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Coaches Room

Jets' revamped defense coming up big

Zettler says unsung group key component of Winnipeg's success

by Rob Zettler / Special to

The Coaches Room is a regular feature throughout the 2019-20 season by one of four former NHL coaches and assistants who will turn their critical gaze to the game and explain it through the lens of a teacher. David Marcoux, Rob Zettler, Rob Cookson and Randy Carlyle will take turns providing insight.

In this edition, Rob Zettler, former assistant with the San Jose Sharks, writes about the Winnipeg Jets' defense and how it has stayed strong despite massive offseason changes.

Without looking at the NHL standings, if you run down a list of some pertinent and readily available statistics you may think the Winnipeg Jets are having a tough time this season.

They're 18th in the League in goals per game (2.90). They're 25th on both the power play (15.6 percent) and the penalty kill (77.6 percent). They're 28th in shots against per game (32.6). They're 21st in shot-attempts percentage (48.99).

And yet the Jets are third in the Central Division with 40 points, going 12-3-2 since Nov. 1.

Goalie Connor Hellebuyck is a big factor in their success with his .933 save percentage and 2.24 goals-against average and without question the Jets have some speed, skill and size up front. But an underlying factor in the Jets' success may also be the most underrated part of their team.

Video: WPG@DAL: Hellebuyck robs Seguin with great glove snag

Winnipeg's defense group is quietly having a strong, efficient season even after being ravaged in the offseason by trades (Jacob Trouba to the New York Rangers), free agency (Tyler Myers to the Vancouver Canucks and Ben Chiarot to the Montreal Canadiens), and Dustin Byfuglien's unlikely leave of absence before the season that eventually carried ankle surgery with it.

The losses on their back end were so significant that it was understandable if people were turning sour on the Jets as a legitimate Stanley Cup Playoff contender before the season.

But they're legit because players like Josh Morrissey, Neal Pionk, Tucker Poolman, Anthony Bitetto and Luca Sbisa have stepped up.

I notice two elements to the Jets defense that have impressed me almost every time I've watched them, including in person on Nov. 27, when they won 5-1 against the San Jose Sharks at SAP Center.

They make it hard for other teams to get to the net and they play a real firm game down low.

They make simple plays to get the puck out of their end to get it to the skilled players they have up front, most notably Blake Wheeler, Mark Scheifele, Patrik Laine, Kyle Connor and Nikolaj Ehlers.

As a former defenseman who has coached the 'D' in the NHL, it's fun to watch a team that has lost so many high-end defensemen and still have guys step in and play significant roles. 

Credit goes to Jets coach Paul Maurice, but let's also be sure to credit assistant Charlie Huddy, who has done an excellent job getting this 'D' corps to play a certain way to allow it to be efficient and successful.

Morrissey hasn't surprised me. He's a high-end defenseman. Pionk also looked good when he played for the Rangers, so there was a reasonable expectation for him to get to Winnipeg and be a smart, puck-moving defenseman.

Video: WPG@ANA: Pionk scores PPG on heavy one-timer

But the two players who have played solid, simple games that have really surprised me are Poolman and Bitetto. They use their size well, but their puck movement is what makes a difference for them. They don't try to do anything too difficult. They see a play ahead of them and they make it. They typically have success doing it that way.

We have to remember that these players have been hungry for a regular opportunity in the NHL and now they're getting it just by playing an efficient, firm game in the 'D' zone. They're not trying to play outside their capabilities.

Bottom line, it certainly seems that the philosophy in Winnipeg now with this group of defensemen is to move the puck north as quick as possible, to get it off their sticks and into the hands of the forwards without any need for flare or dramatics.

If I'm a coach with the Jets, I want Scheifele, Wheeler, Laine, Connor and Ehlers to have the puck as much as possible. They have the speed, skill and size to make some magic happen with the puck. I feels to me every time I watch the Jets that those players have the puck more than they did in previous seasons.

No one can deny the significance of Hellebuyck on the Jets' success this season, but when I watched them live and for several games on television I'm consistently seeing a strong, simple, smart effort from the defensemen playing in front of him.

The Jets wouldn't survive this season if their defensemen tried to be all-stars. They don't have that skillset. But with the way they're playing, it doesn't look like they need it.

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