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Let there be flight

A lot of questions need answers before the Jets can really take off

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CALGARY -- It is an ending that looks, feels and smells a lot like last season. And the season before that.

In fact, the THUD! that seemingly comes with the end of every Winnipeg Jets season -- and the Atlanta Thrashers before that -- should be familiar by now, seeing as it dates back to 2006-07 and the franchise's only playoff appearance. And even that run was snuffed out quickly, courtesy a four-game sweep by the New York Rangers.

Now, over the past few days there has been talk about foundations going forward, about establishing this and that, learning how to win and -- if you listened in on Blake Wheeler or Mark Stuart during their interviews on Thursday -- letting the anger of another wasted season stew for a bit before spitting it out and focussing on next year.

But while there are some positive signs for this squad, namely the growing depth in the system and the modest improvement under Paul Maurice, this is still a team that will finish in the bottom third of the NHL standings.

So as the autopsies begin in full after Friday's regular-season finale against the Calgary Flames, what follows is our own take on what happened and some promising and ugly numbers from the team's first year in the Western Conference:

FIVE JUICIEST QUESTIONS

1. AND THE NEXT HEAD COACH IS...?

Think about the three meatiest decisions Maurice made this week and their impact: He benched Evander Kane for a Hockey Night In Canada game in Toronto; opted to start rookie Michael Hutchinson in back-to-back games with Ondrej Pavelec ready for action and then put the troops through a gruelling hour-long plus bag skate... before that meaningless second-last game of a season gone awry.

Does an "interim" coach pull those strings knowing any one of those moves -- let alone all three in the same week -- could potentially blow up in his face?

Now, there's a theory out there -- one which does have some legs -- the Jets shouldn't be so eager to pull the trigger on this and name Maurice the official head coach so quickly. Randy Carlyle, after all, could soon be available. Or Manitoba's own Barry Trotz. Or somebody like Dan Bylsma or Todd McLellan if their squads get bounced early in the Stanley Cup derby.

Our guess is it won't get that far and Maurice will soon have the interim tag removed. Hard to imagine True North going through a stretch from January to training camp next fall with three different head coaches over that span -- Claude Noel, Maurice and, potentially, Mr. X.

 

2. WHAT TO DO WITH ONDREJ PAVELEC?

Pavelec's stats -- a .901 save percentage and 3.01 goals-against average -- have been the subject of some intense debate in River City this season, and with good reason. Simply put, those aren't No. 1 puckstopper numbers. But here's something to munch on: in the last two years the Jets are 17-10-3 with either Al Montoya or Michael Hutchinson in the net and 43-46-10 with Pavelec in goal.

All this dumps petrol onto the raging-inferno discussion about the Jets possibly trading or buying out Pavelec, who has three years left on a contract that pays him $3.9 million per season. Just to point out how that might work: The new collective bargaining agreement gives teams the option for two compliance buyouts over designated time periods last summer and this summer (until June 15). To do that a team must pay two-thirds of the remaining contract across twice the remaining term of the deal. That means a Pavelec buyout would cost the Jets $8.5 million, paid out over the next six years.

The question then becomes, if not Pavelec, who's next?

Montoya is an unrestricted free agent this summer and while he's been steady when called upon, there is a question about his durability. Hutchinson has been a revelation for this franchise since being signed last summer after being cast adrift by Boston. And the club has two Grade A goaltending prospects in the system in Connor Hellebuyck and Eric Comrie. A third, if you include Jason Kasdorf, who was phenomenal for Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 2012-13 but was limited by injury to just two starts this season.

Free agency might spit out some names, too, with Jaro Halak, Jonas Hiller, Brian Elliott and Ryan Miller among those who could be looking for new addresses come July 1.

But if the club is at all intrigued by Hutchinson -- and tiny sample size aside, there is a lot to like about his game -- they might remain married to Pavelec, have the youngster push him and then wait for Hellebuyck and/or Comrie to finish their grooming. That's a significant roll of the dice for a franchise desperate to get into the playoffs while core players like Blake Wheeler, Bryan Little, Andrew Ladd, Toby Enstrom, Mark Stuart and Dustin Byfuglien are in the prime years of their careers.

