I will be doing a running series, where I take an in depth look at different areas on both Portland and Everett and make a decision on who has the edge. Yesterday, I previewed the goalie match up and today I will take a look at the guys right in front of them: the defensemen.
-The conversation about Everett's blue line does not just start with him because he has the lowest number. He is the heart and soul of the unit. The right-handed blue liner from Abbotsford, British Columbia was a first round draft pick by the Montreal Canadiens last June. He also played for Team WHL at the Canada-Russia Super Series and was a finalist to make Canada's World Junior Championship team. He had seven goals and 21 assists for 28 points in 63 games, while contributing 38 penalty minutes for the Silvertips. Against Portland, Juulsen has two goals (one of them an overtime winner) and three assists for five pints, which is tops among d-men on his team. He is also an overall +2 with 10 penalty minutes (also most for any d-man). He has usually been paired with Lucas Skrumeda, but is the quarterback for the first power play unit, alongside Brycen Martin. Juulsen, likely leads Everett in time on ice and is relied upon heavily, in any situation. Against Portland this year, he has thrown his body around a lot and has not allowed a lot of good quality chances on his goalie, due to expert use of his stick and body positioning. Juulsen is a great skater and showed this off in setting up the eventual game-winner in one game, by blowing past Portland's Jack Dougherty and taking advantage of the long change on his OT winner.
-He was the big acquisition for Everett this season, as they sent a package to the Saskatoon Baldes in exchange for the Buffalo Sabres draft pick (third round-2014). At the time, he was acquired, Martin was among the league leaders in points with 24 in 25 games, while with the Blades. He was expected to provide a lot of points form the blue line and help the Silvertips score more. This has simply not happened. You could argue that Everett's system, just does not allow him to jump into the play more, but he still has seen a lot of power play time and is likely second on the team in time on ice, when he's been healthy. In 41 games with the Silvertips, he has only scored three times and added 10 assists for 13 points. That is a sharp drop off from where his numbers were with Saskatoon. Martin has only played three games against Portland this year, notching one assist and two penalty minutes, along with a plus/minus rating of +2. In his limited action, he has looked good, giving Everett another smooth skating d-man back there, who also has amazing positioning. He has been dinged up for a lot of the season and only just got back into the lineup last week, after his most recent absence. In his three games back in the lineup, he has been paired with Jake Christiansen, likely meaning that he was not 100% yet.
-Another injury-plagued d-man in his time in Everett. Pfeifer played a lot of last season and the playoffs, as a top-four d-man when he was on the ice. He skated in 60 games this year, an improvement on the 49 last season, but recently broke his wrist and has been in and out of the lineup since. How healthy that wrist is, could be big for Everett's depth on the blue line. He had 13 points, 37 penalty minutes and was a +13 overall this season and had zero points and zero penalty minutes in seven games vs. Portland. He was an overall +3 in those seven games, which is tops among d-men.
-The left handed, West Vancouver, B.C. native played 48 games in his 16-year-old season and while he had four goals and four assists for eight points in that span, three of those goals and one of those assists were against Portland. After seeing him turn the puck over, leading to two different Skyler McKenzie goals in the preseason, I thought Christiansen would really struggle this season, but this has not been the case. As it is the playoffs, I would expect him to play limited minutes, but his offensive success against Portland this year has to give Kevin Constanine and the rest of the coaching staff confidence enough to play him more if needed.
-He struggled a lot in the playoffs last season vs. Portland, especially against their most talented players. Due to injuries they had to play him, probably more than they really wanted. This year, Skrumeda has been much better in his own zone, earning a role in the top-four and playing well in that role. The "19-year-old" d-man had one goal again this season and added 13 assists. numbers nearly identical to those that he had last season, in just about the same amount of games. Against Portland this year, he played all but one game of the season series and had three assists and nine penalty minutes, while having an overall -1. If Juulsen is playing with him instead of Martin in the top pairing, I like Portland's quickest players to take advantage.
