Josh Morrissey and Tucker Poolman spent much of last season playing together as the Jets’ top defence pair. The biggest reason for this is because the team did not have any kind of depth, or high end players on the right side to play with Morrissey for most of the season.
This changed when the Jets traded a third round pick in 2020 for Dylan DeMelo, who would immediately become their best 5 on 5 defenceman. DeMelo spent a few games playing with Beaulieu, and eventually made his way onto the top pair beside Morrissey. The top pair, and more importantly the team, enjoyed much more success when DeMelo moved up.
According to Natural Stat Trick, Morrissey and Poolman had 675:04 of ice time together last season, over 200 minutes more than any other defence pairing the Jets iced last year. That is a relatively large sample in which they’ve had poor results. the Jets have DeMelo, a guy who has performed like a legitimate top pairing defenceman over the past two seasons. They also have Sami Niku, a guy who has not performed well in the NHL to this point, but has also never been given a role as an offensive defenceman beside a guy like Morrissey, which would likely help his game, and give him a chance of producing good results. Given all of that, it’s blatantly obvious that the Jets should not be considering pairing Morrissey and Poolman together in the 2021 season.
Exactly what kind of impact did they have together last year?
The decision to pair these two together when they did last season made sense in the beginning. Poolman had spent limited time in the NHL, and although his minutes were sheltered and he was playing on a very good Jets squad in 2017-18, he had pretty good results in a small sample playing mostly with Ben Chiarot. He spent the majority of the 2018-19 season injured, but when he got in with the Moose he looked very good, and Moose head coach Pascal Vincent, to paraphrase, said he was playing in the wrong league. Poolman’s skills had people, including myself, thinking he could have a decent impact playing with Josh Morrissey.
We proved to be very wrong.
As per Natural Stat Trick, the pair finished with a shot share of 46.53%, and a horrendous expected goal share of 40.31%, the worst mark in the entire NHL among pairings that played at least 300 minutes together.
To break the expected goals down a bit further, their xGF/60 (expected goals for per 60 minutes) was 1.83, and their xGA/60 (expected goals against per 60 minutes) was 2.73. They provided no help to their forwards offensively, and they were just about useless defensively when they were together.
One reason for the bad offensive season for this pairing may have been the system. It was well documented last season, and coach Maurice even alluded to this at different points throughout the season, that due to the overall weakness of their defence corps, the team decided to play a more conservative style of hockey. It was uncommon to see defencemen jumping into the play offensively, and they would even go as far as to commonly keep a high forward in the offensive zone, further limiting the amount of offence the team was able to create.
Despite sacrificing offence, they struggled almost as bad defensively. They struggled big-time with their coverages, had trouble exiting the zone, and overall they were overmatched by the higher end offensive players of the opposing teams. Did some of this have to do with playing with the Connor-Scheifele-Laine line more often than other lines? Probably. Evolving-Hockey’s wins above replacement (WAR) model and their shot isolate model, as well as Micah Blake McCurdy’s shot isolate model all show Connor and Scheifele as among the worst defensive impacts in the NHL. Laine also is shown as ranging from a bit below average to not good at all defensively in all three models.
That only accounts for roughly 40% of their ice time though, and while they may have struggled worse with those three on the ice, they still struggled big-time, and a lot of it was their own doing.
A look at Morrissey and Poolman’s individual impacts
Below are the results of Morrissey and Poolman from Evolving-Hockey’s shot isolate model (otherwise known as regularized adjusted plus minus, or RAPM). It estimates each player’s individual impact on goals for, expected goals for, corsi for, expected goals against, and corsi against. Corsi is the same as shot attempts, while expected goals adjusts for shot quality and omits blocked shots.
Both players seemed to struggle similarly defensively. Poolman is shown as having worse shot and scoring chance generation offensively. Interestingly, Poolman’s goal generation is shown as being higher here. This could be because in his time away from Morrissey, the forwards scored on far more of their shots than expected.
When a defenceman is showing a goals for impact much higher than his expected goals, that’s not usually his doing, and has more to do with a high on-ice shooting percentage, which is something that regresses toward the mean as the sample of shots grows. Poolman struggled to create offence for his team last year, despite a goals for impact that might fool some people. There can be exceptions to this when the player is very involved in the offence and is a really good passer and/or shooter. I would not put Poolman in that category.
This shows that altogether, Morrissey struggled defensively, and Poolman struggled at both ends.
Errors in logic
The Jets went out and got Dylan DeMelo at last year’s trade deadline and signed him to an extension this fall. The pairing with Morrissey and DeMelo improved to a 56.41% shot share and a 45.06% expected goal share between the regular season and the play-in series according to Natural Stat Trick. There was clearly a huge improvement when DeMelo stepped onto the pairing with Morrissey.
As I alluded to earlier, Paul Maurice ran a system last year that sacrificed offence for defence in order to protect a weak defence corps. He started this year’s training camp off with a press conference saying he didn’t like the way they defended or created offence last year.
With a big reason for the lack of offence being the system, and the reasoning for the system being a weak defence corps, adding a great 5 on 5 defenceman in DeMelo to the top pair is one way of helping. We’ve already seen it give the Jets a big improvement. Instead, the coach is going to start by rolling out the same top four as they did most of last year, with the only change being Derek Forbort taking the place of Dmitry Kulikov.
It makes no logical sense to acknowledge last year’s problems with the defence corps and roll out nearly the same top four. It makes even less sense when you have a great 5 on 5 defenceman in DeMelo who can make such a huge improvement to the top four.
Another option would be trying out Sami Niku beside Josh Morrissey. There’s no guarantee this would be a good pairing, but it wouldn’t hurt to try any more than it would hurt to put Poolman back on the pairing with Morrissey. In the best scenario, it works out, and the Jets have more options on their blue line, and could use DeMelo as a partner for either Ville Heinola or Dylan Samberg, which would be a nice scenario for either of those two trying to break into the league.
Maurice has said that he doesn’t think Morrissey and Poolman got a full look last year, despite having the 18th most minutes among defence pairings and posting some of the worst results of any pairing. One might expect some slight improvement if the system is changed in any way, or they use the pairing in a completely different manner than they did last year, but trying this again is highly unlikely to yield good results.
The bottom line is there are options besides Poolman to pair with Morrissey, one of which is a guaranteed improvement, and putting Morrissey and Poolman back together hurts the Jets. If and when the pairing gets outplayed again, the Jets can’t afford to waste any time breaking them up.