 

3. THE KANE CONUNDRUM: BUY IN OR SELL NOW?

A stat, courtesy Elliotte Friedman of CBC: The list of current NHL players who have scored 30 goals in a season at age 20 features Alexander Ovechkin, Steven Stamkos, Ryan Smyth, Jaromir Jagr, Jonathan Toews, Evgeni Malkin, Anze Kopitar, Patrice Bergeron, Marian Gaborik and... Evander Kane.

Kane doesn't turn 23 until August and has already appeared in 324 NHL games. He's got world-class wheels, a cannon shot and, yes, a penchant for saying/doing/tweeting the wrong things.

If the Jets' patience has been worn to the nubs with Kane, the return on a trade for a young star still with so much upside better be huge. At the same time, they have to be fascinated by what kind of offensive damage a line featuring Kane, Mark Scheifele and Wheeler could do next season.

 

4. WHO STAYS, WHO GOES? THE UFA/RFA QUESTION

Every off-season brings its share of change, whether it's with a champion or a bottom feeder. The Jets have six players scheduled to become unrestricted free agents on July 1: forwards Olli Jokinen, Devin Setoguchi and Chris Thorburn, defencemen Zach Redmond and Adam Pardy and Al Montoya. The real head scratcher here is what to do with Jokinen, who has put up decent numbers this year, but can't run from the fact he is 35 and pulled in $4.5 million last year.

The list of restricted free agents is also interesting -- making a qualifying offer to Michael Frolik is a tap-in, but what about Keaton Ellerby, Eric O'Dell, Matt Halishcuk, James Wright and Michael Hutchinson? Further to that, does a potentially long playoff run by prospects on the farm in St. John's impact who gets some love from Kevin Cheveldayoff this off-season.?

 

5. WILL THE REVOLVING DOOR ON THE THIRD AND FOURTH LINES EVER STOP SPINNING?

The Jets' third and fourth lines have been a forever-changing collection of names due to injuries and inconsistent play. And while the Andrew Ladd-Bryan Little-Frolik, Kane-Scheifele-Wheeler lines give the Jets some punch in their top two trios, the difference between powerhouse teams like Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago is the talent level and the minutes their bottom six earn and keep.

 

FIVE PROMISING NUMBERS

17-12-5: The Jets record under Maurice, although it's levelled off after a quick 11-3-1 surge following the firing of Noel.

22:43: The average ice time for rookie Jacob Trouba, most among NHL freshmen. There have been some ups and downs in his game, but the promise seems endless for a kid who just turned 20.

3: Bryan Little, Blake Wheeler and Dustin Byfuglien all posted career point totals this season; Little centering the top line and going head-to-head against some marquee centres in the Western Conference; Wheeler with 51 points (22G, 29A) in his last 53 games and Byfuglien, after his move up front when he went from a minus-16 to a minus-4 while scoring 10 goals and adding 12 assists in 32 games.

9: The Jets' penalty-kill ranking overall (heading into Friday's finale) with an efficiency of 83.6 per cent.

29: Mark Scheifele had just one goal and four assists in his first 24 games this season and then it seemed like the game slowed down for him and his confidence grew. After his slow start and before his knee injury, he settled into a role as the Jets' 1A centre, scoring 12 goals and adding 17 assists in a 39-game stretch.

 

FIVE UGLY NUMBERS

2.89: The Jets had surrendered 234 goals (heading into Friday's game) for an average of 2.89 per game. Remains the most glaring statistic for this team, which was minus-12 in the goal differential heading into the final game against Calgary.

15.6: Winnipeg's power-play percentage this year, placing them in the bottom third in the NHL. The Jets played in 46 one-goal games this season and it's easy to ask this: How closer to the playoff line would they have finished with a deadlier power play?

6-9-3: The Jets' record after Scheifele's season-ending knee injury. His absence also highlighted how thin the club is down the middle. Worth noting here, just for discussion: Alex Burmistrov had 10 goals and 27 assists in 54 games in the KHL this winter.

46.7: The Jets' face off percentage, ranking them 29th in the NHL. Hard to become a playoff contender when you begin so often without the puck.

7: The most telling number of all -- it's been seven years since the Jets/Thrashers franchise appeared in the playoffs, the second-longest current drought in the NHL. Only the Edmonton Oilers, who last qualified for the post-season in 2005-06 -- and lost in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final to the Carolina Hurricanes -- have been absent longer.

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

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 12, 2014 C3

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