Jets banking on young players for this season’s push

Jets hope to integrate fresh faces into lineup this season in an effort to improve on first-round playoff exit

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One of the most frequently asked questions this summer has been why haven’t the Winnipeg Jets re-signed veteran Lee Stempniak? The simple answer is opportunity.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 04/09/2015 (2648 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

One of the most frequently asked questions this summer has been why haven’t the Winnipeg Jets re-signed veteran Lee Stempniak? The simple answer is opportunity.

The Jets have left holes in their lineup this off-season, potentially creating room for young players such as Nik Ehlers, Nic Petan, Joel Armia and Andrew Copp to win jobs on the NHL roster.

The Jets will be younger this season and how that youth adapts will tell the story of this team and its quest to remain a playoff club.

Nikolaj Ehlers at Winnipeg Jets Prospects Camp at the MTS Iceplex in July. (Joe Bryksa / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Maybe Ehlers steps in and is this year’s version of Calgary Flames phenom Johnny Gaudreau. Maybe Copp steps right out of college and settles in nicely at centre on the fourth line. Perhaps Armia and Petan convert obvious skill into work among the Jets top nine.

Or maybe they all struggle and the Jets find themselves victims of the ultra-competitive Central Division and finish outside the playoffs.

Predicting what the Jets will be this season is near impossible. GM Kevin Cheveldayoff has made a strategic decision to get some of his youth into the lineup. There’s no point in being a draft-and-develop team if none of the prospects ever advance into the lineup. Cheveldayoff has determined clogging his roster with veterans such as Stempniak will restrict the growth of his youth.

This coming season has been thrown into the blender. Maybe a step back in order to make larger strides down the line? Or perhaps a gamble on youth that pays off with immediate results.

The NHL is getting younger and faster. So are the Jets. Cheveldayoff has handed coach Paul Maurice a fresher list of groceries. Now the coach has to figure out how to develop some young players and win on the fly.

Ehlers will be the most watched player in camp, through the preseason and early into the regular season. The Jets haven’t had a player with a game as dynamic as his and if he can handle the defensive end of the NHL, he could be a game-changer for the Jets.

The Jets were a top-10 team in the NHL in goals-against last season and Maurice won’t want to let that drop off one bit. The trick will be to grow on the work he did with the team last year in improving the defensive side of the game while injecting some youth and talent into the roster.

There’s really no time to sleep in the Central Division so if the Jets get off to a slow start while working in new personnel it could cost them dearly in terms of a playoff spot. The Central has basically become one 82-game pennant race where the pressure is constant. 

Cheveldayoff and Maurice know this and introducing youth to the lineup is a calculated gamble. They won’t be surprised if they’re not a playoff team this year and they’re willing to take that chance. The team they put in the post-season last year wasn’t good enough and a repeat of a four-game sweep in the first round is a wasted exercise. 

There may be some immediate pain in search of a more satisfying run. Then again, Ehlers and Copp and some of the other burgeoning prospects may prove to be immediate successes.

Hanging the success of an entire franchise on a few rookies is ridiculous. The rest of the team must perform at the same level or better than last season. That has to happen first. And if the kids can chip in too, it’ll be all good for Jets fans.

There’s no, “next step,” here. The Jets are starting from scratch in terms of collecting the points needed to be a qualifier in the Central. 

The playoffs were an iffy proposition last season and they will be this year as well. 

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @garylawless 

Line ‘em up

Training camp opens in less than two weeks and Jets head coach Paul Maurice likely has a number of line combinations he’s been doodling all summer. What will they look like when camp opens? What will they look like when camp breaks? Here’s our best guess: 

LW Andrew Ladd — C Bryan Little — RW Drew Stafford

Ladd and Little have been Winnipeg’s most consistent duo since the team’s return to this city. Stafford can score and Maurice likes his character

Ladd: Still without a contract extension — how will it effect his game if it drags into the season

Little: Injuries derailed what was looking like a career season. Effective and under-rated two way centre

Stafford: Signed a new contract with the Jets this summer. Was revitalized after trade from Sabres — can he maintain high level?


