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First 41 go slip-slidin' away

Looking back on missed opportunities

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Whether the first half of their NHL season will turn out to have been wasted cannot yet be determined.

Much can happen in the second half, which for the Jets begins tonight with a home game against the Buffalo Sabres.

There is little doubt, though, it's been a wasted opportunity and you won't find anyone on the 18-18-5 team who will debate the matter at all, or for long.

"Missed opportunities," is how the Jets' leading goal scorer Blake Wheeler summed it up this week, asked to reflect on the first half. "I don't feel like we're overmatched in any game we've played in. We've let games slip away."

The team feels it should be better, either through growth or the rebranding that has occurred since the 2011 move from Atlanta. Many fans agree, hence the lofty expectations before the season began.

But others have opted for a more realistic view of the Jets, that the team's track record suggests such expectations are irrational. It can all be quite a scattershot assessment.

Round and round these kinds of arguments go with the Jets, on where they are and where they should be.

To assess the first half, let's review five key priorities for the team and include reminders on how they were viewed before Game 1 on Oct. 1 in Edmonton.


1. Defence

This item should be Nos. 1 through 4, leaving the rest for fifth and lower.

The equation is simple: The Jets are going nowhere until this area improves. After 41 games, Winnipeg's raw goals against -- that's how many goals allowed divided into games played -- is 2.95 and among the league's 10 worst. Last year, it was exactly three per game.

That's not a significant move at all.

And the Jets are still on the wrong side of the goals for/goals against equation at minus-10. It's fairly documented that any club on the minus side here is merely whistling in the wind when it comes to playoff aspirations.

"We haven't really made a dent into our goals for and goals against," agreed coach Claude Noel. "We're still on the wrong side of the ledger. Where we seem to be problematic for me is the lack of consistency. We can't seem to get any traction with wins and we just kind of hover around and we can't seem to close out games.

"There are a lot of little things that seem to keep getting in our way. We're hoping that the last half, we're more consistent with our play.

"That's something we've talked about for a couple of years and until that gets rectified, we're going to be in the same situation."


2. Goaltending

No. 1 goalie Ondrej Pavelec's stats aren't great -- a 3.03 goals-against average and a .902 save percentage -- aren't taking anybody anywhere, but to lay the blame at Pavelec's doorstep indicates you haven't been watching.

See Item 1.

There's certainly a case to be made that backup Al Montoya has more to contribute (7-2-1 so far, 2.02 goals-against average, .929 save percentage) and that could be used to keep Pavelec fresher. There's also a case to be made both Pavelec and Montoya need a little help. As Wheeler put it last week, it's not a lot of fun being the Jets goalie on a lot of nights.


3. Special teams

The power play was a concern to start this season based almost solely on the team's 30th ranking in the lockout season.

And it started out just about like that, hitting the bottom of the NHL only a few short weeks ago. A brief spurt has brought the Jets up to 24th at 14.9 per cent, but this is nothing to be proud of.

Penalty killing has been less of a concern in 2013-14. Last season's strong finish was real and the Jets are currently 12th (at 82.3 per cent) and in the league's top half.


4. Style

A broad category but an important one for a team going from a looser old Southeast Division and Eastern Conference to more ferocious checking and size in the new Central Division and the Western Conference.

Winnipeg has shown some ability to play with good teams in the west (games this season vs. St. Louis, Los Angeles), leading to some hope, but as with the consistency issue in our opening, has looked dreadful against some real bottom-feeders such as Florida, Buffalo and Edmonton.

Nobody expected the transition or transformation of the team's style to happen overnight. Some tough lessons have been learned and there are a few more to learn, apparently.

"We've paid way more attention to checking and defensive zone coverage, yet we can't seem to get it solved," Noel admitted.

The team's poor Central record, 5-11-3 after back-to-back wins over Minnesota and Colorado in the last week, reveals much.


5. Youth

Contributions from young players and new players were deemed essential in the season preview.

For a franchise whose stated philosophy is to draft and develop, there is encouragement in the contributions of rookies Jacob Trouba and Mark Scheifele so far this season. Trouba has shown a penchant to be able to handle the NHL game and serious minutes, while Scheifele is growing as a more responsible player whose offensive instincts, with 14 points in the final 17 games of the first half, have begun to emerge.

This kind of hope must always be present.

The team can certainly claim a passing grade in this area today, plus in the matter of upgrades elsewhere, at least for the addition of right-winger Michael Frolik, a quick, playmaking forward who probably hasn't gotten the credit he's due.


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 31, 2013 D3

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