-He did yeoman's work in last year's playoff round vs. Portland, trying to corral WHL MVP Oliver Bjorkstrand. While the Columbus Blue Jackets' forward still ended up scoring plenty, including an overtime winner, MacDonald made his life harder in the meantime. He likes to play physical and that is built for the playoffs. His pairing with Kevin Davis, is one of the better second pairing units in the league. They should get a lot of Cody Glass, Rihards Bukarts and Alex Schoenborn in the series and how well they do at shutting down this unit, could be a big reason why either team wins the series. The overage d-man matched his output last season with 36 points in 71 games. Vs. Portland, MacDonald had one goal and three assists for four points, along with six penalty minutes, while posting an overall -3 rating. I would credit a lot of his -3 to not doing so well vs. Portland's second line.
-MacDonald's d-partner took a significant step back offensively this season, notching 16 points in 69 games, nine less than last year. Against Portland, he had two assists and two penalty minutes, while posting a -4 rating (worst on the Everett blue line vs. Portland). His poor plus/minus rating should not be too surprising as MacDonald and Davis have not been able to generate the same offense vs. Portland that Juulsen has and they have been caught in bad positions, which is rare for them. Davis does such a great job at not overplaying the puck and anticipating where the next pass is going, that his struggles vs. Portland are somewhat surprising. When he played significant minutes as a 16-year-old, I expected him to be one of the best d-men in the league as a 19-year-old, but he simply has not taken that next step.
-The Edmonton Oilers' draft pick took awhile to get used to playing in the WHL this year, but since about the time of the trip through Alberta, he's been Portland's best d-man. A lot of times during the early part of the year, he was hesitant to jump up into the play and would either not commit himself enough to make a play, or commit himself way too much and allow a breakaway the other way. Now, he jumps into the play at will, yet still does not leave himself too far up the ice, when the opponent starts moving the puck the other direction. Everett is not one of the better teams at scoring in transition, so Jones playing fast and loose should not burn Portland too much. Jones has also improved in his own zone and is becoming quite good at winning battles along the boards in his own zone. His switch to the right side, has also seemed to give him confidence in his shot, as he shoots more often now. Playing with Blake Heinrich, also seems to have helped his game significantly. Jones had 10 goals and 45 assists for 55 points in 72 games this season. This led all rookie d-men in the WHL in scoring and landed him third on the team, overall in points. Against Everett, he had one goal and nine assists for 10 points, to go along with 12 penalty minutes, while posting a +3 rating. This was by far the most points any d-man in the season series scored. He had a lot of success against Everett and besides Rihards Bukarts, he was the skater that seemed to be able to create the most room for himself while playing vs. Everett's tight defensive structure. I would look for Everett to try to develop a game plan, just to either stop or limit Jones's effectiveness, or to take advantage more of him rushing the puck.
-The Prince George, B.C. native had two goals this year in 46 games, while taking turns rotating in as the sixth d-man with Carter Czaikowski. It seems clear that Portland likes Czaikowski against Everett a lot more, as seen by the nine games he played vs. the 'Tips, compared to MacEachern's five. This could be due to how much Czaikowski has shored up his play in his own zone and gained confidence with moving the puck up the ice this season. I would expect MacEachern to be firmly slotted in as the seventh d-man and only get into the series, if Czaikowski makes a big mistake or two. In his five games, MacEachern had no points and posted a minus two rating.
