Just as things were starting to look like they were going the Winnipeg Jets' way, the team announced today they will be without Jacob Trouba until February with an upper-body injury.
The 20-year-old Trouba's injury adds to what is already a thinned out blueline as the Jets are already missing top-four defensemen Zach Bogosian and Toby Enstrom, both of whom are out with lower-body injuries. Bogosian has been absent from the lineup since Dec. 4 and isn't scheduled to return until at least the second week of January, while Enstrom’s injury dates back to Nov. 23 and he's not expected to return this month.
There’s no telling when the injury to Trouba occurred, and the announcement by coach Paul Maurice caught everyone off guard. According to NHL.com's Patrick Williams, Maurice said the injury to Trouba is not related to last season’s neck injury, which caused Trouba to miss 17 games, and will not require surgery. During Saturday’s game in Winnipeg against the Ducks, Trouba played nearly 23 minutes, his last shift coming in the final three minutes of the game.
Without Trouba, the Jets will be forced to make due with a much thinner blueline than expected. The obvious move is to shuffle Dustin Byfuglien, who has primarily played forward this season, back to defense and bring Grant Clitsome, who was scratched on Saturday, back into the fold. It's tough to say what the pairings will be, but the simplest change would be to slot Clitsome in at Trouba's spot.
Byfuglien moving back to the blueline will offer the Jets a boost on offense from the point, but losing the emerging star Trouba in the process is a tough pill to swallow. Arguably, Trouba has been the Jets most important and versatile defenseman this season, averaging over 23 minutes per game and seeing time on the power play and penalty kill. To date, the pairing of Mark Stuart and Trouba has been the workhorse tandem for Winnipeg, taking more defensive zone starts than any other pairing on the team while facing comparable competition to the injured pairing of Bogosian and Enstrom.
With Paul Postma and Ben Chiarot already drawing in due to injuries, there has to be some consideration given to whether or not the Jets look at options to strengthen an ailing blueline. Currently sitting in the second, and final, wild card slot in the Western Conference, fans will want to see the Jets continue their strong push towards the playoffs. Sitting only three points ahead of a Minnesota Wild team that has three games in hand isn’t an admirable position to be in if the playoffs are in the future.
Trouba’s absence may not have much impact on the power play, where he skates with the second unit from time to time, but it’ll be noticeable on the penalty kill where he’s been a mainstay as part of one of the league’s top-10 units. If Trouba happens to be back by the beginning of February – and that’s in question as the timeline given by Maurice was rather rudimentary – Winnipeg will have to make due for roughly 20 games. If he’s not back by the first week of February, in which the Jets play three games, that will be a quarter of the season spent without a young player who is arguably on a trajectory to become their best defenseman.
It begs the question if Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff will consider making a move to acquire help on the blueline. He's often been derided for his lack of making a player-for-player deal to improve the team, but the problem with the Jets isn't that the Jets are without the talent at the moment. Rather, they're without a healthy lineup. If Cheveldayoff does deal to get help on the backend, you can almost be assured it would be a minor move that wouldn't cost the Jets any top flight players.
Though his four goals and 12 points may not stand out, there will be a glaring hole on the Jets blueline without Trouba. Winnipeg’s best hope is that they can simply tread water until the rearguard is back.