Off-season departures, injuries and Dustin Byfuglien’s absence have left Winnipeg with the least experienced blueline in the NHL, but the Jets will need to get creative to plug holes. Meanwhile, the Oilers and Islanders find themselves looking to rehome notable prospects.
Rasmus Ristolainen|Jamie Sabau/NHLI via Getty Images
Defense was a significant question mark for the Winnipeg Jets entering this season. The summer departures of Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot by trade and free agency depleted their blueline, and defensive stalwart Dustin Byfuglien’s ongoing absence as he mulls his future also leaves a big hole on the top pairing.
Forced to plug the gaps with inexperienced rearguards such as Ville Heinola and Carl Dahlstrom, the Jets struggled through their first three games before Tuesday’s 4-1 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins. After four games, the Jets’ 35.5 shots-against per game is the league’s sixth-highest while their goals-against per game (3.75) is the tenth-worst.
The recent absence of Josh Morrissey and Dmitry Kulikov compounded their blueline woes. Morrissey suffered an upper-body injury during a pre-game warmup on Sunday while Kulikov is attending to a personal matter.
Though it’s early in the regular season, the Jets’ porous defense sparked concern among Winnipeg pundits. The Winnipeg Free Press’ Mike McIntyre believes something has got to give, but Byfuglien’s $7.6 million cap hit doesn’t give them much room to maneuver if he decides to return. McIntyre feels a “money in, money out” trade is the only tangible solution right now.
Byfuglien’s cap hit will come off the Jets’ books if he retires, giving them plenty of cap space to pursue a replacement. Finding a first-pairing defenseman with his size and skills, however, is almost impossible. The Athletic’s Murat Ates suggested the Buffalo Sabres’ Rasmus Ristolainen or Dallas Stars’ Julius Honka as possible trade options.
Ristolainen, 24, was a frequent fixture in this summer’s rumor mill. He carries an annual average value of $5.4 million through 2021-22 but lacks no-trade protection. A right-hand shot, Ristolainen logs big minutes and is a power-play specialist, but Ates pointed out his five-on-five numbers aren’t that good. Plus, with Brandon Montour sidelined for a month, Ristolainen won’t be going anywhere for the time being. If the Sabres shop him, the asking price could be a scoring right winger.
A restricted free agent, the 23-year-old Honka recently requested a trade. While he’d cost considerably less in salary and return, he’s yet to establish himself as a full-time NHL defenseman.
Given those limited options, it’s no wonder the Jets are said to be trying to talk Byfuglien out of retirement. Sportnet’s Elliotte Friedman reports the blueliner’s agent said no one should jump to any conclusions. Nevertheless, it could take time before he reaches a decision.
UPDATES ON PULJUJARVI AND HO-SANG
Two former first-round picks continue to face uncertain futures.
Edmonton Oilers right winger Jesse Puljujarvi remains unsigned as he plays in Finland awaiting a trade. Meanwhile, winger Joshua Ho-Sang requested a trade from the New York Islanders after clearing waivers last week.
Over the weekend, Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported the 23-year-old Ho-Sang told teams he’ll do whatever it takes for a fresh start. That includes playing in the minors if that’s what required of him.
As for Puljujarvi, Friedman last week said Oilers GM Ken Holland remains hopeful a strong performance overseas by the 21-year-old right winger improves his NHL trade value.
Some fans might wonder why the Oilers and Islanders haven’t swapped Puljujarvi and Ho-Sang, giving both wingers the change of scenery they seek. Despite Puljujarvi’s struggles, he’s viewed as having more upside than Ho-Sang. The Oilers (and other clubs) still believe he can blossom into a top-six winger, something Ho-Sang hasn’t done at the NHL or AHL levels.
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