At a few junctures throughout the 2017-18 campaign, the Winnipeg Jets have faced adversity and come out the other side relatively unscathed, playing well enough to sit atop the fiercely competitive Central Division.
The first such instance was the loss of rearguard Toby Enstrom, and while his role has lessened in recent years, the Jets’ 12-6-4 record in his absence was impressive nevertheless. More impressive yet, however, was Winnipeg’s ability to go 5-3-1 without the services of Dustin Byfuglien, arguably the No. 1 rearguard at the team's disposal. But the biggest obstacle Winnipeg has overcome to this point in the campaign, and the clearest indication of the Jets’ depth, has been their 7-2-2 record over the past month with star center Mark Scheifele sidelined with an upper-body injury. And none of this is to mention Winnipeg has also been forced to endure the losses of Mathieu Perreault, Adam Lowry, Bradon Tanev and Steve Mason for varying amounts of time.
But now, with Scheifele, Lowry, Mason, Dmitry Kulikov and Shawn Matthias already on the sidelines, the Jets might be facing their toughest injury-related test of the season: a potential two-month stretch without Jacob Trouba. According to multiple reports, and first noted by the Winnipeg Sun’s Ken Wiebe, Trouba sustained an ankle injury in the Jets’ final pre-all-star break contest against the Anaheim Ducks, a contest in which the 23-year-old defender led Winnipeg with 27 minutes of ice time. The injury will reportedly keep Trouba out of action for six to eight weeks. And what makes Trouba’s injury and the lengthy timeline for return so devastating is that while other injuries have impacted offensive aspects of Winnipeg’s game, there are few losses that stand to effect the Jets’ defensive-zone play as much as Trouba being sidelined.
Over the course of the campaign, Winnipeg has been much improved defensively, reversing course from last season’s atrocious play in their own zone. When the 2016-17 campaign closed, the Jets finished with the fourth-worst goals-against average, surrendering 3.11 goals per game. Winnipeg has cut that figure by nearly half a goal per game this season, though, and boast the league’s ninth-best average at 2.68 goals against per game. Trouba’s contribution — and revelatory shutdown play of his pairing with Josh Morrissey — has been no small reason why.
This season, Jets coach Paul Maurice has leaned heavily on Trouba and Morrissey in the defensive zone with the duo ranking second and first, respectively, in defensive-zone starts at 5-on-5. That has resulted in Trouba taking 284 of the 750 total defensive-zone starts Winnipeg has had at five-a-side, meaning there’s a better than one-third chance that any 5-on-5 shift the Jets have played this season, Trouba has been on the ice. More than take on a heavy slat of defensive-zone starts, though, Trouba has also taken on tough duty alongside Morrissey. According to Corsica, the duo has seen the toughest quality of competition on a nightly basis, often skating out against the opposition’s top line. Despite that, Trouba has managed a positive possession rate and the second-best 5-on-5 goals for percentage of any Jets rearguard. That said, Tyler Myers’ 53.7 percent goals for percentage is only a fraction better than Trouba’s 53.66 percent rate.
The biggest issue when it comes to Trouba falling injured, though, is there’s not a ready-made replacement. Whereas headline-making injuries to Scheifele, Byfuglien, Perreault and, to a lesser extent, Enstrom removed an offensive cog from the Jets’ arsenal, others were able to pick up the slack. Joel Armia has chipped in, Blake Wheeler was able to take on first-line center duty and Bryan Little, Nikolaj Ehlers and Patrik Laine continued to give the Jets a breadth of offensive threats. When Scheifele went down, there was even the option of bringing up a top AHL scorer such as youngster Jack Roslovic. The options for a shutdown defender, however, are far more limited, and, realistically, no such stand-in exists for Trouba, not even as a temporary measure. And that’s especially true when the recent West Coast trip also resulted in the aforementioned loss of Kulikov, who is day-to-day with an upper-body ailment.
That means Maurice will have to go to the drawing board and sort out new pairings in Trouba’s absence. One potential pairing, and one that had some modest success last season given the Jets’ overall defensive woes, is the unit of Byfuglien and Morrissey. It’s an option that Maurice is familiar with and one that would give both defenders some level of comfort. Another could potentially see Myers skate alongside Enstrom. Or Maurice could flip those pairings, having Byfuglien and Enstrom, historically a pairing since the Jets’ arrival in Winnipeg, skate together while Myers and Morrissey take some reps together. Granted, the Myers-Morrissey combination has skated a mere 24 minutes together at 5-on-5 this season. For a final pairing, Maurice would be left with Ben Chiarot and Tucker Poolman, who has only gotten his feet wet as a rookie this season, to skate as the third unit. The good news is the duo has skated 110 minutes together at 5-on-5, so there’s a certain level of familiarity.
Regardless, Maurice is going to have to adjust accordingly and the defenders will have to adapt in a hurry as the blueline is going to be thrown into a state of modest disarray with Trouba on the shelf. And the hope for the Jets is that just as they have prior, they’ll weather this injury-created storm and hold their position as one of the top teams in the division and conference.
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