There’s been no shortage of news this summer regarding the Jets defensemen. Most recently, Morrissey made headlines when he signed a two year bridge deal last week. Before that, it was Trouba in the news as an independent arbitrator had to award a contract after Trouba and Cheveldayoff couldn’t reach an agreement.
While these news items dominated the headlines during the summer, it was another defensemen who initially caused a stir back in May.
It began when the Jets decided to sit Toby Enstrom with their back against the ropes in game five against the Golden Knights. While this move may have been justified, it did not sit well with Enstrom. It caused enough of a kerfuffle that Enstrom cleaned out his locker early and was not present for any of the post-season media coverage.
— Mike McIntyre (@mikemcintyrewpg) May 22, 2018
There was some doubt whether or not Enstrom was going to be offered a contract for the upcoming season anyways. He’s struggled with health issues the past few seasons and did not quite live up to his big contract that he signed back in 2012. The Jets also had a few defensemen who were waiting for their shot should Enstrom not re-sign in the offseason.
It can be argued whether or not Enstrom was a valuable defensemen during his time in Winnipeg, but the fact remains that he leaves an empty spot in the lineup after his departure. The projected defensive pairings for the start of the year are as follows:
Morrissey – Trouba
__________ – Byfuglien
Kulikov – Myers
Both Morrissey/Trouba and Myers/Kulikov spent a lot of time together last season. While we might see a deviation from these pairings, it’s fairly safe to assume the opening day roster will look like this. This means the lucky winner will get to play with Dustin Byfuglien on the second pairing.
Similar to the battle for Armia’s spot, this battle includes a mix of drafted players, Moose players, and players who have already spent plenty of time with the Jets. A brief overview of each player will be given as well as the reason why each of them should be the one to make the opening day lineup.
Chiarot – Old Faithful
When looking at Chiarot’s history with the Jets, his most frequent partner by far has been Dustin Byfuglien. The pairing have appeared in nearly two hundred games side by side and have put up admirable numbers together. Over the past four years at five on five Chiarot and Byfuglien have a CF% of 52.59 and an xGF% of 53.50.
Chiarot also has the most experience out of the candidates with 227 games played since 2013-14. Not only has Chiarot played the most NHL games, but he is also the oldest player trying to crack the roster. This is nothing new for Chiarot who has continually bounced in and out of the lineup for the past four seasons.
This familiarity is Chiarot’s biggest strength because the Jets know what they are going to get from him. While Poolman or Niku have way more unknowns surrounding them, Chiarot is going to show up, hit hard and do his job every single night.
— Mike Neale (@Mike_Neale) September 18, 2018
Not only does the team know what Chiarot brings, but Byfuglien does as well. While Chiarot’s most common partner was Byfuglien, Byfuglien’s most frequent partner was actually Enstrom over the past four years. However, second on that list is Chiarot and with Enstrom no longer with the team, it would be an easy choice to move Chiarot back to where he is comfortable.
Poolman – The Experienced Rookie
When looking at rookie defensemen, they tend to have the same characteristics. They are usually young players who need to grow a bit to handle to rigours of professional hockey. Poolman is no ordinary rookie though, as he joined the Jets as a 24 year old man after three years at UND.
Poolman joined the Moose before getting called up to play after the injury bug last season. Poolman performed well and even though he only managed two points in 24 games, he was a valuable third pairing defender who plays a simple game.
While Poolman won’t wow the crowd with amazing offensive flair or highlight reel plays, he will continually do the little things that aren’t as noticeable. Poolman tends to make the simple play which is valuable when playing with someone who takes chances like Byfuglien does.
Unfortunately for Poolman, he’s a right handed player which means he sits behind Trouba, Byfuglien, and Myers on the depth chart. If Poolman can show that he is able to play the left side, there is a good chance he can make the team.
