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Jets’ weakest link might be right down the middle

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Take a quick poll of the 30 men who generally manage teams in the NHL and they will all take chisel to stone with this commandment:

A team must have some sort of combination of these parts at the centre position — size, offensive wizardry, grit and sense of defensive responsibility. That is as much an absolute in hockey as playoff beards and missing teeth.

And if that package comes neatly wrapped up in one player — like a Jonathan Toews, for example — well, then it’s paramount that talent gets as many big numbers on his paycheque as the market commands.

We bring this up today at the start of our now third-annual Jets at the Draft series, a look at what Winnipeg’s big-league club has in its system at five positions — centre, right and left wing, defence and goaltender — leading into the upcoming talent selection in Philadelphia next week.

Opening with the Jets’ centre position seems perfectly a propos because it’s been an area of concern since Day 1 and, like the rest of the roster, appears to remain very much a work in progress.

Consider that when the Atlanta Thrashers first pulled up stakes and landed right here in the heart of the continent, the centres were Bryan Little, Nik Antropov, Alex Burmistrov, Jim Slater, Kyle Wellwood and Tim Stapleton. Three seasons later they line up Little, Mark Scheifele, Olli Jokinen, Slater and Eric O’Dell down the middle.

Now, credit Little for effectively silencing the debate about whether he is a No. 1 centre — his 64 points last year put him in the top 15 of scoring at the position — and the upside flashed by Scheifele in the weeks before his knee injury in March offers some real promise at the position.

But with Burmistrov — the Thrashers’ first-round pick in 2010 — having defected to the KHL, the Jets’ depth chart lost some youth and depth. Stop-gap vets Antropov, Wellwood and Jokinen all essentially posted the same numbers in their two years in Jets colours — Antropov had 21 goals and 53 points in 109 games (.486 points per game); Wellwood had 24 goals and 62 points in 116 games (.534 ppg) while Jokinen has 25 goals and 57 points in 127 games (.448 ppg).

Slater, meanwhile, has been felled by an assortment of injuries over the past two years that has seen him miss 77 of a possible 130 games.

To sum up then, right now down the middle the Jets have an underrated No. 1 (Little), a prospect at No. 2 (Scheifele), a 35-year-old unrestricted free agent at No. 3 (Jokinen), an injury-prone faceoff specialist with two goals over the last two years at No. 4 (Slater) and a depth guy in O’Dell who has been solid at the AHL and in a reduced role in the bigs.

Just to hammer home that point: the Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings lined up Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, Jarret Stoll and Mike Richards at centre.

Hello.

Jets’ management has attempted to address how thin the position is organizationally, targeting and landing Jokinen in free agency and milking some production from Wellwood after his signing in September of 2011 was met with a collective shoulder shrug from across the NHL.

As well, seven of their 23 draft picks — more than any position other than defence — have been used on centres (including Adam Lowry, drafted as a winger but moved to the middle and Lukas Sutter, who was not offered a contract and re-enters the draft).

Still, while the organization’s conviction to the drafting part of the draft-and-develop blueprint is one thing, having the patience for the prospects to bloom into NHLers is another entirely.

And so, unless the Jets plan to pile up more money than anybody else to land a centre like Paul Statsny in free agency or trade for the likes of a Richards — who’s name has been linked to Winnipeg in trade rumours — the depth of the centre position will depend on how quickly the kids in the system mature.

That’s small consolation for fans pining for playoff hockey, but where the cupboards were once bare at this position, at least now there is something potentially tasty brewing on the stove.

 

This is the first in our Jets at the Draft series. Saturday: right wing.


CENTRE

The Jets

Bryan Little: He’s durable, reliable defensively and coming off a season in which he posted a career high in points with 64. In fact, his points-per-game totals have grown since arriving in Winnipeg (.621, .667 to .780). He’s not in the offensive class of a Crosby, Toews or Malkin, but his game grew facing the behemoths at the position in the Western Conference. And that’s saying something.
Little FYI: Age: 26. 2013-14 numbers: GP: 82 G: 23 A: 41 Pts: 64
Contract: Four years remaining. Cap hit: $4.7 million.


Mark Scheifele: The change in his confidence from October to March, when his season ended with a knee injury, was substantial. Had 12 goals and 17 assists in a 39-game stretch from Nov. 23 to March 4 when he was hobbled and looked like he was getting his game back late at last month’s world championship while playing for Canada.
Scheifele FYI: Age: 21. 2013-14 numbers: GP: 63; G: 13; A: 21; Pts: 34
Contract: Two years left on entry-level deal. Cap hit: $863,333.


