Let’s talk about the elephant in the room. Or, to be more precise, what’s not in the room. Or on the ice, either.
Dustin Byfuglien and Josh Morrissey’s extended absences are looming larger by the day, especially with just three weeks left in the NHL regular-season schedule and both players still being kept far away from the ice.
Of all the things that will determine just how far the Winnipeg Jets go in the spring, Byfuglien’s ankle and Morrissey’s shoulder may ultimately have the biggest say.
The Jets have been one of the worst defensive teams in the NHL since late January, and it’s no coincidence that they’ve been icing a less-than-ideal blue-line for much of that time. They are leaking shots against and quality scoring chances at an alarming level.
Since the All-Star break, only Buffalo (80) and New Jersey (78) have given up more goals than Winnipeg (76). If you subscribe to the theory defence wins championships, then the Jets are in big trouble.
Sure, they’ve managed to tread water while missing two of their biggest pieces on the blue-line in recent weeks, but raise your hand if you feel confident about Winnipeg’s chances for long-term playoff success this spring if one or both of No. 33 or No. 44 aren’t ready to go in time.
And that’s the thing. We truly don’t know about their status, which seems to be by design. I tried to wrestle some new information out of coach Paul Maurice on Friday, but didn’t have a lot of luck.
“Josh is in his normal rehab time. So he’s doing well. He’s fine. We’re going to expect looking harder at (him) some time in April. And Buff is getting a little bit better, so we’re hoping we can get him on the ice here in the next bit of time. We are very patient and cautious with this, we’d like to be done with it when it’s over,” is how Maurice put it.
“Some time in April” doesn’t exactly inspire a ton of confidence when it comes to Morrissey, who took a hit from Arizona’s Vinnie Hinostroza on Feb. 24, immediately went to the dressing room and hasn’t been seen since.
The regular-season ends April 6. The Stanley Cup playoffs start April 10. The Jets could be hitting the golf course by “some time in April” if they don’t get out of the first round. And the chance of that happening increase if Morrissey isn’t in the lineup.
As for Byfuglien, it’s hard to view his status as anything but a setback. On the last road trip out east, Byfuglien was along for the ride and even skated on his own at the beginning. Maurice told us the plan was to have Byfuglien hopefully join the group by the end of the trip.
Instead, Byfuglien was on a plane back to Winnipeg by the end of the week, supposedly to try out some new treatment on an ankle that he’s now injured twice this year, to go along with an earlier concussion. He’s yet to resume skating. That’s not a good sign for a big man with a bum ankle.
I specifically asked Maurice if Morrissey and/or Byfuglien could return to action before the regular-season ends.
“Yeah, that’s a possibility,” he replied, carefully choosing his words.
It’s worth noting Maurice sounded optimistic a month ago when Byfuglien got hurt again.
“Over a five-, six-day block we’ll evaluate it and hope it settles down and we get good news,” Maurice said on Feb. 15. “He’s got to get more tests done so we know exactly what we’re looking at. I’m hopeful it’s not (long-term). I’m feeling pretty confident it’s not, but the tests are going to tell us.”
Byfuglien initially suffered an ankle injury on Dec. 29 and missed 15 games, returning to the lineup on Feb. 7, but in his fifth game back on Feb. 14, a new injury emerged, according to Maurice.
A dozen games have been played since. That’s a lot of five-, six-day blocks. And not exactly good news.
Byfuglien has only played 37 of 70 games this year, while Morrissey has dressed for 59. There have been nine games with both out of the lineup at the same time, and Winnipeg’s record is just 5-4-0. They are 36-21-4 when at least one is playing.
“Those two players are unique. They’re not your average two-day defencemen that does everything kind of well but doesn’t excel necessarily. They both excel in certain areas and they’re extreme with them,” Maurice said of the injured duo.
This isn’t to dump on the guys currently patrolling the back-end, but the reality is many are being asked to do a lot more than expected. Nathan Beaulieu went from a healthy scratch with non-playoff Buffalo to jumping into Morrissey’s spot with Jacob Trouba, who has been prone to a few brain cramps in recent games as he logs huge minutes.
How to explain the horrific giveaway early in the third period Thursday night that nearly ended up as a Boston goal in a tie game?
Dmitry Kulikov and Tyler Myers have gone from the usual third-pair to a second-pair, meaning the quality of opposition has been ramped up. Sami Niku has been pressed into full-time duty in a season where more seasoning in the AHL was initially in the cards.
“There’s a huge difference playing against the one-two (defence pairing) and the five-six. So if you take a look at our situation we’re asking guys to now play against different people for longer stretches of time. And that’s a major challenge,” Maurice admitted.
“I think we can do a far better job up front helping that. So they’ve been under duress over the last month, couple weeks, since Mo’s (Morrissey) been out. Certainly since Dustin’s been out. It’s been a challenge for them.”
For what it’s worth, there doesn’t seem to be any outward panic going on from the coaches or players, but the level of internal concern must be high, knowing the importance of having a full roster when the games really start to matter.
“Those are our top two guys on the back end. Two of the better defencemen in the league,” Jets defenceman Ben Chiarot said Friday. “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.”
It sure will be, especially come April when the spotlight gets even brighter.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.