'It could've been devastating': Maurice relieved to have stability on defense
After a few years of turmoil that culminated in an unceremonious sweep in the 2021 playoffs, the Winnipeg Jets are officially done treading water in the defensive zone.
"We managed incredibly well over two years with a real extreme set of circumstances … It could have been devastating," Jets head coach Paul Maurice said, according to the Winnipeg Sun's Scott Billeck.
"I loved the defense corps last year individually ... But as a group, there was lots of room for us to get to another level."
Winnipeg's defensive exodus began in the summer of 2019 when they lost Jacob Trouba to the New York Rangers. Then Tyler Myers took his talents to the Vancouver Canucks on July 1, and Ben Chiarot signed with the Montreal Canadiens as a free agent three days later. Finally, the team granted Dustin Byfuglien a leave of indefinite absence in September of that year, with the two parties later agreeing to terminate Byfuglien's contract in April 2020.
The Jets have seemingly been piecing holes together on the backend ever since. Having a Vezina-winning goalie in Connor Hellebuyck certainly helps, but adding Brenden Dillon and Nate Schmidt in the offseason goes a long way in addressing the situation.
"We had a big back end, an expensive back end, and then really young kids," Maurice said. "We have a more veteran core there now, certainly on our blue line now, and our goalie who stops a whole lot of pucks."
At 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds, Dillon is the heaviest defenseman on the roster and will inject physicality into the lineup. Dillon can play shutdown minutes and averaged 18:56 minutes of ice time per game for the Washington Capitals last season. Meanwhile, Schmidt is a strong two-way defender but had a tough time with the struggling Canucks last year.
Perhaps most importantly for Winnipeg, an improved defense means the forwards can focus more on offense.
Maurice asked the Jets to be defensive-minded to make up for their glaring weakness on the blue line, which reflected in their offensive numbers. Winnipeg scored 270 goals in 82 games the season before losing the bulk of the club's defense. In the shortened 2019-20 and 2020-21 campaigns, the Jets failed to produce more than 250 tallies over an 82-game season.
"This will be, I would say, the best-balanced lineup we've had," Maurice said.