Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Learning on the fly

Top 10 items of interest our hockey scribes found out about the Jets in their historic return season

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The curtain came down and the lights went dark on the historic return of the NHL and the Winnipeg Jets a week ago. There will be no encores and, for the most part, most of the participants won't be seen or heard from again until training camp in September.

After a week of conducting our own in-depth autopsy, Free Press hockey writers Tim Campbell and Ed Tait weigh in with 10 Things We Learned About The Jets In Year One...


1. SMALL MARKET SHMARKET

Slagged for years as Yesterday-ville by so many around the NHL, Winnipeg has stepped up in a bigger way than most imagined. The success was years in the planning, the passion far beyond what was believed possible, all unbeknownst to more than a few self-appointed experts around the country -- yes, that includes you, Toronto -- who were still reporting up to two weeks before last May's deal to buy the Atlanta Thrashers that Quebec City and/or Kansas City might be the NHL's preferred relocation spot. The new Jets have started out as a non-revenue-sharing franchise. Long-term questions are legitimate, but how much more convincing in one year do the naysayers need to modernize their outlook?


2. YES, THEIR COACH CAN HANDLE THE NHL

Claude Noel, who coached the Moose for one year in Winnipeg prior to the return of the NHL, was a bit of a mystery to much of the rest of the NHL. We still hear the odd question about how soon he'll be gone, but those inquiries are of the stereotypical "I'm-not-paying-attention" variety. Noel is thoughtful. He is collected and in control behind the bench. He's confident, not afraid to engage with his players, and for that matter, he is not afraid to say he's still learning. Also said a positive thing after an out-of-the-playoff season -- that he promises to be even more demanding next season.

 

3. MORE FLAIR, PLEASE

 

A question that will be asked in the Jets' war room this off-season: If the franchise wants to beef up its top two lines it will almost certainly have to take long training-camp looks at both Mark Scheifele and Ivan Telegin -- the two Barrie Colts' stars who are still just 19 and 20 -- even if that goes against the organizational blueprint of drafting and developing, not rushing prospects to the bigs. Fact is, the 82-game regular season was a sizable enough sample to tell us that up front the Jets have a lot of the same pieces outside of Andrew Ladd, Evander Kane, Blake Wheeler and Bryan Little -- a plethora of third/fourth-line defensive specialists, energy guys and character/role players, but not enough offensive flair. The best in-house options to that may very well be currently wearing Colts' colours in the OHL playoffs.


4. BUFF'S THE REAL DEAL

The worry and stress spent over Dustin Byfuglien's best position is mis-spent. This doesn't come as a surprise to most hockey folks, but the roving defenceman has immense innate hockey ability. In 2011-12, it's been largely overlooked that he produced 53 points, second-most among NHL blue-liners. Because of injury (and don't ignore the fact he probably played the last 20 games at 75 per cent or less), he had 25 fewer points and played 15 fewer games than flavour-of-the-day Erik Karlsson, yet he's unlikely to get a single vote for the Norris. Even that's not the issue. What's now apparent is that Byfuglien's upside in terms of impact is enormous, if only he will become a better athlete. It can be a big focus of hope for Jets fans.


5. AN OPPORTUNITY TO SPEND... WISELY

The Jets have two key restricted free agents who figure to get juicy raises in goaltender Ondrej Pavelec and winger Evander Kane, and seven unrestricted free agents. It's not likely that all will return, but even if they were all welcomed back, the Jets' salary total was just shy of $52 million this past season -- 25th in the NHL, so the team can afford some increases and still stay within its self-prescribed budget. Now, while True North is insisting dollars won't be a hindrance in making improvements, it won't be spending wildly in free agency, either. That doesn't mean they'll be sitting on their thumbs come July 1, but if the Jets are to add an expensive piece via trade or free agency, it may take some budget massaging. Translation: Although GM Kevin Cheveldayoff nixed the notion of contract buyouts, fitting in proven pricey talent may mean re-thinking the value of paying Nik Antropov $4 million to centre the fourth line and Ron Hainsey $4.5 million if he is pushed out of their top two defence pairings.


