It does not take much digging to see the area most fans of the Winnipeg Jets view as the largest hole in their roster. A legitimate left-side top-four defender has been needed since the Ron Hainsey walked in free agency and has been requested by fans since the Atlanta Thrashers moved to Winnipeg.
You can see it with the majority of proposed Jets trades over at HFBoards, or chatter on Twitter with whom the Jets should select with their top pick in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft. Jets fans want a young left-side stud and they want it now.
But that hole may already be filled with a defender named Jacob Trouba.
With the Jets’ struggling to prevent goals this season, Paul Maurice made a shift. He went all in, placing the Jets four best defenders together on the top two pairs. This meant one player had to play on the left side, and Maurice chose young Jacob Trouba.
This was Trouba’s first time playing on his off-handed side. We know for a fact that placing a player on their off-handed side has a negative impact on player results, and there is likely a large learning curve for a player new to the position like Trouba. Optimally you want to separate your similar handed players apart, but this is not the case when you have as large of a contrast in talent in each side as the Jets do. The Jets cannot survive without their big four defenders in the top-four for ice time.
Despite all the potential hurdles and disadvantages, the Jets still did exceptionally well with Trouba on the left with almost equal sample size last season:
The Jets controlled a far greater share of all shots (goals, saves, misses, and blocks) with Trouba on the left side as seen with Corsi%. Fenwick% removes blocked shots and tends to evaluate defensemen slightly better due a stronger relationship with goal differentials as defenders blocking shots is a repeatable skill. Expected Goal% takes these shot metrics and adds a shot quality element with adding factors like shot type, location, etc. We also see that Trouba’s point production per sixty minutes improved on the left side as well.
Regardless which way you look at it, Trouba and the Jets did much better with the young defender on the left. Now, obviously a lot of this is due to the fact that when Trouba plays on the right he is predominately with Mark Stuart, who arguably isn’t even a bonafide NHL player anymore.
If we isolate to just when Trouba plays with Enstrom and expand the sample to multiple seasons, we see the gap in results disappear quickly.
We can then pull up a few numbers to work out which pairings would be optimal for the Jets:
Players ordered by Fenwick% as best predictor for defenders for future success at this sample.
By and far, the Jets garnered their best results with the Trouba-Byfuglien pairing on the ice. The pairing overwhelmed their opponents with offensive generation. The team prevented unblocked shot attempts at a similar rate with the pairing on the ice versus on the bench, but they generated a full 10 shots more per 60 minutes of ice time with the two on the ice.
Maurice eventually broke up the pair, due to the Jets third pairing of Chiarot-Stuart being heavily exposed, and carried a 42 per cent Corsi%, 44 per cent Fenwick%, and 43 per cent expected Goal%. The numbers show, though, that the Jets could still dress a capable third defensive pair by sitting Stuart in turn for Paul Postma. They would need to play sheltered minutes, just like Chiarot-Stuart did, but at least they would not be buried by such minutes.
We can take this one step further by taking the shot differential rates of each pairing, use the average TOI spread for first, second, and third pairs, and estimate the Jets’ performance (assuming no change in forward performance):
The results we get from optimizing the Jets’ pairings would have ranked the Jets second in Corsi%, eighth in Fenwick%, and fourth in expected goals. The model does however have issues with assuming perfect health on the defenders, and assumes the Jets forwards would be exactly the same.
It’s understandable why most wish for the Jets to acquire a left-shot defender.
The Jets only carry one bonafide top-four left-handed defender with the underrated Tobias Enstrom. After that the defensive depth falls a steep cliff in talent with fringe defenders Ben Chiarot and Mark Stuart (and calling Stuart a fringe NHL player may be an overvalue). On the farm the team carries a legitimate potential NHL-calibre defender with Josh Morrissey, and Julian Melchiori who is not. The prospect cupboards are also bare with only Sami Niku playing in Europe.
However, the Jets could easily fill in the gap by simply moving Trouba over. This could help in the short term until Morrissey is NHL ready, and in the long term as Enstrom falters with age.