Why Winnipeg Jets’ defense will crumble without Dustin Byfuglien

When the Winnipeg Jets’ training camp began, veteran defenseman Dustin Byfuglien informed the team that he was pondering his NHL future and considering retirement. 

At first, the Jets placed Byfuglien on personal leave; now that the 2019-20 season is underway, he is considered suspended without pay – although, that’s technically a formality to get cap relief for the time being. Byfuglien stands to lose $43,000 for each day he spends contemplating his future. The Jets, on the other hand, stand to lose much more without his presence on their blue line. 

Since the conclusion of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, no team has lost more talent and structure on its blue line than the Jets. At this time last year, the Jets had Byfuglien, Jacob Trouba, and Tyler Myers down the right side. Over the summer, general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff dealt Trouba to the New York Rangers in exchange for Neal Pionk and a draft pick that became defensive prospect Ville Heinola. Shortly thereafter, the Jets lost Myers in free agency to the Vancouver Canucks. And now, they’re without their No. 1 in Byfuglien.

All told, the Jets lost four of the five defensemen who led the team in average ice time (all situations) last season. Byfuglien’s 24:22 TOI/GP (in 42 games) was at the top of that list. His absence from the lineup is the harshest blow not only because it was unexpected, but also because Winnipeg has no way to replace him and his unique skill set.

The offensive threat

Byfuglien is one of the most punishing players in the league to play against – not only because of his 6-5, 260-pound frame, but also because he knows how to use it. His slap shot is widely considered one of the best in the game despite the fact that he scored just 12 goals combined in his last two years of hockey. Since the 2013-14 season, only three defenseman have scored more goals at even strength than he has; all three are recent Norris Trophy winners (Erik Karlsson, Victor Hedman, and Brent Burns).

Byfuglien is far from elite when it comes to carrying the puck out of the defensive zone, but that is hardly a surprise considering both his age and his size. Big Buff is a lot of things, but he’s not known for being an elusive puck-carrier; he’s more of a bulldozer going downhill than a motorcycle that can weave its way through the traffic of the neutral zone. However, he’s very good at entering the zone with possession of the puck because he knows how to use that big frame to his advantage. 

Last season, at the age of 33, Byfuglien ranked seventh in the league among defenseman who played at least 700 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey in expected goals for per 60 (iXG/60) – higher than Burns, Karlsson, and Thomas Chabot. In other words, when we consider both shot quality and quantity, Byfuglien was among the league’s most dangerous defenders at even strength in his 14th season.



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Of course, Byfuglien is so much more than just a big shot.

Last season, the Jets fared far better in terms of shot share when Byfuglien was on the ice at 5-on-5; they took more than 53 percent of the shots, which led the team. His 2.37 Rel CF% led all Winnipeg defenseman in 2018-19 and ranked 44th in the league among defenders who played at least 700 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey. The threat of that big shot and his ability to create havoc by attacking the slot draws defending players to him, which opens up ice for his teammates and creates passing lanes for Byfuglien to exploit at even strength and on the power play.

Byfuglien led all NHL defensemen in secondary assists on the power play per 60 minutes by a wide margin last year (6.04). That number represents a lot of touches on the power play, which makes the fact that Byfuglien committed zero turnovers on the man advantage last year all the more impressive. His role in Winnipeg’s 24.8 percent power play (ranked fourth in the league last year) could be overlooked because of the games that he missed, but there’s no doubt that Winnipeg’s power play suffered without him. After Byfuglien left the lineup in late December, the Jets’ power play had a 6.06 xGF/60; before his injury, Winnipeg’s man advantage had a 10.75 xGF/60 — second only to the Tampa Bay Lightning through the first two months of the 2018-19 season. 



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Fortunately for the Jets, they still have Patrik Laine’s nearly unbeatable shot on the man-advantage and Pionk as a potential quarterback. But the power play simply won’t be the same without Byfuglien.

Away from the puck

Since the 2013-14 season, Byfuglien ranks ninth in hits and fifth in takeaways among all NHL defenders. When you take those numbers into consideration with his offensive production over the last half dozen years, there simply isn’t another defenseman like him playing the game. 

In the defensive zone Byfuglien is best known for his crunching hits and his absurd strength, but he’s also superb at preventing zone entries. His physicality, reach, and ability to make reads enables him to take time and space away from attacking players. That is one of the reasons why he’s so effective at disrupting zone entries and creating takeaways.

 



CJ Turturo

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The absence of Byfuglien means that head coach Paul Maurice will have to lean heavily on Josh Morrissey, Dmitry Kulikov, and Pionk for the foreseeable future. The best of that group is Morrissey, who cracked 30 points in 59 games last season and will be a staple on the top pair this year. Unfortunately for Maurice, the 13th overall pick of the 2014 draft plays the left side. For the Jets’ season opener, he was partnered with the left-handed Kulikov on the top pair. 

Due to a Morrissey injury and the birth of Kulikov’s second child, the already small sample size that we have to work with to analyze the Jets’ blue line in the early stages of the season is even smaller. With that being said, it’s likely that the Jets’ top four will feature Morrissey, Kulikov, Pionk, and the 18-year-old Heinola. Tucker Poolman, a 26-year-old who had 24 games of NHL experience heading into the 2019-20 season, could also figure into things. Sami Niku, who was called up from the Manitoba Moose, could become a mainstay on this blue line too.

Whichever way you look at it, that top-four is a far cry from the defense that Winnipeg had last year, especially in regards to its depth and quality on the right side. Even with the acquisition of Pionk, the Jets were going to be hard-pressed to recover from the loss of Trouba and Myers. The seemingly inevitable departure of Byfuglien could be all it takes to break whatever was left of a once deep, solid blue line. 

 

All data courtesy of NaturalStatTrick.com and Corsica.Hockey. All visualizations courtesy of HockeyViz.com and CJ Turturo.

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