Last night, the Winnipeg Jets finished off the Minnesota Wild in a 5-0 rout to win the Central Division series, 4-1. Winnipeg looked every bit the cup contender they’ve been rumored to be, and Minnesota’s ability to hang was seriously impeded by injuries to Ryan Suter and Zach Parise, plus nagging issues with Niederreiter, Spurgeon, and Dumba. It was a pretty good series that I wish had gone more games, but the Jets were too good and the Wild weren’t going to overcome all those injuries.
While watching I couldn’t help but think about Detroit’s lost season, how they would stack up against both these teams (poorly), and what these teams were doing similar and different to the Wings. It’s not all bad; it is easy to see how the Wings could mature into a better version of the Wild, but it’s also not too late to ape the Jets’ style, either. Yet, there is a lot for the Wings to do to put themselves in a position to lose a first round series, let alone win one. Here are three of my considerations on that process.
1: Detroit may not need a Norris-Caliber Defenseman.
The Winnipeg defensive pairings all illicit one response: “Yeah, that’s a pretty good pairing.” Jacob Trouba and Dustin Byfuglien are the closest Winnipeg has to a game-breaker defenseman, but neither of them are winning the Norris anytime soon. However, the Jets are very deep on the blue line to compensate. With the caveat that the Jets haven’t won shit yet, it looks like a great defensive corps can be made up of quantity rather than quality, so long as the quantity is “good enough.”
It is an interesting experiment, to be sure. If the Jets go the distance, they will force teams to rethink their roster compositions in a couple different ways, so we fans and the Red Wings organization will just have to wait and see how it plays out. But maybe we are witnessing that it is okay if none of Cholowski, Hronek, Saarijarvi, Hicketts, or whoever Detroit drafts this spring turn into Norris perennials, so long as all of them become really good.
2: A good Blashill-coached Red Wings squad probably looks a lot like a good Boudreau-coached Wild squad.
The Wild struggle with being perceived as a defense-first Lemaire-style trap team. They are a defense-first team, but so are about 28 other teams in the league because the present state of the game. And they haven’t even been a trap team in half a decade, which of course nobody noticed because they’re Minnesota, but also, screw you coastal media bias, all the teams in America’s two biggest cities are either boring or bad. And maybe if the Jets were from New York then they wouldn’t be so underrated, would they? No, there would be plenty of media coverage and they’d just be terrible.
Sorry, my insecure Midwesterner is really showing. Back on track. Rather than relying on a trap, Boudreau employs a defensive group in Minnesota that is highly mobile and unafraid of getting in on the action, either by carrying the puck through the neutral zone, crashing the net, or fighting board battles down low. This is more-or-less what Detroit fans thought they were getting when Blashill first came in, before he learned that ain’t happening with Detroit’s current blueliners.
The other half of the bargain of such an active defense is that the forwards have to be defensively responsible. Blashill preaches this all the time. Opposing players lose coverage more easily when teams can cycle their defensemen, opening up spaces in the ice for scoring opportunities, but those opportunties don’t arise if forwards can’t be trusted to effectively cover for the defense, should the worst happen and a break out launch the other direction. Boudreau’s players are responsible enough to make this system happen, and it is what Blashill seems to be striving for, but he doesn’t have the personnel for it (yet.)
3: Playoff history helps build culture, but if Detroit doesn’t have the right intangibles then it doesn’t matter.
Prior to the series, much was made of the Wild’s chances in the series resting on their playoff experience compared to the Jets’ relative lack. The ends of games 1, 2, and 4 featured the Jets absolutely smothering any chance the Wild had to get back into the game, reminiscent of the 07-08 Red Wings. It was a sight to see just how utterly desperate to win the Jets were at the ends of these games. Not desperate in that they were playing fast and loose, hoping for anything to go their way, but desperate like a bulldog chomping on a steak, hanging midair and refusing to let go. Remember, Winnipeg’s team is mostly just a group of kids led by a small handful of players from the Thrashers days who believe enough in the organization to hang around and keep fighting. They don’t live in a flashy city and have a notoriously difficult time attracting free agents, which might lead one to believe that it affects the players attitudes.
If there is one sports narrative I hate, it is the “the winners just wanted it more” narrative, but the Jets looked so synced with each other in those five games against the Wild that I cannot do anything but walk away from the series thinking just how much it matters to have the right chemistry of people on a team that we as fans won’t ever be privy to. This isn’t a referendum on the Wild’s drive to win or anything; their roster was too depleted to make any statements on this front. But the Wings might want to take notice of what the Jets are doing. Even if their play-style and approaches to roster composition are different, a team who is so cemented in its identity as playoff winners might want to look at the way the Jets have assembled the personnel on their roster and in their offices.
And now that I’ve said all this, just watch the Jets get swept by Nashville and Boudreau get axed.