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The wild-card round

Is Big Buff in shape? Will Scheifele really make the grade? That and the other major questions facing the Jets as they prep for training camp

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With near certainty, every NHL team has its reliable, predictable components.

Among other things, the Winnipeg Jets will have captain Andrew Ladd back in a front-row chair, bringing leadership and a little edge, and defenceman Mark Stuart again playing the consummate role of battler and warrior.

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In addition, there are elements that should not change much at all, like Blake Wheeler's speed or Evander Kane's hands (say what you want about his tweeting thumbs) or Jim Slater's faceoff ability or coach Claude Noel's quotes.

But as a new training camp is about to begin in a few days, late as it is, there are unknowns, question marks and wild cards.

In the case of the Jets, the direction in which these items tip figures to have considerable bearing on any change in competence of a team that missed the playoffs in its first year in Winnipeg.

Our top five camp wild cards:

1. Dustin Byfuglien

He's almost a reclusive figure, preferring time out of the spotlight and holding no love for being interviewed. Answers are almost always too few with Byfuglien, who had the second-highest number of points among NHL defencemen last season (53) despite missing 16 games.

Pretty much since Day 1 in Winnipeg, questions of fitness, not ability, have dogged Byfuglien and since the team's last game last April, it has been no different.

Following a summer court matter since resolved, rightly or wrongly, the gossip is everywhere and many wonder what Byfuglien will weigh when he returns to Winnipeg for the season.

Interestingly, captain Ladd said Tuesday he's got no concern in that area, that Byfuglien has skated regularly with a large group in Minnesota during the lockout and he believes the talented defender is ready to make an impact.

2. Ondrej Pavelec

Without a doubt, provided high-level puck-stopping ability to the team last season, though his numbers (29-28-9, 2.91 GAA, .906) didn't show all of it. A new contract was earned but intertwined in that timeline was an unrevealed drunk-driving conviction in his home country, Czech Republic.

Up to and including Tuesday, there's been no indication anywhere that Pavelec and his sometimes volatile agent Allan Walsh have resolved the matter internally with the Jets -- or for that matter, directly with the Jets' fans -- having apparently been left to fester more than six months.

Is it all to be swept under an unsavoury carpet? Is Pavelec repentant? Can the seemingly unflappable goalie operate at top efficiency under such a cloud?

3. Paul Postma/Zach Redmond

One or maybe two spots on the Jets blueline are currently open, especially with Zach Bogosian still out for some time.

In the off-season, the Jets gave AHL all-star defenceman Paul Postma a one-way deal out of his entry-level status. It is likely time to see if Postma can do something for the organization at the NHL level.

He has played the first half in St. John's, likely of some help when his camp begins this week.

But also in St. John's is second-year pro Zach Redmond, already 24, a late Atlanta pick in 2008 who played NCAA hockey for four years.

Reports are that Redmond has had an above-average first half for the IceCaps. No information was yet available on Jets training camp invitees but it will be interesting if the organization will reward Redmond and afford him the opportunity.

It certainly appears that one of them needs to be a player.

4. Ron Hainsey

Questions abound about Hainsey's readiness for the season, since he has immersed himself in NHLPA matters since last summer.

The veteran defenceman was a full-time player in the CBA drama up until its "conclusion" last weekend.

The questions are fair but it's sometimes overlooked that Hainsey is not new to the position of defence. He has played 544 NHL games and has been in the league since 2002 and clearly understands how to be a pro.

Whichever side you favoured or sympathized with during the lockout is not a fair lens through which to judge his upcoming play.

5. Mark Scheifele

Almost all that Scheifele has done since his seven-game stint with the Jets 16 months ago has been judged positively.

The organization's brass is still a big fan of his talents, his potential and his attitude.

He was the unexpected darling of the 2011 training camp. Will there be a repeat?

Predictions are many but the answer is impossible to know until Scheifele is in against actual NHLers starting next week.

The Jets would probably like Scheifele to make their roster. Some would say if they hope to be a better team, they need him to make it. But is Scheifele already written into the lineup? The betting windows are open on that -- we'll lay the cash on "no" until he proves it's a conclusive "yes."

tim.campbell@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 9, 2013 C3

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