6. THE BURMI MYSTERY

Watch Alex Burmistrov in just about any drill in practice or any shift in a game and his skill set jumps out instantly. There is a fearlessness to his approach and he is an adept penalty killer, but for all the flash and dash, a lot of the magic he creates happens on the periphery of the ice and the offensive numbers don't match the ice time. Given the centre-ice assignment on the second line with Kane and Wellwood, Burmistrov finished the year with 13 goals and 15 assists -- career highs, to be sure, but also just 10th on the Jets in scoring. He finished the year having gone 17 games without a goal and, at times looked like a player who needed a year in the AHL and another summer in the weight room.

 

7. A DIRTH OF DEPTH

Those apparently in the know on these things -- the hockey pundits who, with a crystal ball in their lap can somehow predict the future -- rank the Jets in the bottom five in the NHL in terms of prospects. That's debatable, of course, but there are enough of them holding firm to that belief to reach a consensus, even if it is written in pencil. The AHL IceCaps' roster isn't dotted with what the Jets would call top-end blue-chip prospects, especially at the forward position. What the Jets have in their system are players like Spencer Machacek, Ben Maxwell, Aaron Gagnon and Carl Klingberg -- all of whom seem destined for a spot on the third or fourth lines in the NHL. This is why the Jets are so adamant about hanging on to their draft picks and acquiring even more: The best long-term solution to restocking the cupboard comes on draft day, not when the chequebooks open in July.

 

8. BRAINS AND PERSONALITY

Frequently overrun with reporters, the Jets dressing room was as often a place for microphone feeding frenzies as it was for conversation. But we have learned in one season there are more than a few Jets with something thoughtful to say. Among then, Chris Mason, Zach Bogosian, Mark Stuart, Kyle Wellwood, Tim Stapleton, Bryan Little, Chris Thorburn, Blake Wheeler. In that group, but also obviously confident and comfortable in their own skin are Tanner Glass and captain Andrew Ladd. Not everyone is cut out for giving speeches, or interviews. Count among the shy Jets Toby Enstrom and Dustin Byfuglien.

 

9. A THIN LAST LINE OF DEFENCE

The organization is convinced that Pavelec is a championship-calibre, franchise goaltender and most nights this past season that was obvious when the lanky Czech stole some games and kept the club in others despite a barrage of scoring chances. But the Jet goaltending depth is spotty at best. As solid as Chris Mason was this year -- and his veteran leadership and compatibility with Pavelec shouldn't be undersold -- he turns 36 this month. Eddie Pasquale had an excellent campaign on The Rock -- he was named to the AHL's all-rookie team -- but the IceCaps No. 1A netminder is David Aebischer and he turned 34 in February. That doesn't exactly scream out succession plan for the net. Two other prospects in the system are still question marks: former Portage Terrier Jason Kasdorf spent the year with Des Moines in the USHL and is years away from a shot at the bigs, while talk of Fredrik Petersson-Wentzel, who spent the year in Farjestad, has gone silent.

 

10. ESPECIALLY NON-SPECIAL

Progress in the standings and in the NHL's pecking order is going to demand that the Jets do better with special teams. This season's rankings of 12th on the power play and 24th in penalty-killing adds up to below par. The clinical examination of these categories will go on internally much of the off-season but it's folly to expect the team to improve if these items do not. The excuse-makers for both Winnipeg's PP and PK will have a hard time defending the additional facts that the Jets, for half a season, took far too many penalties, that their power-play efficiency was hurt by eight short-handed goals allowed, and that their penalty-killing was well below the NHL average, especially on the road. Whether it's skill, smarts or effort that go into improvements, the status quo here is a recipe for misery.

 

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

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 14, 2012 C4

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