WINNIPEG — What’s your favorite NHL team?
OK, now take away your team’s best two defencemen, the way the Winnipeg Jets have been without injured blue-liners Dustin Byfuglien and Josh Morrissey for the past seven games. How would your team fare?
In Toronto, they’re struggling with Jake Gardiner on the shelf. Well, take Morgan Rielly out of the lineup as well. How would the Leafs look then?
In Edmonton, they were without Andrej Sekera when Oscar Klefbom went down with a busted finger. The Oilers nose-dived, going 6-12-3 and falling out of the playoff chase.
Vancouver? With Chris Tanev out from Feb. 14 to March 9, they went 4-6-2. When Alex Edler went down during that time the Canucks were 2-2-2, with four of those games coming against non-playoff teams.
So, how have the Jets managed to remain in fist place in the Central with Byfuglien having missed 27 of the past 32 games, and now Morrissey for the past eight games?
“We have a lot of good players,” said Ben Chiarot.
Coaches and players always brag about how deep their teams are. But how often do those same voices remind us how tough it is to win with a couple of key players out of the lineup?
Now, the Jets have only gone 4-4 with both Morrissey and Byfuglien out of the lineup, but’s it’s been an eight-game tour through the top teams in the NHL. Their record without Byfuglien is 15-10-1.
“Those two players are unique,” began head coach Paul Maurice. “People don’t know Josh Morrissey quite as well, but … he’s one of the handful of guys that can actually play against Connor McDavid. I’m not saying he’s stopping him every time, but you saw it: he met him at the post once from the other end of the ice. There’s not a lot of guys that can do that. Dustin, of course, is far more well-documented.”
Because of the variety of ways he impacts a hockey game, Byfuglien is indeed a unique and valuable defenceman. That also makes him impossible to replace.
For instance, when a skilled, power-play quarterback goes down, most teams have the hockey equivalent of a “backup quarterback.” He’s not as good, but he can run the offence.
When a staunch defender gets injured, the rest of the Top 4 simply sacrifice some offence, and concentrate a little harder on their own zone.
But Byfuglien does it all: he bombs it on the power play, gives his team a huge physical presence, defends well, and by virtue of his size, literally sways shot metrics away from his side of the ice, according to Maurice. There is, by any account, only one Byfuglien in the game today.
“Those are our top two guys on the back end. Two of the better defencemen in the league,” said Chiarot. “Buff has been around a long time. He’s a veteran and has a big presence in the room, as Josh does.
“We’ve been holdin’ down the fort with those guys out, but definitely any time you take two of your top four D out it is going to be noticeable.”
Of course, the Jets are vague when it comes to particulars surrounding the injuries, saying only that they hope they can return before the playoffs. Byfuglien appears to have an ankle issue, perhaps a high ankle sprain. Morrissey is believed to have a shoulder or collarbone problem, which will put him in peril if he returns in the physical post-season, where defencemen tend to get belted more often.
For now, the other D-men are taking on extra minutes. But we’ve all seen teams where that 14-minute defenceman can’t handle the extra three or four minutes, and the second pairing player simply is not good enough for a steady diet of playing against the opponent’s top line.
“It’s been a challenge for them,” Maurice said of his defence corps. “The one positive that we did have going was that would be the deepest part of our team on the right side. When Dustin came out we do have Trouba and Myers. There’s not a lot of teams that would be able to say they had that luxury. Both of those guys can play 25 minutes.”
It’s why the contenders can withstand a few key injuries, and still be in first place in their division when those players return. On the contrary, pretenders talk about man-games lost, and how full the trainer’s room is, and begin sentences with, “Well, I don’t want to use it as an excuse, but…”
It’s called being a good team. Even if part of that team is playing on the AHL affiliate.
“If everybody’s healthy,” said Maurice, “we have 10 defencemen that can play. Which is good.
“Because we seem to go through them.”