7 non-waiver-exempt contracts:
LD: Morrissey, Kulikov, Morrow, Chiarot
RD: Byfuglien, Trouba, Myers
Then Poolman, who is waiver exempt, on the right. To me, he's a good argument for 13F 8D or the guy to safely demote to keep the veterans away from waivers.
— Murat Ates (@WPGMurat) September 22, 2018
Tucker Poolman will make the Jets lineup because of his dependability and strength. Even though he plays on a crowded right side, his size and speed should be enough to make the team.
Niku – That Hair Though
Sami Niku had a wonderful season for the Moose last year. After scoring 54 points in 76 games, he was named the AHL defensemen of the year. Almost an afterthought when drafted 198th overall in 2015, Niku has steadily climbed the ranks.
Niku has the best offensive upside of any of the depth defenders but he lacks the size and physicality of most NHL defensemen. He is actually fairly similar to Toby Enstrom who had some strong offensive seasons in his younger years.
If Niku can follow after Enstrom and prove he can defend despite being undersized, he has a good chance to make the team. Niku has an even better chance if he is playing with Byfuglien because Byfuglien’s size makes up for both of them. Byfuglien is also used to playing with a defensemen like Niku as Enstrom was his most common partner since the Jets returned.
As I've said before, I believe Sami Niku is a highly probable NHL player this season.
At a $916k cap hit incl. bonuses Niku would be marginally cheaper than Morrow at $1.0M or Ben Chiarot at $1.4M and a big savings on Kulikov at $4.3M
If Niku is ready, it helps the cap (a bit)
— Murat Ates (@WPGMurat) June 26, 2018
Sami Niku should make the Jets opening day roster because of his strong progression and his smooth offensive ability.
Morrow – Playoff Hero
Joe Morrow has bounced around a number of teams in recent years. He played three years in Boston before getting moved to Montreal and eventually to Winnipeg. He continually bounced in and out of the lineup and has only played 121 games in the NHL over the past four seasons.
This experience leaves Morrow as the second most veteran option behind Ben Chiarot. Morrow has also played in the playoffs before so he has experience in big games as well. This showcased itself in game one against Minnesota where Morrow ended up scoring the game winning goal of the Jets first playoff win in franchise history.
Morrow is a capable defender but is able to chip in offensively as well. (Especially when he’s scoring goals that aren’t going in the net)
So uhh.. This maybe could have used a review..
— JetsNation (@NHLJetsNation) September 18, 2018
There is a case to be made that Morrow is the most capable defensemen out of this group trying to crack the lineup. This all around ability coupled with his experience is the reason why Morrow should make the team for the start of the regular season.
Tyler Myers – ?
Are you sure you want to do this Maurice??? This preseason Maurice has been experimenting with Myers on the left side of Byfuglien. In the couple games they have played together it hasn’t really worked out as they have been turning the puck over more than normal and allowing easy zone entries. While Myers is an option beside Byfuglien, it would likely benefit the Jets to leave this idea alone and let Trouba, Byfuglien, and Myers all play on three separate pairings.
Maurice watching Myers on the left side and LLE together. pic.twitter.com/RmDrL6o4kH
— not affiliated 🐺 (@Tony_MBHKY) September 22, 2018
Who will win the spot?
One of the biggest factors for this position is their individual contracts. Both Niku and Poolman are waiver exempt and that will likely be the reason they head back to the Moose. The Jets typically only carry seven defensemen on the roster and those spots will likely go to Chiarot and Morrow as the Jets would certainly lose them if trying to send them down.
I personally think Sami Niku should win the spot because of his offensive upside and strong skating ability. It would be great experience for a rookie and the Jets would be able to shelter him with five veteran defensemen around him.
Unfortunately due to these unique contracts, it appears either Chiarot or Morrow will be beside Byfuglien to start the year. I give the edge to Chiarot given the amount of games he has played and his prior experience with big Buff. Maurice seems to like his game as well and that’s the most important factor in making the lineup.
Look for Ben Chiarot to get back in the lineup as the Jets begin their season on October 4 against St. Louis.