LW Mathieu Perreault — C Mark Scheifele — RW Blake Wheeler

Speed, skill and some size. This line could be very dangerous. Taking Wheeler away from Ladd and Little gives the Jets two lines with scoring potential and makes them harder to check

Perreault: Is durability going to be a constant issue with this creative but smaller player?

Scheifele: Had 49 points last season in his second with the Jets and is now 22 and still maturing. Can he hit 60 points? Can he be stronger on the puck and tougher on opponents? Will the growth continue as a player and a leader continue? Still loads of upside with this player.

Wheeler: He ironed out the inconsistencies in his game last season and was a driving force from beginning to end. Wheeler doesn’t cheat for points so he may max out around the 70-point mark but the success of his game is no longer measured strictly in offence. He’s become the type of NHL player where when his team wins, he’s likely been both a defensive and offence force.


LW Alex Burmistrov — C Adam Lowry — RW Nik Ehlers

Burmistrov will be the old man of this group at the ripe old age of 23. Lowry is big, physical and has elite hockey sense. Ehlers is dynamic and could make this a very dangerous line.

Burmistrov: What kind of player will return to the Jets after spending the last two years in the KHL? He always had a sense for the defensive game and that will be a help on a very young line.

Lowry: Might be Maurice’s favourite player and don’t be surprised if his opportunity increases. Has a lot to offer. Big questions about him are, can he get a little quicker and add some more offence to his game?

Ehlers: The Jets will begin to downplay expectations for Ehlers the moment camp opens but the reality is he has a job to lose. They want him to make the team and earn a spot and to begin to contribute. Maurice will be willing to live with some early defensive issues if the offence is there.


LW Chris Thorburn — C Andrew Copp — RW Anthony Peluso

Thorburn is the only one of this group with a real grip on his job. Copp must prove he’s ready and Peluso can’t be a one trick pony. This line, with veteran Jim Slater in the middle, struggled for most of last season until the personnel was upgraded at the trade deadline. If Joel Armia or Nic Petan come into camp and prove they can play, both Copp and Peluso will have a fight on their hands. Expect Halischuk to be an extra forward to start and Maurice has time for Cormier as well.

Thorburn: Beloved in the room. When playing with the right players, can use his size and skating ability to be effective.

Copp: Coming right out of college, his ability to adapt to the NHL game is a bit of an unknown. Physically mature and a strong skater with what scouts describe as a “pro-style,” game.

Extra forwards: Matt Fraser, Matt Halischuk, Joel Armia, Patrice Cormier, Nic Petan

Defensive Pairings

Left Tobias Enstrom — Right Tyler Myers

A top end pairing with puck moving skills. They’ll see a load of ice.


Left Mark Stuart — Right Jacob Trouba

Trouba’s development could make this pairing extinct. If he’s ready to become a true and consistent top pairing D, Maurice will have to switch up his pairings and play Trouba with a defender more capable of handling 20 minutes or more on a nightly basis.


Left Ben Chiarot —  Right Dustin Byfuglien

Chiarot was a revelation last season until injuries slowed him down the stretch. Byfuglien is the most impactful D the Jets have and could make the switch to the left side to pair with Trouba. Look for Maurice to start games with these pairings but use Byfuglien and Trouba together when behind or late in games to protect leads. Whenever the need to shorten the bench arises, Enstrom and Myers will stick together and Byfuglien will go to the left side to pair with Trouba.

Extra defenceman: Adam Pardy, Jay Harrison, Paul Postma, Josh Morrissey

Goalies

Ondrej Pavelec

Michael Hutchinson 

Last year’s duo will begin the season in a rotation system with Pavelec likely getting a little more work. This was an area of improvement for the Jets last season and the big question going into camp is will they continue to improve or regress back to a lower team save percentage. Goals against will be key with this team especially if the roster gets younger.

Depth goalies: Connor Hellebuyck, Eric Comrie

History

Updated on Saturday, September 5, 2015 7:38 AM CDT: Correct spelling of Nic Petan.

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