Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Playoffs or bust?
Ten storylines that will impact the Jets' chances of advancing to the NHL post-season
One by one they stood at the same spot at the MTS Iceplex and spit out -- more or less -- the same answer to the same innocuous question about how their summers went.
"Too long," said Zach Bogosian, a response that was parroted by Evander Kane and Ondrej Pavelec and Andrew Ladd.
Interestingly, that answer is part of THE predominant storyline as the 2013-14 Winnipeg Jets' training camp opens today with medicals and physical testing.
Just how does this outfit morph into a playoff team -- effectively shortening those drawn-out summer vacations -- for the first time since relocating to Winnipeg and for just the second spring in the franchise's 14-year existence?
Jets management obviously thinks the pieces are in place, having committed $93 million to the likes of Bryan Little, Blake Wheeler and Zach Bogosian in one week this past summer while augmenting that core with the likes of Devon Setoguchi and Michael Frolik through trades and Matt Halischuk in free agency.
That said, writing those big, fat cheques represents a considerable leap of faith, based on the club's 11th and ninth-place finishes in the Eastern Conference over the past two years. So is this the year hockey fans in these parts finally see a Stanley Cup playoff game?
"It has to be," said goaltender Ondrej Pavelec. "It's the third year in Winnipeg after we moved from Atlanta. Last year after the lockout we were close, but that wasn't good enough. This year I think we have the team to make the playoffs. I thought we did last year but we just didn't make it. This year I think is the time to do it.
"I think it was a great summer for the Jets and Chevy (GM Kevin Cheveldayoff) did a great job. Setoguchi is going to score some goals and is a very good player. Same thing with Frolik. We signed some big guys. Now it's time to make the playoffs."
"In order to make that extra push you can't really talk about it now," added Setoguchi, who has never missed the post-season in his six-year NHL career with San Jose and Minnesota. "Throughout the year you've just got to feel it. You expect yourself to win and every day you come to the rink you've got to get better.
"That's the mentality I've gotten from this place so far... guys are out on the ice early, guys are staying out there late. Frolik was on the ice (Monday) for an extra hour... stuff like that, that little extra is what makes the difference between just normal teams."
Here are nine other storylines to track over the next few days/weeks/months as the Jets chase a spot in the playoff derby:
A COMMITMENT TO 'D'
HOCKEY fanatics in these parts can fixate on line combinations and defensive pairings from now till next spring's thaw -- all of which makes for some lively debate -- but the most-glaring weakness with the Jets the last two seasons has been its inability to keep the puck out of the net.
The Jets finished 25th in goals against last year; 26th the year before that. Winnipeg surrendered 29.7 shots against per game in last season's lockout-shortened campaign and it was the quality of those chances that was particularly alarming.
The Jets have committed just under $23 million to eight defencemen -- Toby Enstrom, Dustin Byfuglien, Zach Bogosian, Grant Clitsome, Jacob Trouba, Mark Stuart, Paul Postma and Adam Pardy (NHL vet Ian White will attend camp on a professional tryout) -- and, for that kind of coin, the puck shouldn't be in the net as often as three times a game.
THE LAST LINE OF DEFENCE
WE know this after watching Ondrej Pavelec over the last couple of years: the man isn't afraid of a little work. Check that... a lot of work. The big Czech led the NHL in starts last year with 43, but his 2.80 goals-against average was 37th among qualifying goaltenders and his .905 save percentage did not rank in the top 30.
And yet take a poll of the dressing room and Pavelec would likely garner the most votes for MVP. Clearly, if the Jets are to become a playoff contender, Storyline 1 and 2 -- the commitment to a defensive blueprint and Pavelec finding more consistency in his game -- are intertwined.
"I've said since I first started playing with him: his athleticism and what he does for the team and why we've won so many games in the past, he's been a big reason for that," said Evander Kane on Tuesday. "I'm looking forward to seeing his game grow and getting better and getting recognized, finally, as one of the top goalies in the league.
"That statistic (save percentage) is a a team statistic... you have to play well in front of any goaltender in order for him to have a good save percentage. I mean, if you look at his highlight reel I don't know if any other goalie in the league can compare to it."
YOUNG BLOOD CONTRIBUTIONS
It says something of where the Jets are as a still-developing franchise that two roster spots with some potentially significant minutes are essentially waiting for 19-year-old defenceman Jacob Trouba and 20-year-old centre Mark Scheifele. But both are said to be NHL ready right now and with some holes in the lineup -- the centre position screams out for more offensive punch and the D corps has been injury-prone -- it's not unfathomable to forecast these two first-rounders in the opening-night lineup.
THE POWER?-PLAY/PENALTY KILL
Hard to imagine there might be a number uglier than the Jets' goals-against totals, but there is -- the power play was absolutely dead last in the NHL with a measly 13.8 per cent success rate. Just to hammer home that ineptitude: the Jets had 10 5-on-3 chances last year totalling nine minutes and did not score a single goal.
