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Jets hope to use size and speed to carve their identity in a new conference

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It's not a difficult question, although finding the answer over the last couple of winters has been anything but simple for Claude Noel and the Winnipeg Jets.

So if Noel could have his team take on one identity -- one clear-cut collective trait -- it would be... well, what, exactly?

"I'd like a team that is hard to play against, meaning a lot of different things," said Noel Wednesday in a pre-training camp address with the media. "We've got good speed on our team and I'd like to use that speed to take away time and space. We've got size on our team and I'd like to use that as well. Does that lend itself to physicality? I would think it would.

"When you become a hard team to play against, you make the other team earn every inch of ice towards your net. That's something we're looking for."

And if there is any one reason the Jets -- and the Atlanta Thrashers before them -- have not qualified for the playoffs since 2006-07 the answer is found in Noel's scouting report on his own club.

Yes, there have been many nights in their return to Winnipeg where the Jets have been a team that is hard to play against.

It's just that there have been more nights where they have been anything but.

That's what should make the Jets' 2013-14 camp over the next two-three weeks such a juicy little drama to watch unfold. The club's brass has added solid, proven pieces in Devin Setoguchi, Michael Frolik and Matt Halischuk and spent millions to lock up a young core that has secured 11th- and ninth-place finishes over the past two years, but has been watching the opening round of the Stanley Cup derby just like every other fan.

But life in the Western Conference and the new Central Division featuring teams that are the epitome of hard to play against -- hello Chicago, St. Louis, for example -- is hardly the same as what the Jets have lived in the Southeast.

"There's a little bit of differences in the conferences but for our team, we've got size (on opening night last year the Jets were the fourth-heaviest team and tied for the tallest) and we've got speed," said Noel. "With the addition of the players we've added, it's given us some depth and skill. The changes we've made during the summer, it fits in with that conference. I like our team, the way it's built, because we have size and speed.

"One of the areas we have to get better, clearly, is our checking game. We have to get better at our goal differential (an ugly minus-16 a year ago). It has to be on the right side of the ledger and in order to do that we're going to need a lot more commitment from players on both sides of the puck. You play teams like St. Louis and L.A., Chicago... a lot of these teams can really check so you're going to have to earn every inch of ice.

"We have size and we have speed and can get after teams. We have to do a lot better job at checking and that's something we're going to focus on."

But that's something the Jets can really bite into after the roster is finalized. In the meantime, Noel & Co. will use camp to start moving pieces around to see what fits where. And he's got more bona fide options to work with now than during the first two camps.

"It's good. The more depth that you have... right now it looks like we're shaping up to have four pretty solid lines with a solid set of defence," said Noel. "The one thing that is good for us is the motor that drives the team is really the competition that gets created between the players. That's something that as a coach you have to drive and you have to do that through accountability.

"Clearly, we've got some options here. I think it's going to be dependent on some players and how they perform through training camp and where they slot themselves. The competition is going be everywhere, whether it's the first two lines or the bottom two lines."

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

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Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 12, 2013 0

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Updated on Thursday, September 12, 2013 at 6:56 AM CDT: Replaces photo, changes headline, adds video

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