If the Winnipeg Jets have had an Achilles Heel the past couple of seasons it has definitely been on their blue line. There was an exodus of players from that position a couple of years ago (Dustin Byfuglien, Tyler Myers, Jacob Trouba, Ben Chiarot), and it not only left the team with a lack of depth at the position, it also left them without a true No. 1 defender.
They were able to stay competitive through that because they have a game-changing goalie in Connor Hellebuyck that has not only been able to play major minutes and lead the league in games played in three of the past four seasons, but also play at an exceptionally high level. That sort of goaltending can mask a lot of flaws, and Hellebuyck has done a masterful job of that the past couple of years. It resulted in top-four finishes in Vezina Trophy voting in three of the past four seasons, including two times as a finalist and one win (2019-20).
Having a goalie that can do that for your team is great. It can take an average team and turn it into a playoff team. It can take a playoff team and turn it into a contender. What is even better is having a defense in front of that goalie that ease his workload a bit. And the Jets took some steps toward doing that this offseason with a couple of potentially significant additions in Nate Schmidt and Brenden Dillon.
They acquired Schmidt from Vancouver in a salary dump trade after finally convincing him to waive his no-trade clause for Winnipeg, and then acquired Dillon from Washington for two draft picks. Neither player is going to be a game-changer on their own, but for a Jets team that had Derek Forbort and Tucker Poolman playing top-four minutes a season ago they should be significant upgrades.
Schmidt is an interesting case because he is coming off of a brutal year in Vancouver that was probably the worst of his career. But it was such a sharp outlier to the rest of his resume that it’s tough to know what exactly happened there. Bad fit on a new team? The Canucks as a team being bad defensively and carrying over to Schmidt individually? The Canucks’ messed up season due to COVID where nobody was really their normal self? Just a fluke bad year? Whatever the reason, the cost was right for the Jets to make it a solid gamble that he can rebound. If he does get back to his normal level that is a strong offensive presence added to the Jets’ back end. He is a wild card, but one with a lot of upside.
Dillon, on the other hand, is a bit safer. You know what you are going to get, and it is a solid, defensive presence. He is not going to offer much in the way of offense, but he should step into the Jets’ lineup and immediately be one of their best defensive players when it comes to shot, chance, and goal suppression.
When you combine those two new additions with the return of Neal Poink, who has quickly become one of the most underrated blue liners in the league, and Josh Morrissey the Jets should have a very formidable top-four and a significant upgrade over what they were using this past season. No disrespect to players like Forbort and Poolman, but if they are among your top-four ice-time leaders on defense your team probably needs a couple of upgrades to that position. The Jets seem to have found that this offseason.
It is so important because the Jets do have the makings of an intriguing playoff team here. Poink is quietly developing into a legit top-pairing defenseman, while they have players like Kyle Connor, Nikolaj Ehlers, Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler, and Pierre-Luc Dubois to carry the offense. Connor, Ehlers, and Scheifelle are legit top-line performers, while Dubois has the potential to be a No. 1 center if he can bounce back from a disappointing 2020-21 performance.
Add in an elite, franchise goalie with an improved defense and suddenly you have the makings of a very intriguing team in the Central Division. The Jets had a clear weakness. They addressed it. It has to be a welcome sign for their top goalie and for the team in general.