In just a few weeks, the Winnipeg Jets will take to the ice for training camp at Bell MTS Place and will be doing their best to prepare for the upcoming season despite having zero preseason games along with an unusual off-season.
While the Jets, along with the other six Canadian teams, are still unaware of where they’ll be playing regular season games this season, the organization does know they’ll need their blue line to perform much more effectively during this 56-game shortened campaign. Though they feature one of the top goaltenders in the league, too much pressure was placed on goalie Connor Hellebuyck last season, which is something this defensive group should be aiming to correct this time around.
Despite being in the market for a top-two blueliner this off-season, there weren’t too many of those players available in free agency and it appears the front office probably won’t be able to swap forward Patrik Laine in exchange for an impact defenseman, at least for now. With the start of training camp inching closer, it seems general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff and his staff will likely be limited to adding just a bottom-four blueliner before the 2020-21 campaign begins.
As it stands right now, Winnipeg will open the season with defensemen Josh Morrissey and Dylan DeMelo – who was re-signed to a four-year, $12 million deal over the offseason – as their top two blueliners. Considering that duo was paired together through the final stretch of last season and during the team’s brief playoff run, there shouldn’t be any concerns about having a lack of talent or chemistry on their top defensive pairing.
Set to enter his fifth full season in the NHL, it’ll be extremely important for Morrissey to continue serving as a leader on and off the ice, as the Jets will be looking for him to set the standard on the blue line. Now entering the first year of his eight-year, $50 million contract, there’s no question the 25-year old will be faced with extremely high expectations yet again this winter, meaning it’ll be crucial for him to hit the ground running on Jan. 13.
After suffering major injuries in each of the last two seasons – a separated shoulder in 2018-19 and multiple upper-body injuries in 2019-20 – it’ll also be key for the former first-round selection to remain on the ice throughout the 2020-21 campaign. Considering the Jets don’t feature much top-line talent behind him, their defense would undoubtedly take a major hit if he were sidelined for an extended period of time.
Taking this a step further, it also appears Morrissey wasn’t able to utilize his body as much last season, which could certainly be a result of him battling through multiple injuries. Unlike prior campaigns, the 6-foot defenseman didn’t produce his usual standard of hits or blocks before the league’s shutdown ended the regular season.
Over 65 games in 2019-20, the left-hander averaged a career-high 22:46 minutes of ice time, but only produced 59 blocks and 34 hits during that timeframe.
In comparison, the emerging top young blueliner averaged 22:24 minutes of ice time, recording 107 blocks and 55 hits through just 59 games during the 2018-19 campaign.
The good news for Morrissey is that it appears his injuries didn’t affect his scoring ability, as he created five goals, 31 points, 12 power-play points (career-high), 0.08 goals per game, 0.48 points per game, along with 120 shots on net last season.
Considering this season will only last 56 games, the Jets can’t afford to have the Calgary native out of the lineup or playing at less than 100 percent this winter. So along with serving as a leader and producing consistently on the ice, he’ll also need to focus on taking extremely good care of his body between games and making sure he receives enough recovery away from the rink.
With just four playoff spots available in the new “north” division, which should quickly become a fan-favorite term, there’s even less room for error and mistakes this season. As a result, it’ll be vital for Morrissey and the Jets to enjoy a strong start to the campaign or making the postseason for the fourth consecutive time could prove to be very difficult.