Jets struggling to rediscover contender identity with gutted blue line

Connor Hellebuyck made 38 saves but it was the Los Angeles Kings who came away with the 3-2 win over the Winnipeg Jets.

WINNIPEG — As they arrive in Regina for the Heritage Classic on Saturday, the Winnipeg Jets would be very interested in finding some of their own recent heritage. Maybe not all the way back to the Dave Ellett, Randy Carlyle or Freddy Olausson days, but they’d take a trip back 12 months ago when they had Dustin Byfuglien, Tyler Myers, Jacob Trouba and Ben Chiarot on one of hockey’s best blue lines.

The Jets forwards are still one of the better groups in the National Hockey League, but their blue line has been gutted. Today, a team many were picking to win the Stanley Cup just a year ago is 5-6 and struggling to put together an identity — a task that was supposed to be long in the rearview mirror here in Winnipeg.

“I am standing here as the head coach and saying I am still trying to figure out some of these young players. Where everyone fits in all of this,” Jets coach Paul Maurice said before a game against Edmonton last week.

“I know the style of play we want to play. That part we’ve got. Getting them to that style of game is what we’re working on.”

It sounds a tad harsh, but the salary cap and Byfuglien’s absence have at best pushed back the Jets’ chances at NHL dominance, and at worst crippled them for good.

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Facing cap issues after the 2018-19 season, general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff traded defenceman Trouba to the New York Rangers, allowed Myers to enter free agency (where the Canucks signed him) and watched Chiarot go as a UFA to Montreal. But he still had Byfuglien, Josh Morrissey, Neal Pionk (who came for Trouba from New York) and some up-and-coming kids.

Then, just before the opening of training camp, Byfuglien told the Jets that he wasn’t sure if he wanted to play out the final two years of his contract anymore. Had Cheveldayoff known that in June, he might have re-signed Myers and likely would have kept Chiarot.

But with Byfuglien suspended, the Jets can’t sign a top-pairing defenceman even if they could get their hands on one, because they have to save the cap space in case Byfuglien deigns to resume his career. And we’re approaching the date after which Byfuglien, if he were to decide to return, might not be able to catch up the rest of the league this season anyhow.

The uncertainty leaves Maurice playing kids on defence, and even the under-rated Morrissey — who was an excellent second pairing D-man on a good Jets team — is leading the defence in ice time, and often playing next to Dmitri Kulikov, a third-pairing defenceman when the 2019 playoffs opened in Winnipeg.

The minutes and the steady diet of high-octane opposition are taking their toll on Morrissey, who was victimized by the Los Angeles Kings’ Anze Kopitar on the game-winner in the Jets’ 3-2 loss Tuesday.

“It’s funny,” Morrissey told the Winnipeg Free Press this week, “when things aren’t going your way, I know for me, you’re trying harder to make the simplest plays and it just seems like you’re working harder to do something smaller. And then you end up being in the wrong position or something like that, almost in no man’s land sometimes.”

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

That run to the Western Conference final in the spring of 2018 seems like a generation ago for a Jets team whose blue line has been decimated to the point where journeyman Luca Sbisa was plucked off the waiver wire this week, a player who likely couldn’t have made their top six only 12 months ago.

One of the National Hockey League’s premier draft-and-develop teams is grabbing NHL talent where it can, trying to hold open a Stanley Cup window that feels like it lasted about as long as a Manitoba autumn.

“We’re awfully young,” Maurice said before a game last Sunday. “I think we’re at 25.5 (average years of age) today. I don’t know if that leaves anybody younger in the league.” (According to RosterResource.com the Jets’ average age is 27.1 years, tied for the third-youngest roster in the NHL.)

“When you have a young team there isn’t as much team intellectual capital to pass on,” Maurice said. “There’s not enough there. These guys haven’t been here long enough to know what to pass on.

“We’re doing an awful lot of video with the young guys right now. Sure, sometimes it’s, ‘OK, we just showed that to you this morning. And you’ve done it again…’”

Goalie Connor Hellebuyck brings fabulous numbers into the outdoor game against Calgary, sporting a .929 saves percentage and a 2.38 goals-against average. His win-loss record stands at 4-4, which tells how well the Jets starter has to play simply to break even.

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