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It's broke - Fix it

Ten things the Jets must address to become a contender

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It is traditionally a day all about sifting for silver linings and spitting out answers on positive steps forward and building blocks. It's about looking in the mirror, of coming back stronger next year and blah, de-blah, blah.

The Winnipeg Jets are used to this now, having been there, done that last year and in the four springs before in Atlanta. And so, as they gathered Friday for exit meetings and one last required session with the media, there was an all-too-familiar feel to it all for those asking the questions and those answering them.

Statistically, the Jets did improve -- moving from 11th in the Eastern Conference to ninth and enjoying a marginal jump in a winning percentage from .512 a year ago to .531.

But amid the back-slapping and farewell handshakes a fire still roared in many bellies, including captain Andrew Ladd.

"It should burn," said Ladd. "You should be thinking about that the whole summer and how or what you need to do to get better to get into the playoffs. As an individual that should irk you every time, watching the playoffs and realizing you had a chance to be a part of that and you didn't do enough to get there.

"We have to make sure we use this as motivation to make sure it doesn't happen again. This is three years in a row now for me and it just leaves an empty feeling in your stomach. It's failure to me."

An autopsy of the 2013 Jets will reveal not any one specific malady, but many causes of death. And so, from this perch here are 10 issues/questions the Jets must address between now and this time next year to evolve from spectator to participant in the Stanley Cup derby...

1. A ROSTER IN TRANSITION

Change is inevitable in every pro sport, that much is a given. But two whiffs at grabbing a playoff spot also scream out for change and the opportunity to put that in action is staring GM Kevin Cheveldayoff in the face.

There are nine unrestricted free agents, nine restricted free agents and -- after two years of development -- some of their own draft picks seemingly ready to enter into serious discussion about how the 2013-14 roster might look.

The Jets currently have just 11 players under contract for next season, a year in which the NHL salary cap shrinks from $70.2 million to $64.3 million. Those 11 players total just shy of $36 million in total salary, leaving the club with some significant cap space.

2. THE UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: WHO COMES BACK, WHO BIDS FAREWELL?

The debate here: Who is a must-have for the Jets to bring back and who might block the development of a prospect if he returns?

Nik Antropov, C/W; 2013 salary: $4.75 million; Age: 33

Kyle Wellwood, C/W; 2013 salary: $1.6 million; Age: 29

Mike Santorelli, C/W; 2013 salary: $1.6 million; Age: 27

Antti Miettinen, RW; 2013 salary: $1.5 million; Age 32

Aaron Gagnon, F; 2013 salary: $525,000; Age: 27

Ron Hainsey D; 2013 salary: $3 million; Age: 32

Grant Clitsome, D; 2013 salary: $1.4 million; Age: 28

Derek Meech, D; 2013 salary: $700,000; Age: 29

Al Montoya, G; 2013 salary: $601,000; Age: 28

3. THE RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: CORNERSTONES, UNDERACHIEVERS AND BIT PLAYERS

A good corps here, including two-thirds of the top line in Blake Wheeler and Bryan Little.

"I need those two guys," said Ladd with a grin. "Those are two guys I obviously want back really bad. They're two guys I work really well with and are two guys who have been great for this team the whole year and were consistent. We hope we can get them locked up for a long time."

Blake Wheeler, RW; 2013 salary: $2.65 million; Age: 26

Bryan Little, C; 2013 salary: $3 million; Age: 25

Alex Burmistrov, C; 2013 salary: $900,000; Age: 21

Eric Tangradi, W; 2013 salary: $726,000; Age: 24

Anthony Peluso, W; 2013 salary: $605,000; Age: 24

Zach Bogosian, D; 2013 salary: $3 million; Age: 22

Paul Postma, D; 2013 salary: $550,000; Age: 24

Arturs Kulda, D; 2013 salary: $550,000; Age: 24

Zach Redmond, D; 2013 salary: $737,500; Age: 24

4. THE NOT-SO-SPECIAL TEAMS

Heading into Friday's action, the Jets' power play was ranked 29th, ahead of only Columbus with a 13.8 per cent success rate. Just to hammer home some of the team's ineptitude with the man advantage:

-- The Jets had 10 5-on-3 opportunities this year totalling nine minutes. Their goals? A big, fat zero.

