Can the Jets develop for tomorrow and still make the playoffs today?
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 15/09/2015 (2633 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
It was a dandy party, brief as it was. The joint was jammed and it was positively jumping.
And then just like that — POOF! — the Winnipeg Jets first appearance in the playoffs was over, seemingly just as soon as it had started.
It was back on April 22 in Game 4 of their first-round playoff match-up with the Anaheim Ducks that the Jets last formally gathered in these parts. And a day later there was anger and frustration — mixed with the revelation of a long injured list to key personnel — after being swept in a series in which they led in every game but exited still searching for their first postseason win.
Fast forward 147 days and with the 2015-16 training camp upon us the main questions become, how did this team get better in the offseason and can it build on a franchise-record 99-point season?
To that end, Free Press hockey writers Tim Campbell and Ed Tait put their heads together and came up with some pressing training-camp issues to follow in the next few weeks before the puck drops on another campaign on Oct. 8 in Boston.
A size-large shadow
There are some very compelling storylines to track during this camp, but none of them as mammoth as the contract status of captain Andrew Ladd and his compadre Dustin Byfuglien, both of whom could be unrestricted free agents after this season. There has been speculation Ladd would soon be signed dating back to the draft in late June and every indication has him re-signing soon. But it’s been quiet on Byfuglien as the club weighs how much dough to put on the table with cornerstone young stars such as Jacob Trouba, Mark Scheifele and Adam Lowry all becoming restricted free agents next summer.
This is an issue both Ladd and Byfuglien will be weary of talking about, but it’s not going away until some sort resolution — a new deal or a new address — is reached.
The other daily issue for this camp has to be the forward depth chart.
The team is almost certain to keep 13 forwards. We see nine established skaters in the depth chart and then numerous possibilities.
By not re-signing Jim Slater, Jiri Tlusty or Lee Stempniak, the Jets have signalled that they are ready to fill the positions from within their system.
It’s a most logical move for a team that is committed to draft and develop, because if you have a decent prospect pool — and the Jets’ has been getting recent raves — if you don’t have opportunities, you are driving on the wrong side of the highway.
The pool of those in prime audition mode is large, at least 10 players in our opinion, including quasi-veterans Matt Halischuk, 27, Anthony Peluso, 26, and Matt Fraser, 25. Halischuk is a proven versatile plug-and-play guy, a consummate pro and may be the 13th forward at worst. Fraser was signed in the off-season, clearly to add depth.
The rest of the hopefuls here fall in the youth category — Nikolaj Ehlers, Andrew Copp, Joel Armia, Nic Petan, Scott Kosmachuk, J.C. Lipon and Brendan Lemieux. Big camps could well yield big rewards.
Pick your own word here, because it’s surely one of them, but the Jets are gambling/confident/hopeful that they’ll be able to identify four bona fide NHLers out of this group during training camp.
Burmistrov, Part I
The exercise of training camp has extra importance this fall in the case of returnee Alex Burmistrov.
The 23-year-old centre is back after two years in Russia’s KHL, signed to a two-year deal on July 1.
Camp will begin to answer the multiple layers of questions about fit.
For starters, it will be important for the team to figure out and accept that Burmistrov is back for the right reasons.
He left in 2013 when he was free to do that. It was no secret that he was no fan of former coach Claude Noel.
So what was his motivation to return? Money? Hockey? Bright lights? It was curious to learn upon his return to Winnipeg that Burmistrov had not kept in touch with anyone here during his KHL time.
Of course Burmistrov has committed to his contract. The team has made a point to say he’s being welcomed back with open arms and will be happy for his contributions.
It will be up to both sides, Burmistrov and his teammates in the dressing room, to make for a better fit than last time.
Burmistrov, Part II
Hand-in-hand with the off-ice fit — both, we should add, are a must if he’s to help the team — will be finding Burmistrov’s optimum place in the lineup.
Head coach Paul Maurice hasn’t yet tipped his hand on any idea there but there would seem to be several possibilities.
Will Burmistrov knock down any of the team’s top-six forwards? Possible, but unlikely to start.
Is he a centre or a winger? Given the successful development of lanky Adam Lowry, it seems unlikely that Burmistrov would take his place. Lowry could and has played wing but centre seems to be a better use of his abilities.
