as the ideal defenseman to match up against the other team’s best forwards.
Samberg will return to the Bulldogs in pursuit of a three-peat this coming season, and if he continues to grow at his current pace he’ll be an unstoppable force at the college level. He’s sure to turn pro after this season as there’s little more for him to accomplish in the NCAA.
In three or four seasons, Samberg could be dominating the NHL the way he’s dominating as a college veteran. Even his floor seems to be that of a solid 3-4 defenseman.
Beyond Samberg, there’s more to like in the Jets pipeline. Logan Stanley rounded into form nicely as his first AHL campaign wore on, and while he may never be the stud at the NHL level he proved to be with Kitchener of the OHL, he looks to have a solid career as a 5-6 blueliner ahead of him.
Behind Stanley, 2018 fifth rounders Declan Chisholm and Giovanni Vallati are both coming vastly improved offensive seasons in the OHL. Vallati netted 48 points in 68 games, while Chisholm managed the same in one fewer game.
Then there’s Leon
It’s clear the Jets decided a few seasons ago to restock the cupboards on defense. Now, with Trouba and Myers on the way out and Byfuglien on the wrong side of 30, that’s looking like a wise choice. Now all that’s left to decide is when the Jets suddenly burgeoning stable of blueliners are ready to take to the ice for the big club.