-- In 30 of 48 games this year the Jets did not score a power-play goal. Furthermore, the troubles included one eight-game drought without a power-play goal and two stretches of seven consecutive games without a goal.

As for the penalty kill, it is ranked 23rd heading into the final weekend of the regular season with a 79.7 per cent kill rate. Consider this: If you were to remove that ugly stretch in late January-early February where the Jets surrendered eight power-play goals in 16 chances in losses to Montreal, Florida and Tampa, the team's percentage would be 83.6 per cent, ranking them in the NHL's Top 10.

5. A DEFENSIVE BLUEPRINT

This was atop the priority list heading into 2013 and, in all likelihood, remains there going forward. Winnipeg gave up 246 goals last year, an average of three goals per game. This year, that number is 144 goals in 48 games, or exactly three per game. But it's the goal differential, minus-16, that is especially alarming. Only one team currently in the playoff picture, Minnesota at minus-2, has a negative differential.

6. SOME LINEMATES FOR NO. 9

The Jets landed what they thought was a quick fix for their No. 1 centre spot last summer, grabbing veteran Olli Jokinen in free agency and then immediately matching him with Evander Kane. The results were more miss than hit. Kane's game means he often creates chances on his own, but Jokinen's numbers were awful: seven goals and seven assists in 45 games and a team-worst minus-19 rating. That hardly screams out No. 1 centre. In fact, three defencemen -- Dustin Byfuglien, Toby Enstrom and Grant Clitsome all had more points than him.

7. THE BIG BUFF DEBATE: SHOULD HE STAY OR SHOULD HE GO?

My colleague Gary Lawless bites into this in great detail in his column today, but the Jets have to discuss this among themselves:

Dustin Byfuglien is who he is -- when he's on, he's a difference- maker. A physical force with the puck who has one of the NHL's hardest shots. But the questions about his fitness -- and his durability -- aren't going to go away any time soon. If you can live with the occasionally frustrating mix of the spectacular and the disappointment -- with a cap hit of $5.2 million next season -- then he's a keeper. But if management feels he can fetch them a top-six forward to play with Kane, they must consider moving him.

8. MORE DEFENSIVE QUESTIONS: OF RON, TOBY, JACOB AND THE ZACHS

No defensive blueprint can really be consistently put into action without some stability in the defensive corps. What the Jets' top six might look like next year -- with Hainsey, Clitsome and Meech unrestricted free agents, Redmond recovering from major surgery, rookie Jacob Trouba ready to push for work and Bogosian seeking a new long-term deal -- at least means the club has some options.

One glaring concern: In his first three years in the NHL, Enstrom did not miss a game. Since then he has missed 56 of 212 games, or 26.4 per cent of the schedule.

9. MORE POP, PLEASE

An interesting number when comparing the Jets and their opponent in the regular-season finale, the Montreal Canadiens: Winnipeg had five players this season register 20 points or more: The top line of Ladd (46); Wheeler (41), Kane (33), Little (32) and Byfuglien (28) while the Habs had 10.

That's four forwards providing a good chunk of the offence and speaks of the offensive imbalance. There are pieces to make up decent third and fourth lines, but holes in the top six at centre and right wing.

10. THE KIDS AND THE PICKS

Is Mark Scheifele ready for prime time next fall? Do the Jets rush Adam Lowry because they need his size playing against the big clubs in the Western Conference? Can Trouba make the jump from the NCAA to the bigs? All juicy questions and, given the fact the Jets have 10 picks in this June's draft -- including their own first-rounder, three seconds and two thirds -- the blueprint may soon be reaping some tangible results.

ed.tait@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @WFPEdTait

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Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 27, 2013 C3

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