WINNIPEG – Another injury to a defenseman forced Winnipeg Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff to act Thursday.
The Jets acquired defenseman Jay Harrison from the Carolina Hurricanes in exchange for the Ottawa Senators’ sixth-round pick in the 2015 NHL Draft that the Jets had acquired this past summer. Harrison, 32, is expected to bolster a blue line that has four regulars injured. He is expected to play against the Boston Bruins on Friday.
Harrison’s acquisition followed Jets coach Paul Maurice’s announcement after practice Thursday that defenseman Mark Stuart will be out until February because of a lower-body injury. Stuart sustained the injury in a fight with Buffalo Sabres forward Nicolas Deslauriers on Tuesday.
Stuart’s defense partner, Jacob Trouba, is out until February with an upper-body injury; the Jets placed Trouba on injured reserve Thursday. He joined Zach Bogosian and Tobias Enstrom, who had made up Winnipeg’s top defensive pairing and are out with lower-body injuries, on IR.
"[Stuart’s injury] clearly wasn’t the news we needed to hear," Maurice said before the Jets acquired Harrison. "We don’t have a lot of defensemen to spare at this point. But it’s the same line I gave [two] days ago. This is our adversity. This is what we have to deal with."
Defense - WPG
GOALS: 1 | ASST: 3 | PTS: 4
SOG: 23 | +/-: -5
The injuries could threaten the hopes that the Jets (16-10-6) have built in the Central Division. Winnipeg is third in the League with an average of 2.25 goals allowed per game. A commitment to structured defensive play in Maurice’s first full season has helped the Jets, who hold the Western Conference’s first wild card position for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Enstrom has not played since Nov. 23; however, the other injuries have accumulated rapidly. Bogosian was injured Dec. 3 and Trouba’s most recent game was Dec. 13, three days before Stuart was hurt. Maurice said Enstrom could begin skating in early January and Bogosian might resume skating "closer to the middle of" January.
Bogosian (377 NHL games), Enstrom (506 games), Stuart (529 games) and Trouba (96 games) have a combined 1,508 NHL games.
Trouba’s average ice time of 23:33 ranks second to Enstrom, who has averaged a team-leading 25:07. Bogosian is third with an average of 22:47, and Stuart is fifth at 19:54.
Dustin Byfuglien is Winnipeg’s top defenseman since he returned to the blue line from what was a nearly year-long trial as a forward. Since moving to defense Dec. 5, Byfuglien has played 26 minutes or more in four of his six games.
Winnipeg has relied on recalls from the St. John’s IceCaps of the American Hockey League to aid its blue line. Rookie Ben Chiarot played his first NHL game this season Dec. 3 and has averaged 19:49 in a top pairing with Byfuglien. Julien Brouillette, who skated 10 games with the Washington Capitals last season in his only NHL action, remains as an extra defenseman.
Harrison has played 337 NHL games, including 20 this season with Carolina; he had a goal and three assists with the Hurricanes. Maurice is familiar with Harrison, having coached him with the Hurricanes and Toronto Maple Leafs. Harrison also played for Maurice with the Toronto Marlies of the AHL as a Maple Leafs prospect.
"Paul and I had extensive conversations about Jay, and it seemed like it was a very good fit," Cheveldayoff said. "[Maurice] spoke volumes about [Harrison] as a person. As a player, he felt he would fit right into our [dressing room]."
Cheveldayoff said Thursday that he began investigating trade options earlier this week after it became clear that Trouba’s injury was going to be long-term. Cheveldayoff also had to contend with the NHL roster freeze that begins Friday at 11:59 p.m. local time and extends until Dec. 28.
"To be able to consummate a deal in light of the circumstances, I'm very happy with that," Cheveldayoff said.
Winnipeg has a challenging month ahead before there is even the possibility of having some of the injured defensemen return to the lineup.
After the Jets finish a four-game homestand against the Philadelphia Flyers on Sunday, they face a schedule with games against the Chicago Blackhawks, a home-and-home series with the Minnesota Wild and a New Year’s Eve game against the New York Islanders. The first half of January includes games against the Maple Leafs, San Jose Sharks, Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks.
One area that Maurice will emphasize will be improved discipline. Winnipeg’s eighth-ranked penalty kill has helped to compensate for its League-leading 125 times shorthanded.
"The whole goal is to come out of this stretch of time without these key people playing a better team game than going in," Maurice said. "It’s going to force us to [do so]. We’ve played a solid game, mostly based on our competitiveness, and now we’re going to need to get the details right."
With strong puck-movers like Enstrom and Trouba out, Maurice will also be stressing the idea of simpler breakouts and having the forwards provide better puck support.
"The big bulk of the responsibility is going to fall on our forwards," Maurice said. "It’s going to fall on that low center to be another defenseman for us. Our forwards doing the right things over the 200 feet to minimize the time in our end [will be required]."
Most of all, even with inexperienced players pressed into different and more significant roles, Maurice will continue to preach adherence to the system and structure that he has made an organizational focus since coming to Winnipeg this past January.
"There won’t be anything that we talked about today in our game that will be different than they’ve heard for the past four or five months," Maurice said. "Nothing structurally different."
"We have certain assets, certain skills," Maurice said. "It’s all about trying to use those and only those [assets and skills]."
Winnipeg is trying to reach the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2007, when the franchise was known as the Atlanta Thrashers. Rather than seeing the injuries as the end of the Jets’ push to the playoffs, Maurice is choosing to see them as something that can help prepare his players for the postseason.
"When we come out of this and get healthy, we want to be able to take all of the things that we have become very good because of the situation that we’re in and take that next step," Maurice said.
"We can deal with this. We’ll get through it. It’s our job to be better when we come out of it."