There isn’t much that has gone wrong for the Jets through their first 19 games of the season. The offense, led by Blake Wheeler, Mark Scheifele and Patrik Laine, is among the league’s most potent. Connor Hellebuyck, coming off of a disastrous sophomore season, has found the best form of his young career. And, as they near the quarter-mark of the 2017-18 campaign, Winnipeg is only four points back of the impressive St. Louis Blues for top spot in the Western Conference.
But it appears the Jets’ good fortune could only last so long, as the injury bug has bitten the Winnipeg blueline — and bitten hard.
During Saturday’s matinee outing against the Devils, defenseman Toby Enstrom went to chase a loose puck when he became entangled with New Jersey’s Jesper Bratt. In attempting to reach the puck, Enstrom fell to the ice with his leg under Bratt and the Jets rearguard immediately appeared to be in distress. After lying on the ice for several moments, Enstrom was helped to the Jets’ dressing room, and though he was able to return for a few shifts before the end of the second frame, Enstrom was ruled out as the third period began. No update was given post-game, but the Jets later announced that Enstrom is expected to miss eight weeks with a lower-body injury.
As unfortunate as it may be, Enstrom falling injured isn’t exactly shocking. Try as he might to play a full 82-game schedule, the 33-year-old blueliner has only managed to play the entire slate once since the Jets landed in Winnipeg and has missed 110 of a possible 622 games across the past seven seasons, a total of roughly 16 per season. Enstrom will miss more than 20 games — and possibly upwards of two dozen — if he’s out the full eight weeks while recovering from his current ailment. And with the potential for Enstrom to miss more than a quarter of the season, Winnipeg will undoubtedly have their defensive depth tested over the next two months.
Luckily, such a situation is one of the exact reasons why defenseman Dmitry Kulikov was brought aboard in the off-season.
Viewed by some as a head-scratching signing, especially given the Jets forked over a three-year, $13-million deal to land the rearguard, bringing in Kulikov was a signing made, at least in part, to help ensure Winnipeg would have considerable depth on the blueline if injuries struck again. Last season, the Jets had to deal with the losses of Enstrom, Jacob Trouba and Dustin Byfuglien, not to mention nearly a full season without the services of Tyler Myers, and that put the onus on blueliners such as Paul Postma, Ben Chiarot and Mark Stuart, among others, to leap into action, leaving Winnipeg’s blueline in tatters and coach Paul Maurice often icing a less-than-optimal lineup. With Kulikov in town, though, it allows the Jets to throw Kulikov into a more considerable role with the hope that not much will be lost in terms of performance.
Though Kulikov has had an up-and-down start to his tenure in Winnipeg and is coming off of one of the worst seasons of his career, he’s quite familiar with playing big minutes. During his time with the Florida Panthers, where he spent the first seven seasons of his career, the 27-year-old averaged upwards of 20 minutes per outing and was a steady contributor for the Cats. In 460 games, he chipped in 28 goals and 138 points, peaking with a four-goal, 28-point performance in his third season in the NHL. The signs of a similar increase in role with Enstrom out were already there on Saturday afternoon, too.
In the third frame of the outing against the Devils, after it had been announced Enstrom would not return, Kulikov skated 7:20 at even strength. It was the most even-strength ice time he had in any frame of the contest — nearly a full minute more than the two previous periods — and he finished with 22:03 played in the game. It marked Kulikov’s second-highest ice time of the season, this after coming off a Thursday contest against the Philadelphia Flyers in which Kulikov skated only 13:43, one of his lowest ice times of the season thus far.
That Kulikov saw more even-strength ice time shouldn’t come as a surprise. Prior to his injury, Enstrom, while no longer a top-four defender, was an important cog for the Jets’ blueline. At 16:37 per outing, he ranked fifth in ice time among Winnipeg defenders, but the minutes he played were skewed by how sparingly he had been used on special teams. He has rarely seen time on the power play this season and averages a mere 47 seconds per game on the penalty kill, but Enstrom has more than picked up the slack at even strength. In fact, he sits only slightly behind Josh Morrissey for third in average even-strength ice time on the Jets blueline.
Kulikov won’t be the only defender tasked with picking up the slack, however. Along with announcement that Enstrom was sidelined also came news the Jets had brought rookie Tucker Poolman up from the AHL’s Manitoba Moose, and he is no doubt set to battle with Ben Chiarot for a spot on Winnipeg’s bottom pairing. Already this season, Poolman has skated in three games with the big club, averaging 15:41, while Chiarot has only cracked the lineup once, skating 16:08 in a mid-October contest against the Minnesota Wild.
Beyond replacing Enstrom’s ice time and production, however slight the latter may be, the Jets blueline will also have to attempt to slow down the barrage of shots they’ve allowed through the early part of the campaign, and that may be the biggest test for the defense at this point. Winnipeg has allowed the fifth-most shots against per game (33.8), and ensuring that the number doesn’t tick up with Enstrom on the injured list should be the Jets’ primary concern.
If the Jets can manage to replace Enstrom’s minutes and buckle down defensively even with one of their top-four even-strength defenders out, though, it may be a sign that Winnipeg is more prepared than ever to take the long-awaited step forward.
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