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Fab Four matchup

The Winnipeg Jets have missed out on the post-season party for several seasons; comparing them to the teams still competing for the Cup perhaps gives an indication of how close the club is -- or isn't -- to getting in on the chase for a championship

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The Winnipeg Jets have missed out on the post-season party for several seasons. Ed Tait compares them to the teams still competing for the Stanley Cup to see how close the club is — or isn’t — to getting in on the chase for a championship.

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The Winnipeg Jets have missed out on the post-season party for several seasons. Ed Tait compares them to the teams still competing for the Stanley Cup to see how close the club is — or isn’t — to getting in on the chase for a championship.

It must seem like an eternity for Winnipeg Jets diehards -- or a slow death by a thousand cuts -- watching the Stanley Cup playoffs unfold without their beloved squad even having a spot in the gruelling marathon.

Again.

For the record, the last time the local shinny side played a game in anger was April 11 -- or just 44 days ago. And for the purposes of this story, here's another telling number worth pointing out: It has been seven years and 36 days since the Jets/Atlanta Thrashers franchise last appeared in a playoff game, currently the second-longest postseason drought in the NHL, next to the Edmonton Oilers.

Now THAT stings.

What separates the Jets from the final four NHL teams still standing?

Good question, and it's one we've been mulling over for the last three springs in these parts. Along with the help of TSN analyst and Stanley Cup winner Shane Hnidy, we've put together a comparison of the squads in the Eastern and Western Conference Finals -- the Montreal Canadiens, New York Rangers, Los Angeles Kings and Chicago Blackhawks.

So, here's our take at the key elements that separate the Jets from the NHL's Final Four:

 

1. GOALTENDING

Dead horse, meet boot. This has been a topic of debate for much of the last two seasons in Winnipeg -- is Ondrej Pavelec a bona fide No. 1? -- and was also mentioned in the two previous incarnations of this feature.

Pavelec started 57 games for the Jets this year, posting a 22-26-7 record, 3.01 goals-against average and .901 save percentage -- and those numbers all represent a continuing downward trend. Just to put that last number in perspective: There were 44 goalies in the NHL during the past regular season who made 25 or more starts -- including Al Montoya -- that had a better save percentage than Pavelec's .901.

By comparison, Henrik Lundqvist of the Rangers, Chicago's Corey Crawford, Jonathan Quick of the Kings and -- before he was injured -- Carey Price of the Canadiens not only all posted far superior stats than Pavelec this year, they would all be considered Conn Smythe candidates if they lead their teams to a title next month.

Publicly the Jets remain committed to Pavelec, but his numbers scream out they should be looking at any and all options while waiting to see if prospects like Connor Hellebuyck, Eric Comrie or Michael Hutchinson can develop into their long-term answer.

"Ondrej Pavelec has to have a summer where he puts in the work to prove people wrong," said Hnidy from Minsk, Belarus, where he is doing analysis of the IIHF World Championships. "He's got to do everything he can this summer to come back mentally and physically ready. And then, with that, it's up to the coaching staff and the players to put a better defensive system in front of him. Then they can see what they have. But those two things have to happen before any big decisions are made."

 

2. WANTED; MORE DEPTH

The Jets have some pieces up front in a decent top line of Bryan Little centering Andrew Ladd and Michael Frolik and Evander Kane and Blake Wheeler flanking Mark Scheifele on the second, 1A, unit. But what separates the Jets from teams like the Kings and Hawks is the production -- and the clearly-defined roles -- the men on their third and fourth line can provide.

An example: the Kings fourth line now features Mike Richards centering Dwight King and Kyle Clifford while the Rangers' third trio has Mats Zuccarello working with Dominic Moore and Benoit Pouliot in a perfect blend of skill, size, grit and experience.

