Tuesday, 6 April 2021

There's The Rub

When you hear NHL teams talk about their depth, it's usually because they have NHL-ready players sitting in the pressbox who can step in at a moment's notice. Usually, those players have shown that they can play at the NHL level through the games they are afforded, and occasionally there's reason to believe that a player is ready is one is the best at the AHL level for a franchise. If you were an NHL team that's tight against the salary cap and you had a former AHL Defenceman of the Year and a defender that has been lauded as the best player in the North Division, you'd think they'd be playing, right?

The reality is that the Jets have these players available to them, and neither Sami Niku, he who was the 2017-18 Eddie Shore Award winner as the AHL's outstanding defenceman, nor Ville Heinola, he who is getting rave reviews in the AHL as per Elliotte Friedman, are getting that opportunity as the Jets scour the depth charts of the other thirty NHL teams looking for an upgrade. And it leaves me dumbfounded.

As Friedman wrote in his 31 Thoughts article on Sportsnet above, "[m]ore than one exec's called him the best player north of the border" and Nashville kicked tires on Heinola in what would likely be a Mattias Ekholm trade. The Jets have two of the best defenders not playing in the NHL at their disposal in Niku and Heinola, and they refuse to play them for some reason. If the Jets aren't going to play them, why did they waste the draft picks on them?

It's a known fact that the Jets have struggled to generate offence from their blue line consistently, so hiding two of the best puck-moving defencemen in the pressbox does nothing to improve the fortunes of the Jets. If you need an example of where playing the kids has not only helped a team but actually made the team better, I point to the Colorado Avalanche where their oldest defender, Greg Pateryn, is 30 and doesn't even play a regular shift. If Colorado can use six players aged 26 or younger and turn in the results they have, what is stopping the Jets from playing their kids?

Maybe that's the rub, though. Colorado, it seems, doesn't care about how many hits they throw or how much grit is in the lineup or needing "big bodies" for their game because they throw their best at the opposition and dare them to stop the Avalanche. What happens normally is that the hits and grit and all those intangibles that coaches seem to love present themselves as they always do in games, and the Avalanche have adapted to not only play more physical, but play physical and score a ton of goals. That seems like a pretty good combination, no?

With the likes of Samuel Girard, Cale Makar, Devon Toews, and Bowen Byram, the Avalanche have four players aged 22, 22, 26, and 19 who constantly push the puck up the ice, jump into lanes for scoring chances, and look to drive offence while they learned to play defence at the NHL level. How did that happen? Head coach Jared Bednar is playing them. A lot. And the results speak for themselves as the Avalanche sit with 56 points and first-overall in the NHL with two games in-hand on Florida who also has 56 points. Not too shabby, Avalanche!

If the Jets are looking for a puck-moving defenceman who can step in and help the offence, they should be looking internally rather than at other depth charts. They have two players who have all the skill in the world to be able to do that, and both players would benefit from playing in NHL contests rather than watching from the pressbox. One can drop names like Ekholm, Ryan Ellis, Josh Manson, and David Savard all day, but the Jets really should be looking to add from within with the talent they have at their disposal.

I'm not Kevin Cheveldayoff and I'm certainly not Paul Maurice, but this love affair with second- and third-pairing veteran defencemen that the Jets have needs to end immediately. It's time to drop this mantra about grit and physicality because I haven't seen one team come in and Broad Street Bully the Jets this season. Open the door to the kids, let them cut their teeth in the NHL by making a few mistakes, and get them ready for a playoff push because you're going to need them for the future.

Right now, they aren't even ready to be the seventh defender thanks to their lack of playing time and exposure to NHL situations on the ice. And that's really the rub here for the Jets: the trade deadline could be far less costly if the Jets would simply play the two best defenders the AHL's North Division has seen in some time.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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