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Tampa Bay Lightning's Brett Connolly battles for the puck with Winnipeg Jets' Mark Stuart during the second period of their NHL hockey game in Tampa, Florida October 29, 2011. (MIKE CARLSON/Reuters)
Tampa Bay Lightning's Brett Connolly battles for the puck with Winnipeg Jets' Mark Stuart during the second period of their NHL hockey game in Tampa, Florida October 29, 2011. (MIKE CARLSON/Reuters)

Jets dealing with comfort zone problem on defence Add to ...

The Winnipeg Jets have a comfort zone problem when it comes to their defence.

With four defencemen out with injuries – Tobias Enstrom, Mark Stuart, Ron Hainsey and Derek Meech – it means the rest of the players in the unit have to step out of their accustomed roles. This is where trouble starts, especially for a defence corps that was not playing particularly well when it was healthy. Now the Jets have to cope with the loss of their best defenceman, Enstrom, who has a broken collarbone and could be lost for up to six weeks.

“That’s one of the things, you get people playing out of their comfort area, you get them playing in situations they’re not really accustomed to,” Jets head coach Claude Noel said Thursday morning as his team prepared to play the New York Islanders. “What has to happen in these situations is you have to get help from everybody. We have to play a lot better as a group of 20 and on the ice as a group of five.

“We’ve got to manage our D-zone a lot better. We had to do that with the people we had in before. It puts an exclamation mark on our need to do that now.”

So far, the results are mixed.

The Jets did have that odd 9-8 win over the Philadelphia Flyers last week, which helped give them a team goals-against average of 3.40 over 11 games, 29th among the NHL’s 30 teams. But they did bounce back with a 1-0 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning on this road trip before blowing a lead against the Florida Panthers and salvaging a 4-3 shootout win.

That Florida win cost the Jets Enstrom, who was hit by the Panthers’ Jack Skille and was lost with an upper-body injury. Enstrom leads all Jets defencemen in points and ice time, quarterbacks the power-play unit and kills penalties, this sets off the domino effect of forcing others to take up more prominent roles.

In the short term, if everyone contributes as Noel hopes, the problem can be handled. But the longer the situation persists, the greater the chance a No. 4 defenceman, for example, will find himself overmatched playing more minutes on the top pair and unable to fulfill the greater demands of that role.

When Enstrom was lost in the Panthers game, the ice time of the remaining defencemen went up sharply. Dustin Byfuglien, who is expected to score as much as Enstrom, finished that game with 25 minutes, 31 seconds on the ice, up more than two minutes from his norm. He should hit 30 against the Islanders, which must be an unnerving prospect as he declined to speak to the media after the morning skate.

Zach Bogosian was up almost four minutes to 26:42 in the Panthers game while Randy Jones went from 12:37 in the win over Tampa Bay to 21:21 against the Panthers. Stuart was up to nearly 24 minutes in the Florida game and now he can’t play against the Islanders due to various aches and pains.

The most obvious players who have to step up are Brett Festerling and Mark Flood. They were called up from the Jets’ farm team, the St. John’s IceCaps, and put into the lineup against the Islanders. Festerling goes from the American Hockey League to a spot on the Jets’ No. 2 pair with Bogosian while Flood will play on the third pair with Johnny Oduya.

Bogosian, 21, will now be expected to take a leading role in producing offence from the back end but in his case this is an opportunity as well as a challenge. As the third overall pick in the 2008 NHL entry draft, he was expected to be a puck-moving, point-producing defenceman. The adjustment to the NHL has not been easy for him, although he professes no qualms about an increased role.

“Any time you get an opportunity to play more is good,” Bogosian said. “Getting out of your comfort zone a little bit can be good for you.

“It’s going to be tough but we’re here to pick up the slack. A lot of guys have to step into bigger roles.”

In these situations, the mantra is always keep it simple. Don’t try any end-to-end scoring rushes. Just start with protecting your goaltender, something the Jets need to work on, and getting the puck out of your own end.

“We just have to do a better job in our zone,” said Noel, who said his forwards as well as his defencemen were too loose defensively against the Panthers. “We gave up way too much activity to their point shots.

“We’ve got to keep things collapsed more, keep things simple. We have to get the puck out of our zone a lot better, spend less time in there.”

Stuart is considered day-to-day. The only other defenceman who may play on the trip, which wraps up with games in New Jersey against the Devils on Saturday and in New York against the Rangers on Sunday, is Hainsey but he did not skate Thursday and is unlikely to be ready until Sunday at the earliest.

The Jets also placed goaltender Chris Mason on the injured-reserve list retroactive to Oct. 27, which means he can be activated on Friday. Peter Mannino will serve as Ondrej Pavelec’s backup against the Islanders and Mason may do so on Saturday against the Devils.

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