By comparison, Winnipeg enters the juicy part of the offseason -- what with free agency opening in just over a month -- with several pieces on their bottom six heading to the open market. Olli Jokinen, Devin Setoguchi, Chris Thorburn all unrestricted free agents and James Wright, Matt Halischuk and Michael Frolik all restricted free agents. That could spell a whole lot of change on the third and fourth line with players like Eric O'Dell, J.C. Lipon, Adam Lowry and Patrice Cormier and others now working in St. John's as first options and the free-agent market or trade acquisitions also possibilities to fill those roles.

"It's not a two or three-line league any more. It's a four-line league," said Hnidy. "At times this past year we saw the Jets' fourth line log really minimal minutes. They have a good top unit in Little, Ladd and Frolik and they match up well against other teams top lines. I really believe Bryan Little is one of the most-underrated players in the league. The second and third lines have to produce because they're not matched up against the top lines. And the fourth line has to provide energy and chip in offensively every now and then.

"I liked (Tampa Bay Lightning head coach) Jon Cooper's quote during the playoffs: He said the Top 6 usually cancel each other out, but the difference in the playoffs is the bottom six. To me that's an area still in transition for the Jets and I think they should consider that in free agency it seems like teams are looking for the home runs when sometimes it's better to go after those character-type guys that aren't as highly touted and they are the key pieces to your puzzle."

 

3. THE SAME OLD, SAME OLD: THE NEED FOR A DEFENSIVE BLUEPRINT

Only once in the history of the Thrashers/Jets franchise has the team finished in the top half of the league in goals against and it's no coincidence it came during its lone playoff appearance (14th in 2006-07). The Jets have finished 26th, 25th and 22nd in goals against in their three years in Winnipeg and establishing a consistent commitment to defence was not only part of the reason Claude Noel was let go, but remains atop Paul Maurice's to-do list.

It also remains a critical difference in comparing the Jets to the NHL's Final Four. Winnipeg finished 15th in goals for this past season, more than the Rangers (18th), Canadiens (21st) and Kings (26th). But they are well back of those clubs in defence -- the Jets' 22nd ranking pales to that of the Kings (1st), Rangers (4th), Habs (8th) and Hawks (12th).

"If you look at the teams in the playoffs, I guarantee most of them are the elite defensive teams in the NHL," said Hnidy. "That's an area that needs continuing improvement. I don't put it all on one area like defence. It's a commitment as a team, from the goaltender to the defensive corps to the forwards. It's about learning to play the right way.

"I'm interested to see how training camp goes in the fall because it's going to be a tough one. If you want to win in this league you have to have a commitment to defence. That still have to be the No. 1 priority for the Jets going forward."

 

4. JUST ONE TASTE... WHAT VALUE IS EXPERIENCE?

The list is long of Jets players who have yet to play in a single NHL playoff game. In fact, more than half the players listed on their roster -- 13 of 25 including Toby Enstrom, Kane, Little, Pavelec and Thorburn -- have never suited up for a single meaningful NHL game in late April or May.

Of the others, Ladd has the most playoff experience with 53 games played but the totals of all those on the Jets' roster who have seen postseason action is 264. Just by comparison, Jonathan Toews and Sidney Crosby have played in 88 and 95 career playoff games. Both are just 26. Players on the Kings and Hawks have the battle scars that come with winning a Stanley Cup while the Habs and Rangers are earning theirs now.

"Paul Maurice talked about this after the Olympic break. He spoke about how at that time of the year things get cranked up that much more and there is extra intensity and pressure on every game," explained Hnidy. "That's just in the homestretch. In the playoffs there's even another level. I think the players learned again this year about how far they have to bring their game. Maurice talked about it with the media and I'm sure he did the same in the room.

"Playing in the West helped them. I think they started to learn about how to grind out a game when they were tired. That was a step in right direction, them learning how to win different ways and relying on a system. But the guys who might be gaining the most experience on this right now are all in St. John's and the deeper the IceCaps go in the AHL playoffs, the more it might help the Jets."

 

ed.tait@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @WFPEdTait

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 24, 2014 ??65533

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