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Path to the NHL playoffs: 10 areas where the Jets must improve

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The Stanley Cup

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The Stanley Cup (NATHAN DENETTE / THE CANADIAN PRESS)

There is definitely an eye-catching allure to this photo.

Down the hall from the Winnipeg Jets' dressing room and on full display just outside the doctor's office is a prominent new addition to the club's hockey-operations department:

A framed, life-size photograph of the Stanley Cup.

It's not exactly subliminal, seeing as it is almost one metre high, but it is a daily reminder of the ultimate goal of every National Hockey League organization -- including the Jets.

Now, let's get something straight here before we go any further: No one is using the words 'Jets' and 'Stanley Cup' in the same sentence at this point in their existence.

In fact, as training camps open across the NHL on Sunday, the collective goal in this town has to be much more modest -- just get to the playoffs.

Yes, while post-season berths may be old hat in places like Detroit, Pittsburgh, San Jose and Boston, securing one here in Winnipeg would definitely represent a massive step forward for a franchise that has missed the playoffs for five straight springs and qualified only once in 12 years.

How do they get there? Glad you asked.

Here's one man's take on 10 issues/questions the Jets must answer ASAP to be part of the Stanley Cup derby later this year:

 

Ondrej  Pavelec

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Ondrej Pavelec (TRIBUNE MEDIA MCT)

1. A DEFENSIVE BLUEPRINT

Some numbers to consider about the Jets from a year ago and reason No. 1 they were eliminated from the playoff picture in the final week of the regular season:

  • The Jets finished 26th in goals allowed, surrendering an average of 2.95 per game. St. Louis was first overall at 1.89.
  • Winnipeg surrendered an average of 30.1 shots per contest, which put them 15th overall.
  • As good as goaltender Ondrej Pavelec was on some nights, he finished with a 2.91 goals-against average and .906 save percentage. There were 22 NHL goalies who logged over 3,000 minutes of ice time last year and of that crew, Pavelec's save percentage ranked 21st -- better only than Chicago's Corey Crawford (.903).

The Jets need Pavelec to find some consistency in his game, but also a defensive blueprint that severely cuts down the number of quality chances he faces every night.

 

2. ROAD WORRIERS TO WARRIORS? AND FROM GOOD TO ELITE AT HOME?

It's an old adage in sports: Be dominant at home and respectable (read .500) on the road and you'll book your ticket to the post-season. The Jets held up their bargain at home, going 23-13-5, 15th best in the NHL. But on the road they were just awful, finishing 27th with a 14-22-5 mark.

The Jets, likely in the Southeast Division for one more year, are going to pile up a ton of miles in the shortened season and that travel is due to nip them on the backside on occasion.

But there's also a flip-side to this: Teams travelling to Winnipeg used to make the trip after stopping for games in Minnesota or Chicago. Now, with the schedule calling for only in-conference games, the nearest stop is Toronto -- 1,500 kilometres away. That's a long haul here and that could make the MTS Centre an even tougher visit.

 

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(JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS ARCHIVES)

3. HONEYMOON IS KAPUT, GET 'ER DONE

There was this sense, certainly widely held outside of Winnipeg, that we were just all so happy to have the NHL back in this town the results in Year 1 didn't matter. And there was probably a great deal of truth in all that.

But the quick sale and transfer of the franchise from Atlanta to Winnipeg is in the rear-view mirror now, as are the getting-used-to-their-new-digs excuses. Head coach Claude Noel has also established his system and ground rules and the expectations that go with it. And those include, at the least, a spot in the playoffs.

 

4. SO-SO SPECIAL TEAMS

First, the basics: the Jets had the 12th-best power play (17.9 per cent) and a penalty-kill unit that ranked just 24th (80.1 per cent).

But there are some numbers behind those numbers that are concerning:

-- The Jets gave up eight short-handed goals last year -- only six NHL teams surrendered more.

