That was a common answer among many fans, media pundits and analysts when asked to spit out their Stanley Cup predictions at the start of the 2017-18 campaign. Many picked Winnipeg to win the Central and compete for the Western Conference title as recently as last season, too.
That seems like an eternity ago now, with the Jets set to trot out this monstrosity of a defence corps(e) for Tuesday’s clash with the Penguins after Josh Morrissey was ruled out for the second straight game as a “precaution” and Dmitri Kulikov scratched for personal reasons.
Ain’t nobody picking the Jets to contend this season with that blue line, and no one can blame you if you feel this group will finish closer to the basement than it will anywhere near the playoff picture. The 18-month drop-off has been swift and stunning, and clearly it’s the downfall of the team’s back end that has ravaged its chances at contention so abruptly.
Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot all departed via trade or free agency this summer, while Dustin Byfuglien is kinda-sorta retired but hasn’t officially made a decision — and one won’t be coming “anytime soon” apparently.
(But it’s really starting to feel more and more like this is the end for Big Buff.)
This leaves the Jets without four of their top five defencemen from last season. Morrissey is clearly battling some kind of ailment, too. If that lingers and forces him to miss multiple games at various points this season, this blue line gets downgraded from a fringe NHL d-corps to a “decent” AHL one.
Of course, there’s a ton to like about the Jets up front. Like, a lot. Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler are absolute studs, Patrik Laine has 40-goal potential even when he’s not firing on all cylinders. Kyle Connor is a REAL nice player, while Nik Ehlers and Andrew Copp are a solid round-off to the team’s top six.
The Jets are very likely going to be an above-average team offensively when you look at expected goals and projected shot share. However, with this group as it’s currently constructed, it’s going to take a miracle for Winnipeg to not finish in the NHL’s bottom-five defensively.
And the regression of netminder Connor Hellebuyck certainly isn’t helping either. After a lights-out 2017-18 season where Hellebuyck snagged a league-leading 44 wins, led the NHL in minutes played, and finished second in Vezina trophy voting while posting a career-high .924 Sv%, the 26-year-old saw his save percentage drop 11 points to a .913 and his quality-start percentage drop by more than 15 percent. He went from saving a whopping 24-ish goals above average two years ago to just 5.86 last season.
Of course, this season is extremely young, but Hellebuyck hasn’t really shown any signs of bouncing back yet, with backup Laurent Brossoit earning two of the first three starts and the former giving up five goals on 31 shots in his season opener. Winnipeg NEEDS Hellebuyck to regain Top 10 form behind this depleted blue line for the Jets to even have a chance at a playoff spot. He can do it, absolutely, but all signs and trends over the past 12 months or so show him going the other way. That has to be corrected.
And that brings us to head coach Paul Maurice, who was certainly already on the hot seat heading into this season. Though all the departures and injuries on the back end may buy him a little bit of time and lower the team’s reasonable expectations, it’s also time for him to really flex his tactical muscle — especially on the defensive side of the puck. Can he find ANY internal personnel to step up and contribute on that blue line? Can he devise the proper game plans to hide their defensive inefficiencies? Can they just go straight fire-wagon and win enough 6-5 games to sneak into the playoffs?
Acquiring blueline help through a trades or two is certainly an option and looking like an absolute necessity for GM Kevin Cheveldayoff at this point, but you’re not bringing in anything of value without moving one of your top-six forwards. Do you want to tinker with your only real bright spot — those top two lines — in order to just get this blue line closer to average?
This really could go either way for the Jets, but a lot more has to go right for the team to sniff the post-season this year than what has to go wrong for it to miss.
More NHL coverage from Yahoo Sports