WINNIPEG – A commonly held belief in NHL circles is that the Nashville Predators own and operate the best defence corps in hockey.
P.K. Subban, already a Norris winner and a finalist again this season, made the case last week that captain Roman Josi could easily replace him. Ryan Ellis and Matthias Ekholm deserve to be in that conversation as well, he argued.
Were it not for Nashville’s fab four — generating heaps of offence, blocking shots with their face, soaring on special teams — the Predators would not have come within two wins of a Stanley Cup last spring, they wouldn’t have amassed the most blue-line points through the regular season, and David Poile wouldn’t have the luxury of trading Grade-A D-men (Shea Weber, Seth Jones, Samuel Girard) without flinching.
This, however, is the series where the Winnipeg Jets’ less-heralded but equally stout defence says, “Hold our beer.”
All those golden defenders, and that likely Vezina winner behind them, haven’t been able to stifle the playoffs’ most formidable attack, as the Jets clip along at a pace of 3.8 goals per night.
“We’re giving them way too much. Too many great chances,” says Josi. “[Saturday] you saw it again with the [six] goals; they’re all like backdoor, empty-net, rebound shots on the net. I mean, they’re a dangerous team.”
Connor Hellebuyck, the series’ other Vezina finalist, and all the Jets’ fleet-of-foot forwards have been getting ink, but Winnipeg’s underrated defence corps has earned its spot in the sun — before a likely complexion change next fall.
“Our blue line has gotten better in every game,” coach Paul Maurice says. “We’re starting to see some of our guys’ best games.”
In an age where the hottest commodity in hockey might be the responsible, dynamic right-shot defenceman, the Jets only roll out three of them.
• Dustin Byfuglien — dubbed “The Great Equalizer” by captain Blake Wheeler — has four goals and seven points in the past four games and hits his man as clean and as hard as Mike Trout does a change-up. We are witnessing Peak Buff.
“Having him on our team gives us an advantage no matter who we play,” Wheeler says. “From Game 1 of the playoffs, he has just dominated. You can’t stop it.”
This is what Pekka Rinne saw (or didn’t see) when Byfuglien noticed a chance to whip home Saturday’s Game 5 winner:
• Jacob Trouba (two goals) has been everywhere. In Game 3’s incredible come-from-behind victory, the 24-year-old registered a Gordie Howe hat trick, and no one wrote about it because so much other crazy stuff happened.
“Trouba was a guy I didn’t talk about or I wasn’t asked about,” Maurice says, “which surprised me a little bit because I thought he was very, very good.”
• A healthy Tyler Myers (two goals, two assists) is making confident plays all over the ice and concedes he might be playing the best hockey of his career.
“It’s the most balanced that he’s played,” Maurice says. “Tyler, at times over the past few years, again with injuries, we’ve run him against the other team’s best and he’s taken on a real defence-first mindset. And then there have been games where he’d get up in the plays and being really dynamic with that and make plays at the offensive line, one-on-one against a forechecker.
“What he’s doing right now is a real nice balance between the two. He’s been strong in his own end and real simple in terms of the quickness and the decisions he’s made. But [at six-foot-eight] he has that ability to pull the puck off the wall to the middle of the ice without moving his feet, so he has this great range up top, so that can be a challenge when you’re defending him.”
On the left side, Toby Enstrom’s next shot on net might be his first, but his safety allows Byfuglien to roam; Ben Chiarot plays with more than enough bite that a recovering Dmitry Kulikov needn’t be rushed back; and Calgary-born Josh Morrissey is the best young defender no one talks about.
More of a pure playmaker in junior, the 23-year-old Morrissey is throwing his body in front of pucks, improving his box-outs (“It’s just a fight with will and whoever wants to work harder,” he says), closing gaps, and making all the tiny passes that only the nerdiest of us hockey nerds get giddy over.
“He’s a guy that as soon as he came into the group he’s really bought into trying to do all the little things as much as he can and do exactly what the coaches want him to do,” Myers says. “I see a ton of upside for Josh going into the future.”
Says Morrissey, “Shot blocking isn’t something I did a ton of when I was younger…. It’s just trying to play with that desperation level to try and not give any shots up if you can. Sometimes it hurts, but that’s part of the playoffs.”
It won’t always be this way.
Kevin Cheveldayoff will face his first significant cap crunch since 2016, when he correctly chose to keep Byfuglien at the expense of then-captain Andrew Ladd.
The GM’s top priorities this summer will be arranging long-term commitments for Hellebuyck (RFA) and 44-goal sophomore Patrik Laine, who can ink an eight-year, gazillion-dollar extension as early as July 1.
Enstrom turns UFA, Morrissey and Trouba RFA.
Of the three, Morrissey is the only guarantee to re-sign. Lefty Sami Niku, the AHL’s defenceman of the year, should replace Enstrom in the top four, and Trouba — an American who summers in Florida and has already been embroiled in one financial dispute with the Jets — presents a fascinating challenge contractually. Heck of a trade chip or offer-sheet candidate.
For now, Jets fans, bandwagon and otherwise, need to appreciate an active defence unit that brings a little of everything: size, skill, youth, experience, smarts, and will.
They’ve kept pace with Subban & Co. in this series. Each side’s D-men have generated 10 points, and we’ll take Winnipeg’s forward depth over Nashville’s any day. It takes a special group to match the Preds’ back-end production.
“I don’t think any of us in the room are trying to compare to the other team,” Myers cautions.
“We’ve done a really good job this year just focusing on a certain way we have to play to win hockey games. I thought our back end definitely showed what we’re capable of.”