-- Winnipeg's power-play at home was deadly -- second-best in the entire league -- but was 28th, or third last, on the road. Clearly, they need some more road production here.

-- Winnipeg's 58 power-play goals surrendered was tied for third-worst in the NHL.

 

Olli Jokinen

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Olli Jokinen

5. MORE PUNCH FROM THE TOP SIX

The importance of the Olli Jokinen signing will be magnified the minute the puck is dropped against Ottawa on Jan. 19. It's not just that he gives the Jets some size down the middle, it's that whoever he is paired with -- best guess is Evander Kane on the left side and Kyle Wellwood or Mark Scheifele on the right -- he now gives the squad more firepower up front and a legit second scoring line. Just as important, the Andrew Ladd-Bryan Little-Blake Wheeler trio won't automatically be matched with an opponent's checking line every night, possibly freeing them up to be even more productive.

 

Dustin Byfuglien

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Dustin Byfuglien

6. BUFF'S A REAL DEAL

Look, fixate on his weight all you want but the reality is Dustin Byfuglien will never be on the cover of a muscle mag and ripped like Arnold Schwarzenegger. And for all his occasionally frustrating offensive forays and his glaring minus-16, the guy might just be the most important Jet in a run to the post-season.

He played only 66 games last year and still scored 12 goals and added 41 assists -- second only to Ottawa's Erik Karlsson among scoring by a defenceman. Clearly, when he's in the lineup the Jets' chances of winning rise exponentially. He has difference-maker written all over him, especially in a shortened campaign.

 

7. CAN SCHEIFELE STICK?

This was the big story early last season and will dominate again through training camp and beyond. Mark Scheifele led the Jets in scoring during the pre-season last year but once the season started and his minutes dropped (to around 11) he managed just one goal and was sent back to the OHL's Barrie Colts.

His game has matured significantly since and his most recent stint with Canada at the World Junior Championships proved he could handle the switch from centre to right wing. But has he matured enough? The Jets don't want to rush him, but are also intrigued by the skill he could possibly bring to their Top 6. He can stay five games with the big club before management will have to decide if he stays or goes back.

 

Evander Kane

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Evander Kane

8. EVANDER: THE REAL DEAL?

He was the NHL's youngest 30-goal scorer last season and, after bumping up his totals in each of his three seasons -- from 14 to 19 to 30 -- still seems to have more upside. There's also a physical element to his game that shouldn't go unnoticed -- he was one of three players in the NHL with more than 250 shots on goal and 150 hits: Kane (287 shots, 173 hits); Alex Ovechkin, Wash. (303 shots, 215 hits); Gabriel Landeskog, Col. (270 shots, 219 hits).

He's a lightning rod for criticism in this town, but also an immense talent.

 

9. DEFENSIVE DEPTH TO BE TESTED

We pointed out on Friday all the man-games lost to injury by the Jets last year, particularly on defence. Byfuglien (16 games) missed a ton of action as did Toby Enstrom (20), Ron Hainsey (25) and Zach Bogosian (17). And the fact that Bogosian, an emerging star, starts the season on the disabled list only compounds the need for the likes of Grant Clitsome, Paul Postma and Zach Redmond to step up. Question is, are they legit NHL defencemen?

 

10. ALEX BURMISTROV: REAL TALENT OR REAL TEASE?

Russian forward Alex Burmistrov remains a bit of a mystery. He's got the kind of skill set that will make even the most gifted NHLer jealous, but doesn't have the offensive totals to match. He finished just 10th on the Jets in scoring, despite posting career bests in goals (13) assists (15) and points (28). As gifted as he is, he wrapped up last year having gone 17 games without a goal. His numbers in St. John's, where it was thought he might dominate during the lockout, were much the same: two goals and nine assists in 22 games.

It's worth reinforcing this: He is just 21 and already has 150 NHL games under his belt. But with his speed and hands, he's got to go from leaving everyone wanting more to delivering.

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

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 12, 2013 C1

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