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An opening-night to-do list

Rehearsal over, and now come a few decisions before Oct. 9

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There have certainly been better collections of dress rehearsals, we suppose. And likely much, much worse, too.

So while the curtain came down on the pre-season for the Winnipeg Jets Friday night in a 3-2 shootout loss to the Nashville Predators in front of another sold-out crowd of 15,004 at the MTS Centre, some rather juicy questions still need to be addressed as the scrambling to get everything right for opening night against the Montreal Canadiens on Oct. 9 now begins in earnest.

Among them:

 

The Scheifele shuffle

Bear with us while we milk this debate even further, but it definitely needs further discussion, especially after Friday night. Mark Scheifele, the Jets' first-round draft pick who came into camp greener than a field of clover was, at times, the team's best player this pre-season and scored another against the Predators -- giving him four goals and eight points in five games.

Yes, he's only 18, and yes, he's had less than a year of major junior under his belt, but it should be said that during the last two weeks he's also established himself as the team's second-best centre behind Bryan Little.

And if the team uses Carolina's Jeff Skinner as a template -- he made the Hurricanes as an 18-year-old and was the NHL's Rookie of the Year -- then this question must be asked by Jets management: If he's ready now, how does another year in Barrie help a team that can use all the offensive punch it can get?

 

The offensive gap

Time for a little math while everyone fixates on this team's struggles to score last year -- Atlanta finished 20th in goals a year ago with 218, or 2.66 per game. That is just 40 less than the Vancouver Canucks -- or roughly half a goal per game -- who finished first overall with 258.

Perhaps, as the players themselves have insisted, that's not as much territory to make up as so many have suggested. A jump to 30 goals by Evander Kane, a return to 30 by Little and better numbers by Blake Wheeler and Eric Fehr could push the Jets to respectable numbers. And if Scheifele is the real deal, then...

 

The defensive gap

Often lost in the angst about goals for, is a much uglier number: goals against. This franchise finished 29th, or second-last, in this department in 2010-11 and gave up a whopping 82 more goals than the Canucks -- first in this category last year, too. Put it this way: Cutting this total down substantially will go a lot farther to pushing the Jets into the playoffs than finding more goals.

 

A muddy forward picture

Pencil in Little centring Andrew Ladd and Blake Wheeler on the Jets' top line. And Scheifele and Evander Kane -- who didn't dress Friday night -- certainly created some magic together the other night and could make up an intriguing second unit with Eric Fehr when he returns from injury.

And then what? There is room for grit guys like Tanner Glass and Chris Thorburn. Alex Burmistrov shows flashes, but finished the pre-season with zero points. So where do Nik Antropov, Tim Stapleton, Patrice Cormier, Jim Slater, Ben Maxwell, Jason Gregoire and Janne Pesonen fit into the mix?

 

Eight is enough?

One of the most-intriguing battles in camp -- and it continued to play out in Friday's loss -- was the battle for the seventh, possibly eighth, defensive positions in the organization. The Top 6 are Dustin Byfuglien, Tobias Enstrom, Mark Stuart, Zach Bogosian, Ron Hainsey and Johnny Oduya, although that's obviously up to head coach Claude Noel and his staff. Paul Postma has shown an offensive flair, Randy Jones has experience and Derek Meech versatility. So who stays and who goes?

Finally, let's not paint the picture that these unresolved questions will pockmark what has been a very solid pre-season by the organization especially given all the bodies in camp, the newness of it all and the miles travelled. In fact, Noel said afterward he's been impressed with the hand he's dealt, if not surprised.

"We've got a good team. I really look forward to the season," said Noel. "I think our players do and it's going to be ramped up and exciting. We've got to keep the ramping up and going and that's our job.

"There are good things ahead. I can clearly see the road. And we hope that we're going to paint a picture that shows Stanley Cup. That's what we're looking for."

Remember, too, the answers don't have to come before the curtain lifts again when the Habs come to town. This puzzle is just being pieced together. And how it turns out will be fascinating to watch from now to next spring."

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

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 1, 2011 C3

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