Of all the things that are going sideways in Winnipeg of late—and for a team going through a six-game losing skid, there are plenty of problems—perhaps the toughest to figure out is the play of Jacob Trouba.
For years now Trouba has been regarded as one of most promising young blueliners in the game, a 6' 2", 200-pounder blessed with great wheels, a nasty disposition and a natural inclination for the shutdown role. He was seen as a lock to settle in as an effective top four defender and, if his very raw offensive game came around, maybe something more.
Trouba’s impressive first season in Winnipeg only heightened those expectations. He made a smooth transition from the University of Michigan to the pro game at 19, impressing with his ability to keep pace both physically and mentally. In fact, it was his high-end hockey sense that elevated perceptions and allowed him to be trusted as the team’s de facto No. 1 at times.
And it wasn’t just the eye test that branded Trouba as the team’s top prospect. The fancystats crowd loved him as well, pointing to his strong possession numbers even when saddled with the largely ineffective Mark Stuart as his partner.
While the stats nerds continued to heap him with praise during his second season, his play visibly slipped a notch in 2014-15. Not a surprising development—the sophomore slump has bitten higher-profile players—and not one that had anyone particularly worried, either. The development process is rarely linear and on a young team that was only starting to turn the corner toward respectability there was plenty of time for patience as he worked through his inconsistencies.
But what he’s going through this season is something different. After a decent start Trouba now looks lost more often than not, and moving him from a pairing with Stuart to Tyler Myers to Dustin Byfuglien and back isn’t snapping him out of his funk. The physicality is still there—he came out on top after a nice tussle with St. Louis’s David Backes on Monday night, for instance—but the confidence he displayed early on is missing. And that uncertainty might be what leads to maddening decisions like the one he made last night to chase a puck into a corner already manned by Stuart during a penalty kill, leaving Backes all alone in front to beat a helpless Michael Hutchinson.
Trouba seems slower as well, and that’s caused him to take nine minor penalties through Winnipeg’s first 19 games, second on the team to Byfuglien’s 13, and well ahead of last season’s pace when he took just 18 minors through 65 contests.
And offensively, he’s been a disaster. He scored his first goal last week against Dallas to bump his season total to three points. Three. Again, part of that can be attributed to skating with Stuart, a player who would have a hard time getting regular minutes on most playoff contenders. Part is on Trouba’s negligible role on the power play that typically features four forwards. Part is on a system that de-emphasizes his ability to lug the puck in favor of moving it quickly to a forward. And part is on his own failures to get pucks to the net. Trouba averaged two shots per game during his first two seasons. Now he has half that: just 22 in those 19 games.
As his struggles have become more pronounced, you have to wonder if the pending expiration of his entry-level contract is weighing on his mind. It shouldn’t, of course. Two seasons of diminishing returns don’t make for a sturdy bargaining platform, and his current play, if it continues, will cost him millions of dollars and years of security on his RFA deal. Still, Trouba will be very well paid because the Jets know exactly what they have.
And that’s why no one in Winnipeg should be panicking over this start. As bad as things are right now, all the pieces remain in place for Trouba to become a special player. The trick now is putting him in a position to make the most of his potential—getting him away from Stuart would be a start—and extending him the patience he deserves to get there at his own pace ... even if that pace seems maddeningly slow at the moment.
The numbers game
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