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Guessing games: Some thoughts and reckonings following the NHL draft

Posted: 06/30/2014 1:00 AM | Comments: 0

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Winnipeg Jets' Alex Burmistrov, who played for Russia at the men's world hockey championship in May.

TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS ARCHIVES Enlarge Image

Winnipeg Jets' Alex Burmistrov, who played for Russia at the men's world hockey championship in May. Photo Store

It's both a pursuit of promise and a million-dollar guess.

Late Saturday night the pressure and toll of a season on the road could be seen on the sweaty faces of NHL scouts pounding Bud Lights in any number of Philadelphia bars.

Every team believes it had a good draft. Every team thinks the players it selected will turn into contributing NHL players. Not everyone is right. Some teams hit it out of the park last weekend. Some struck out. Looking.

We won't know the results of the work put in by scouts who have spent years watching this year's draft class for several seasons. From international tournaments to junior hockey to college, their microscopes have identified the strengths and weaknesses of the players selected. But whether their skills can translate to the NHL is a guess. Educated guesses that sometimes hit the mark and often do not.

Here are some guesses and thoughts of our own after the NHL's biggest business meeting of the year:

CHANGE FROM WITHIN: Unless there are some unexpected surprises in free agency it's appearing more and more like the Winnipeg Jets will have a very similar lineup to last season. GM Kevin Cheveldayoff was on the phones leading up to the draft but couldn't find a good trade-match.

If the Jets bring back virtually the same group, improvement will have to come from within. Coach Paul Maurice will need to get better play from all his players, but significant improvement will need to come from these key four: Goalie Ondrej Pavelec, defenceman Zach Bogosian and wingers Evander Kane and Dustin Byfuglien.

Kane needs to become a more consistent scorer and clean up a few deficiencies in his defensive game. He has superstar potential, but after five NHL seasons he's not even an all-star nor has he become a first-line player. Maurice will try to turn the self-appointed "The Natural" into the "The Complete Player."

Maurice believes Byfuglien can become a leader who galvanizes the Jets. Look for the team to keep a close eye on his minutes at forward and then turn him loose on the blue-line in power-play situations. If Byfuglien can be a brute in the offensive zone and wear down opposition D, then use his offensive skills to produce points on the power play, Maurice will have harnessed one of the most powerful stallions in the NHL.

Pavelec simply has to be better. If he struggles the Jets will have to find another answer in goal. If he rises to the occasion, Cheveldayoff and his staff will be rewarded for sticking with the netminder many believed should have been bought out.

Bogosian has all the skills to be a solid second-pairing defender in the NHL as well as a leader in the dressing room. But he's yet to identify his game and find a comfort zone where he can be consistent night in and night out. It's time for him to simplify his game and give up the notions of being a point producer. Get the puck, move the puck up ice and support the forwards to create better possession numbers for the Jets. Bogosian doesn't see the ice well enough to try and redline his offensive game. Pull back and become comfortable eating up minutes and providing a stabilizing influence.

 

JETS PAYROLL: The salary cap will be $69 million this season and expect the Jets budget to be just under $65 million. The club has just under $50 million on the books towards the cap as of today with 16 players signed for the coming season. They'll need to add seven more regulars and Cheveldayoff will have about $15 million at his disposal to do so. Expect forward Michael Frolik to use up more than $3 million of that total when his new contract is done. If Cheveldayoff elects to try and re-sign veteran centre Olli Jokinen, the price tag will come in at a minimum of $3 million, leaving the Jets with around $9 million to sign five players including a second goalie.

 

REIMER AND JETS: Not yet, anyway. Lots of Twitter talk the Jets were in trade talks with the Toronto Maple Leafs, with goalie and Manitoban James Reimer at the heart of the discussions. The Jets have a policy of not commenting on trade rumours and stuck to that on Sunday. But considering the limited budget space the Jets have and a much cheaper backup option in Michael Hutchinson, adding Reimer seems like a stretch unless there are other moving parts changing the budget picture. Reimer is slated to become an RFA on July 1 and he made $1.8 million last season. The CBA states he must receive a qualifying offer with a 10 per cent raise or go free. The Leafs will qualify him and at the very least Reimer will make close to $2 million next season, which likely makes him a little expensive for the Jets.

 

WHAT ABOUT BURMI: Another option at centre is exiled Alex Burmistrov. The club would have to figure out a way to buy him out of the final year of his KHL contract and then come to terms with him on a new NHL deal. The possibility of seeing how Maurice could handle the player and how much of his vast potential Burmistrov could live up to is intriguing. At this point, however, we're told things are quiet on the Burmistrov front.

 

WHITEBOARD WILLY: A pair of WHL operators scoffed at the notion Vancouver Canucks coaching hire Willy Desjardins is too "quirky" to gain the respect of a big-league dressing room. "He's a great communicator and has a way of getting people to work their hardest and to come together. No one that's ever been in his dressing room calls him quirky. Only people from the outside," said one WHL executive. Desjardins spent nine years coaching in the WHL, winning a pair of Memorial Cups before moving on to the pro game and winning the Calder Cup with the Texas Stars this spring.

 

O CANADA: A breakdown of selections by birthplace: Canada (77), USA (67), Sweden (27), Russia (13), Finland (9), Czech Republic (8), Latvia (2), Switzerland (2), United Kingdom (2), Denmark (1), Germany (1) and Slovakia (1).

 

KULDA COOL: Edgars Kulda (selected 194th overall by Arizona) is the younger brother of Jets property defenceman Arturs Kulda. Arturs was drafted 200th overall by the Atlanta Thrashers in 2006 and spent the 2013-14 season with Ufa in the KHL.

 

GREATEST DANES: Nikolaj Ehlers was selected ninth overall by the Jets to become the second-highest Danish-born selection in NHL history behind Mikkel Boedker, picked eighth overall by Phoenix in 2008. The best line ever heard about a Danish player is still owned by Winnipegger Mike Keane from his days playing with the Manitoba Moose. Keane and rookie teammate Dane Jannik Hansen were engaged in some dressing room horseplay and the youngster shot some water in the direction of the veteran while he was discussing something or other with the media. The captain interrupted his questioner and said, "I'll be right back. I won't be long. I mean, how long can it take to beat up a Danish kid?"

 

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @garylawless

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 30, 2014 C1

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