Olli Jokinen: He gave the Jets some decent production this past season, even if the price tag seemed steep. Now the question is do they try to keep him — knowing he’ll likely want more than a one-year deal, which could block the path of some of their prospects — or let him go back into the free-agent pool?
Jokinen FYI: Age: 35. 2013-14 numbers: GP: 82; G: 18; A: 25; Pts: 43.
Contract: Unrestricted free agent. Cap hit in 2013-14: $4.5 million.


Jim Slater: He’s likable and respected, but he’s just not been on the ice enough over the last two seasons to be counted on as reliable. The team’s best face-off man, suited for checking/fourth-line role.
Slater FYI: Age: 31. 2013-14 numbers: GP: 27; G: 1; A: 1; Pts: 2.
Contract: One year left at $1.6 million.


Eric O’Dell: Was recalled in mid-December and gave the Jets some solid work at both centre and wing in limited minutes (9:41 average ice time). Had 42 points in 42 games at the AHL level and was key in the St. John’s IceCaps Calder Cup playoff run.
O’Dell FYI: Age: 24: 2013-14 numbers (NHL): GP: 30; G: 3: A: 4; Pts: 7. 0
Contract: Restricted free agent who earned $630,000 in the NHL on a two-way deal.

 

TOP CENTRE PROSPECT

Adam Lowry, St. John’s: Good numbers (17 goals, 33 points in 64 games) in his first full season as a pro... At 6-5, 201 pounds has the size down the middle that the parent club desperately needs... Intelligent, character-type who might still need a chunk of next season in the AHL if he doesn’t wow Jets’ brass in training camp... Has had his share of injuries, so durability might be a concern, but he’s still adding bulk to his frame.

THE ICECAPS

(Not including O’Dell and Lowry; Patrice Cormier now playing LW in St. John’s)
John Albert: Has the quickness to play at the NHL level and fits a spark-plug role that is important for players who don’t get huge minutes. Both Cormier and Albert are restricted free agents this summer.
Kyle MacKinnon: Veteran AHLer (26 years old) came to the IceCaps from Providence and has put up solid numbers (12 goals in 71 regular-season games).
Ryan Olsen: Finished the year practising with the IceCaps, after a solid final junior season with the WHL’s Kelowna Rockets in which he had 30 goals and 64 points. He’ll be in the AHL next season and, at 6-2, 194, has good size and an attention to detail in his own end.
IN THE SYSTEM
(draft picks or players under NHL deals)
Alex Burmistrov: The enigma will remain in the KHL with Ak-Bars after signing a two-year deal there last summer. Didn’t light it up points-wise in the KHL (10 goals, 37 points in 54 games) but was part of Russia’s gold-medal squad at the worlds.
Nic Petan: Fixate on his size, if you must — he’s listed at 5-9, 173 — but just also ogle his numbers over the last two years with the Portland Winterhawks: 81 goals, 152 assists for a jaw-dropping 233 points in 134 games. And he’s still just 19.
Andrew Copp: Leadership personified. Will wear the captain’s ‘C’ as a junior for the Michigan Wolverines, was a member of the U.S. junior team, is solid in the face-off dot and can score (15 goals, 29 points in 33 games). In other words, he’s got future pro written all over him.
Tanner Lane, University of Nebraska-Omaha: Had five goals and four assists in his sophomore season, a year after being named the co-winner of the Mavericks’ Freshman of the Year award.


THE NHL'S BEST
By comparison, a look at some the NHL’s top centres (ranked by 2014 scoring):

Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh: 80 GP, 36G, 68A, 104 pts.
Ryan Getzlaf: Anaheim: 77 GP, 31G, 56A, 87 pts.
Claude Giroux, Philadelphia: 82 GP, 28G, 58A, 86 pts.
Tyler Seguin, Dallas: 80 GP, 37G, 47A, 84 pts
Joe Pavelski, San Jose: 82 GP, 41G; 38A; 79 pts

Other notable centres: Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh; Jonathan Toews, Chicago; John Tavares, New York Islanders, Joe Thornton, San Jose; Anze Kopitar, Los Angeles.

ed.tait@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @WFPEdTait

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