Well, that was a dissapointing season.
Entering the 2016-2017 season, optimism and excitement surrounded the Jets, but soon faded as the Jets returned to their usual ways. Poor goaltending, bad deployment and systems, and, perhaps most importantly, injury issues and poor depth on the blue line led to another frustrating year in Winnipeg.
In fact, there was only one game this season in which the Winnipeg Jets dressed all of Dustin Byfuglien, Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers, Tobias Enstrom, and Josh Morrissey. Otherwise, the Jets’ defensive core was rattled with injuries, resulting in guys like Ben Chariot, Mark Stuart, and Paul Postma having to take on bigger roles than they’re capable of playing.
There’s tweaks to be made with this Winnipeg Jets team, upgrading the team’s defence should be at the top of the list. They’re set on the right side with Byfuglien, Trouba, and possibly Myers, depending on his injury and potential exposure in the expansion draft. On the left side, things are much more questionable. Enstrom, when healthy is a strong top-four option, and Morrissey had a very nice rookie season. But beyond that? It gets ugly.
Who could the Jets add this summer via free agency that could make an impact on defence next season?
The Washington Capitals cant afford to keep Karl Alzner around this summer. That much is obvious. They need to figure out new deals for T.J. Oshie, Dmitry Orlov, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and more, and they’re already an expensive team.
Kevin Shattenkirk is clearly this summer’s best free agent defenceman with Brent Burns locked up to an eight-year extension, but if you’re looking for a big name, shut down defenceman, Alzner appears to be your guy. He’s a smooth skater, is calm and poised, and plays a responsible game but doesn’t produce a lick offensively. Also, his status as an elite shut down defender might be exaggerated, as his on-ice shot attempt results are significantly worse than his on-ice goal against numbers.
Alzner is going to command a big contract this summer, and I don’t think the Jets want to be the team to hand it out.
Cut from the same cloth as Alzner is Dmitry Kulikov, who had a miserable season in Buffalo after being dealt from the new analytics-heavy Panthers front office for Mark Pysyk last summer. Kulikov missed a good chunk of the season due to injury, and when he was playing, he posted an even strength Corsi For rating of 45.2 (-3.8 relative), which was the worst of his career since his rookie season.
Part of that likely has to do with playing not at 100 per cent health, and the Sabres in general being a terrible team, but Kulikov has never been a particularly strong player in the underlying numbers department. That said, if Winnipeg is looking for a physical, shut down defenceman to play alongside somebody with more of a risk-taking, offensive game, Kulikov could be an interesting buy-low-and-hope-for-a-rebound candidate.
Michael Del Zotto
After resurrecting his career in Philadelphia, it seems like Del Zotto is on the outs again. He scored 32 points in 64 games with the Flyers in 2014-15, but failed to build on it the following seasons, and ultimately, he saw his ice time slashed to a point where he was watching the game from the press box this year.
It seems like Del Zotto has been around forever, but he’s only turning 27 years old in June. He has serious skill, and has had some big offensive seasons in the past. The major knock against Del Zotto is his lack of consistency and aptitude for making massive mistakes. He’s an offensive defenceman by trade, and if he isn’t producing, which he hasn’t been the past two seasons, he probably isn’t doing much.
Like Kulikov, he could be a good buy-low option, and we’ve seen him rebound and have big seasons under new scenery before, but he probably isn’t the steady, consistent defenceman Winnipeg is looking for.
After falling out of favour in Dallas, Trevor Daley was dealt to the Chicago Blackhawks. He only played 29 games there before being moved to the Penguins, where he completely resurrected his career. In 53 games with Pittsburgh in 2015-16, Daley put up 22 points and a 53.7 Corsi For percentage, which was the best pace he had played at in years.
But is Daley just benefitting from Mike Sullivan’s excellent system in Pittsburgh? I mean, Justin Schultz has enjoyed a major renaissance there too, and the team is firing on all cylinders with a lot of names behind Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, and Kris Letang you’ve never heard before. Some team may fall for his bounce-back and offer him a significant chunk of change to be an offensive catalyst, but he isn’t the reliable name Winnipeg is looking for.
A player who seems to fly under the radar as a worthwhile name on the defenceman market this summer is Brendan Smith. He was traded at the deadline from the Red Wings to the Rangers altering spending his entire six-year NHL career in Detroit.
Smith is a very solid, underrated player. He hasn’t posted big offensive numbers, but he’s consistently been reliable, as he’s never in his career has he posted negative shot attempt numbers relative to his teammates. He’s slid onto the Rangers seamlessly, logging 20 minutes per night, playing a major role in helping to solidify a very shaky defensive core.
Offensive defencemen like Shattenkirk and big name, shut down guys like Alzner are the apple of everyone’s eye on the free agent market, while nondescript players like Smith seem to fly under the radar. With that in mind, Smith could make an excellent addition on a cheaper contract than he’s actually worth.
Johnny Oduya, Brian Campbell, or Ron Hainsey
The list of worthwhile left-handed blue line names rounds out with three well-known veterans.
Johnny Oduya and Ron Hainsey have both played for the Jets/Thrashers organization, and, even in their mid-30s, are solid options for a second- or bottom-pairing role. Brian Campbell can also still move the puck nicely and provide some offence.
But it’s hard to imagine any of these three players coming to play in Winnipeg, a free agent destination that isn’t really desirable, and for a team that isn’t currently contending for a Stanley Cup.
This isn’t a good market for free agents. The Jets badly need a reliable left-handed defenceman to fill into their top-four, but the only name that really fits the bill is Brendan Smith. Karl Alzner is massively overrated and will be very expensive, both Trevor Daley and Michael Del Zotto have been too enigmatic the past few seasons, Dmitry Kulikov’s injuries and underlying numbers are a concern, and veterans like Ron Hainsey, Brian Campbell, and Johnny Oduya more than likely aren’t interested in joining a Jets team in this middling situation at this stage in their careers.
If the Jets are going to improve on their blue line, it’s likely going to have to come through trade.