Earlier this week in Penticton, head coach Claude Noel said the chores of fixing the power play had been assigned to assistant coach Pascal Vincent. Based on last year's numbers, we'll offer this: good luck with that.
The penalty kill is an entirely different matter as the numbers -- 24th overall -- are actually a bit deceiving. The Jets had one horrific three-game stretch last year in which they gave up eight goals on just 16 chances. Eliminate that nightmare and Winnipeg's PK unit would rank in the NHL's top 10.
Odd scene at the MTS Iceplex Tuesday as a row of reporters watching practice, yours truly included, were all snapping pictures of Dustin Byfuglien with their phones. Here's the thing as everyone studies his facial features in Twitter pictures and Facebook photos wondering if he has lost weight: management may worry about his fitness levels, but most of his teammates are weary of discussing it (Byfuglien rarely does interviews, forcing others to opine on the subject).
"I never worry about Buff," said captain Andrew Ladd. "Buff, after the summer, is always excited to come back and have some fun. I think everyone knows how important he is to this team and we need him playing at his best and I'm sure he will be.
"He can be a lot of different things. I don't know if you can name any other player in the NHL who can be an all-star defenceman and top forward, too, if he wanted to be. For him, I think it's more consistency. He knows that. We've had that conversation before. He needs to be better consistently on a nightly basis and when he does that he's one of the better players in the league."
EVANDER KANE AND...?
If the Jets leave their top line intact -- Bryan Little centring Ladd and Blake Wheeler -- then who lines up with Kane on the second trio will, again, be one of the more intriguing subplots to training camp and the early part of the season.
The combo many would be intrigued to see would feature Scheifele between Kane and Setoguchi. And, before camp has even opened Setoguchi has already been asked roughly a gazillion times about the prospects of working with the Jets' No. 9.
"Time will tell," Setoguchi said Tuesday when the question came up again. "I would obviously love to play with the guy. I thought I was fast until I tried to keep up with him. It's always fun playing with a guy like that who can really skate and use his presence and shoot the puck."
SWITCHING CONFERENCES -- THE MOVE OUT WEST
The Jets flew more than 44,000 kilometres last year in the condensed season, most in the Eastern Conference and 8th overall in the NHL. All that said, while the move from the Southeast Division to the Central makes much more sense, it's not like the Jets will be regularly hopping on a bus for quick jaunts to their road games. Winnipeg's travel total will be ninth overall at 46,477 and the schedule will feature just 10 games on back-to-back nights -- tied for the fewest with Colorado and San Jose.
The travel aside, what the Jets will find most different in changing conferences relates back to our first storyline: defence. Seven of the top 10 defensive teams from a year ago were based in the West: Chicago (1), Detroit (5), San Jose (6), Los Angeles (7), St. Louis (8), Columbus (9) and Vancouver (10), although the Red Wings and Blue Jackets are now in the East.
Life in the Central -- which features the Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks, two playoff teams in the Blues and Wild as well as the Predators, Dallas Stars and Colorado Avalanche -- will mean much sturdier competition night in, night out than in the old Southeast.
THE FOOT SOLDIERS
As much as the Jets' top six was under the microscope a year ago -- particularly the lack of production from the second line, outside of Kane -- it was the club's third and fourth lines which featured the most turnover.
Gone is the talented but enigmatic Alex Burmistrov (a restricted free agent, he signed in the KHL) along with vets Nik Antropov, Antti Miettinen, Mike Santorelli and Kyle Wellwood. Two upgrades are the versatile Michael Frolik and the under-rated Matt Halischuk.
If Olli Jokinen can rebound from his horrific season a year ago and Jim Slater can stay healthy -- providing, too, that Scheifele lands the No. 2 centre job -- then this bunch has some intriguing pieces.
STOP THE BLEEDING
The Jets were 18-14-2 on March 26 last year, good for top spot in the Southeast Division and the third seed in the conference. And then the engine blew and the nosedive commenced. Winnipeg would go on a horrible five-game losing skid through the trade deadline that dropped them out of the playoff picture completely and effectively ended their playoff dream.
But we've seen this movie before with this team, which has lacked the depth to overcome injuries and the superstar-loaded roster that enables them to muddle through 'off' nights.
"Consistency has been our biggest thing the last couple of years," said Ladd. "We've had great games and not-so great games and those not-so great games are the difference between making the playoffs and not."
Buckle up and hang on, Jets fans, for this should be a heckuva ride.
firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @WFPEdTait
Winnipeg Jets players skated at MTS Iceplex on September 10 - the day before training camp officially starts. Photos by Joe Bryksa / Winnipeg Free Press
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 11, 2013 D1
Updated on Wednesday, September 11, 2013 at 6:56 AM CDT: Replaces photo
6:59 AM: adds slideshow
11:42 AM: updates live
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