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Jets expect boost before playoffs from Byfuglien, Morrissey

Defensemen close to returning from extended injury absences for Central Division leaders

by Tim Campbell @TimNHL / Staff Writer

WINNIPEG -- When Dustin Byfuglien returns to the Winnipeg Jets lineup in the next few days, the on-ice dynamic will change.

"Other teams play differently when he's in the lineup," Jets forward Andrew Copp said about the defenseman who is 6-foot-5 and 260 pounds.

"Dustin brings a presence that no one else can in this League," goalie Connor Hellebuyck said. "He makes guys fear a little bit."

The 33-year-old is the full package of mobility and physicality with a soft pair of hands who contributes at both ends of the rink. He can also intimidate with his hard shot and just about any time he chooses to initiate contact.

Simply, the Jets need what Byfuglien brings if they want to make a deep run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, which start two weeks from Wednesday.

But Byfuglien has missed more games (39) than he's played (37) this season because of a variety of injuries. The latest, a lower-body injury sustained against the Colorado Avalanche on Feb. 14, has cost him the past 18 games. However, he was back on the ice Monday with his teammates, in a yellow, non-contact jersey.

"Really encouraging," Jets captain Blake Wheeler said. "We're not going to accomplish our goals without him. We've sure missed him and it's great to see him back out there. He always brings such a positive energy to our room and any time he's on the ice with us.

"He's one of the best defensemen in the NHL. That's where we miss him the most."

Coach Paul Maurice said Byfuglien is expected to be a full participant in practice Wednesday, then his return to the lineup will be discussed and it's possible it could happen at home against the New York Islanders on Thursday (8 p.m. ET; ESPN+, TSN3, MSG+, NHL.TV) or against the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday at Bell MTS Place.

Video: WPG@SJS: Byfuglien roofs early breakaway after steal

"He changes the way [opposing] forwards view their night," Maurice said. "I don't know that people are chirping our bench any more but you're not checking your shoulder quite as hard when you're going to get a puck when it's not Dustin coming after you.

"He's a really, really good player and he's very unique in what he does. He's our highest-paid player ($8 million this season) that we've missed for half a year. We've played our best. It's all relative, but you need all hands on deck because you're going to lose other guys so you need the big man in the lineup."

The Jets are also expecting defenseman Josh Morrissey back soon. Morrissey has missed 14 games since sustaining an upper-body injury at the Arizona Coyotes on Feb. 24. He has been skating since this past Saturday and the Jets say they hope Morrissey's window to return opens in early April.

Byfuglien and Morrissey will be important additions for Winnipeg (45-27-4), which has a two-point lead over the Nashville Predators for first place in the Central Division with a game in hand.

The Jets have led the division for much of the season but largely because of the injuries to two of their best defensemen, they have cooled off (9-8-1) during Byfuglien's latest injury, the fourth that has sidelined him this season. Winnipeg also has not yet played its full roster in a game since the 2019 NHL Trade Deadline on Feb. 25, when it acquired center Kevin Hayes from the New York Rangers for forward Brendan Lemieux, a first-round pick in the 2019 NHL Draft and a conditional fourth-round pick in the 2022 draft.

Video: WPG@COL: Morrissey saves goal after Hellebuyck stop

The Jets, who lost 5-2 at home to the Dallas Stars on Monday, have maintained their place near the top of the division with a plug-and-play approach on defense.

Nathan Beaulieu, acquired from the Buffalo Sabres for a sixth-round pick in the 2019 NHL Draft prior to the trade deadline, and rookie Sami Niku, called up from Manitoba of the American Hockey League, have stepped into the Jets' top six on defense with Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers, Dmitry Kulikov and Ben Chiarot.

"It's always tough when you have key guys out with injuries but I think that's the strength of our team," Myers said. "I would say we have the deepest team in the League and when guys go down, we have guys that can step up to a heavier role.

"I thought we showed that last year and we've done it again through the whole year this year. We definitely want those guys back. It just makes our team better but until then we'll try to hold down the fort."

Byfuglien has 30 points (four goals, 26 assists) this season and Morrissey, one of Winnipeg's most intelligent players and best defenders, has 31 points (six goals, 25 assists) in 59 games.

"They're two phenomenal players," Hellebuyck said. "They'll make a huge difference when they're out there. We have some good guys playing right now but ... their skillsets fit in perfectly with countering teams."

There have been some recent games without Byfuglien and Morrissey when the Jets' puck movement and confidence have not looked their best.

The loss against Dallas was one of those.

"Moving the puck from our end to theirs was a challenge," Maurice said. "Those two guys can do that for you very well, but we've played (quality) teams in the last month and we'll see the best defensive team [the Islanders] here our next game. We've handled that challenge well at times so I'm not saying those two guys in the lineup make our forwards skate better.

"But we miss those two pieces. They're very unique defensemen."

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