-Everett is the team that the Nashville Predators' drafted and signed player has had some of his worst moments this year against. He got outworked by Everett's Brian King in a corner in his own zone, allowing the rookie forward to score the eventual game-winner. In another game, he let Noah Juulsen skate right by him and set up the game-winner. To go along with this, he has had another handful of poor moments against a team that is not necessarily the strongest offensive team in the league. This year, Dougherty had 11 goals and 41 assists for 52 points, good for fifth on the team overall. While playing Everett, he only had one goal and two assists for three points, in nine games. He also was a team worse minus four in that span. Needless to say, Portland cannot get this time of performance in this series from Doguherty and still come out alive. He will continue shooting early and often on the power play and Portland needs him to be better against Everett in this role as well in order to succeed.(#16)Blake Heinrich:
-The overage d-man had four assists in 10 games vs. Everett and though he has shown glimpses of an offensive side this year, he will not be relied upon to score as much as Dougherty and Jones will be. The impact that he has had on Jones cannot be understated. Since joining him, Jones's game has reached another level. Also, the fact that Dougherty's game slipped, after leaving Heinrich and joining Keoni Texeira, should not be overlooked either. Simply said, he is Portland's most consistent d-man and he does not turn over the puck very often. Recently, he has taken his physical play to another level and if he is able to continue this, he can make life a lot harder for Everett's forwards, especially smaller guys like Connor Dewar. Overall this year, Heinrich has 31 points and over 100 penalty minutes, while posting a team-high plus 17 rating. His ability to limit how many penalties he takes, could be a deciding factor in the series. He took 12 penalty minutes in the 10 games vs. Everett . This not only gave the "tips a power play, it took one of Portland's best penalty killers off of the ice.
(#21)Brendan De Jong:
-The Victoria, B.C. native has gotten a lot better in his second year with Portland. He has now firmly placed himself as Portland's fifth d-man and will likely alternate playing with Dougherty and Jones, rather than with the sixth d-man (likely Czaikowski). He had one goal and seven assists for eight points in 72 games. He was a team-low minus 13 this season. Three of those minuses, came against Everett, along with two assists and two penalty minutes. He has a knack for getting his shot on net and thus could be guy who scores a pivotal goal in the series.
-Like was said earlier, he seems to relish playing Everett. He has a plus two in his nine games along with one assist. He also has six penalty minutes. He played limited minutes this season and only had four points in just 37 games this season. He would be a finalist for Portland though, in the "most improved" category as he is not as easily taken off of the puck and is a lot better at poking the puck off of the stick of an onrushing forward. He is also a much better puck-mover then MacEachern and seems to fit perfectly into the Winterhawks' system. He will likely only see five to eight minutes a night and will likely play vs. Everett's bottom six forwards.
-Texeira had eight goals and 15 assists for 23 points this season, which is less then I expected him to have. He had a miserable two-month stretch this year, where he could not seem to make the right play at all. He was caught in bad positions often and seemed to struggle with getting overpowered in front of his own net. Since about January though, he has played a whole lot better. He still has not really improved the way a lot of Winterhawks' fans thought he would though, after seeing him provide several electric rushes up the ice two years ago, as a 16-year-old in the playoffs. He will still rush the puck from time to time, but he seems to struggle with blowing past defenders, the way he did two seasons ago. He has played really well alongside Dougherty and will be relied upon to play heavy minutes, especially if there are some overtimes in the series. Against Everett this season, Texeira had one goal and six penalty minutes and was a plus one overall.
Who Has The Edge:
This is a category that is extremely tight in my opinion. I sided with Everett, due to the fact that Portland's blue liners turn the puck over more often and Everett plays a better defensive structure. Caleb Jones will continue to give Everett all kinds of problems with his skating and stickhandling abilities, but Everett's Noah Juulsen will likely do the same to Portland. How much Portland's top-four d-men spend time in the penalty box, could be a major reason why either team wins the series. I'm still not completely sold on Skrumeda and he could get taken advantage of if Brycen Martin is not healthy enough to play top-four minutes. Dougherty though is really the biggest reason that I chose Everett. I cannot put my finger on exactly why, he has struggled so much vs. Everett, but if he is not able to buck this trend, Everett will continue to get big goals from players throughout their lineup. Here's hoping that Dougherty's play improves vs. the 'Tips.