Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Stuck in the middle

If they're going to contend, the Jets desperately need a No. 1 centre

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Uniondale, N.Y. -- It's been said about the Winnipeg Jets they're a team made up of two fourth lines, a third line and a second. Just no first.

If that's to change, the Jets need to identify a No. 1 centre and either draft, develop or try their hands in free agency.

The Jets have developed two players this season that can make legitimate claims at first-line status in Blake Wheeler and Evander Kane.

Wheeler has the potential to be a point-per-game man and Kane popped 30 goals this season despite being inconsistent and missing a lengthy stretch due to injury.

Coach Claude Noel will put these two together in training camp next fall as the wings on a No. 1 line. The biggest question is who will play between them?

No disrespect to Bryan Little, Alex Burmistrov, Kyle Wellwood or any others the Jets have used at centre in their top-six forward group this season but none of them are top-line centres.

Most GMs will tell you the only way to get an elite centre is to draft one and then develop. The Jets are hoping Mark Scheifele is that player but indications to this point are he's not ready to wear that crown just yet.

Scheifele needs to grow physically and learn to play the game against men. The Jets as an organization are going through a culture change and players will rarely go straight from junior to the NHL like Kane, Burmistrov and Zach Bogosian have over the last few years.

Expect junior prospect Ivan Telegin to start next year in St. John's with the IceCaps and unless Scheifele proves to be the exception to the rule, he'll go back to junior next year and be looking at some time in the AHL the year after that.

Burmistrov is also an interesting case.

He's clearly talented and has a high hockey intellect. But he's not physically or mentally mature enough to lead the Jets at centre. The 20-year-old Russian has 13 goals and 15 assists this season and he's seen big minutes on a line with Kane and Wellwood for such production.

The Jets made the decision to give Kane and Burmistrov the opportunity to grow on the job and Kane's numbers ballooned. He still has gaps in his game but the wait for him to arrive is almost over.

Burmistrov is a different issue. He's not a checking centre and he's going to continue to need big minutes to grow as a player. Teams that open up their second line for development projects don't win playoff berths, as we've seen this season.

Sending Burmistrov to St. John's to gain valuable seasoning on the power play and at centre shouldn't be ruled out but could be a difficult move because he's already played two years in the NHL. Some decisions by previous management need to be lived with.

Jets management has not been shy about stating their plan to grow the franchise by drafting and developing young players. They look at organizations like Detroit and Nashville that send almost all their prospects to the AHL for development and strive to follow in that vein.

None of this, of course, fills that hole on the top line any time soon.

Free agency is a route to go and it's not like the Jets would be adverse to signing a No. 1 centre. But they're rarely available and when they do hit the market, the competition for them is wild.

The Jets have made some nice strides in goal and on the blue-line this season but there remain many questions up front.

Winnipeg is far too small down the middle of the ice and too inconsistent.

Time will address these needs if Scheifele turns out to be the big, creative centre the Jets want him to be. GM Kevin Cheveldayoff is fond of saying, "You can't rush or accelerate development," and it happens at a different pace with every player.

The Jets aren't necessarily on hold until that position can be filled but it is a major gap that will prevent them from becoming a contender. Maybe they can patch something together and find their way into the playoffs but until they get a No. 1 centre, halting progress is the most that can be expected.

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

jets report c3

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 5, 2012 C1

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About Gary Lawless

Gary Lawless is the Free Press sports columnist and co-host of the Hustler and Lawless show on TSN 1290 Winnipeg and www.winnipegfreepress.com
Lawless began covering sports as a rookie reporter at The Chronicle-Journal in Thunder Bay after graduating from journalism school at Durham College in Ontario.
After a Grey Cup winning stint with the Toronto Argonauts in the communications department, Lawless returned to Thunder Bay as sports editor.
In 1999 he joined the Free Press and after working on the night sports desk moved back into the field where he covered pro hockey, baseball and football beats prior to being named columnist.

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