Burmistrov would likely be a waste as a fourth-line player, so likely the best fit would be on some third-line combination with Lowry.
Burmistrov is also a good penalty-killer, or was for the Jets when he was previously here.
Many also touted his strong possession numbers, but those were often a mirage given his perimeter habits.
Any improvement in his game in terms of being more of a north-south player as opposed to his maddening-at-times east-west tendencies will help the Jets’ cause.
No more fro
The Jets have a few holes to fill up front, but none of them bigger than finding a replacement for versatile winger Michael Frolik, now with the Calgary Flames. The 27-year-old Czech missed one game in his two years with the Jets and finished with 42 points in both seasons. But there is so much more to his game than just his durability and consistency. He was an all-situations player who could play both wings and took some turns at centre, scored on the power-play and while short-handed and finished with four game-winners. His linemates loved him because of his positional play and his coach adored him because he was so trustworthy.
So how do the Jets replace that? Drew Stafford is the leading candidate to patrol the right side with Andrew Ladd and Bryan Little on the top line, but there have also been suggestions Nikolaj Ehlers could get a look there.
Is the dynamic dane ready?
Ehlers would offer the Jets Top 9 even more speed and, clearly, a ton of creativity. He might be a fit on the top line, but could still get plenty of ice time working with Adam Lowry on the third line, possibly working on a second power-play unit and then being an option for 3-on-3 in OT. His game has to mature still — the weekend in Penticton showed that — and a return to junior in Halifax doesn’t seem to be an productive option.
It will be far less a daily concern than contracts or forward opportunities, but the Jets’ depth at defence may have a twist or turn during camp.
The team has nine blueliners on one-way contracts. A 10th, Jacob Trouba, is still on his two-way entry-level deal. An 11th, blue-chip prospect Josh Morrissey, turns pro this fall.
The team will not start the season with 11 defencemen.
The health status of one, Grant Clitsome, may be up in the air after mid-season back surgery in 2014-15.
GM Kevin Cheveldayoff may have the flexibility to make a deal by dangling a defenceman but has been mum on the subject. If he doesn’t, he may be faced with having to waive one or two by early October.
Certainly, the team benefitted from having so many defencemen last season, when injuries took a heavy toll.
By season’s start, something is likely to give, since we see only a maximum of eight on the roster to start the season.
A spot for Copp
It’s been said for a couple of seasons now that Andrew Copp was arguably the Jets most ‘pro ready’ prospect and there is a place seemingly waiting for him as the fourth-line centre after Jim Slater was not re-signed. He wore the ‘C’ in Michigan and has the size at 6-1, 201, to handle the grind of the NHL’s Western Conference. His coach with the Wolverines, Red Berenson, would have loved him to return but also raved about the layers to his game — his ability to play a shut-down role, his leadership, his team-first approach and his penalty-kill skills. Slater averaged just over nine minutes a game last season and so the workload wouldn’t be overwhelming for the rookie, if he is ready.
The ‘other’ guy
The blockbuster trade GM Kevin Cheveldayoff made with Buffalo last winter drew a lot of headlines, first for shipping out mainstays like Evander Kane and Zach Bogosian, but also for the immediate impact both Tyler Myers and Drew Stafford had in last spring’s playoff push.
The Jets also got prospect Brendan Lemieux, who impressed at both the summer’s Development Camp and last weekend in B.C., a first-round draft pick they used to select Jack Roslovic, a centre who will be playing for Miami University this fall. The other component in that deal, often forgotten, was Finnish winger Joel Armia. the Sabres’ first-round pick in 2011. He has two AHL seasons under his belt and had 12 goals in 54 games with Rochester and St. John’s last year. He’s got good hands and speed, but holding him back has been consistency in his game. There is real opportunity here for him to grab a big-league spot.
Not a hot topic yet, but… soon?
Hockey fans in these parts have been debating the Jets goaltending situation from the moment the club first picked up roots from Atlanta. It’s all but a given both Connor Hellebuyck and Eric Comrie will start the season with the Moose, leaving veteran Ondrej Pavelec and Michael Hutchinson to battle for minutes again with the parent club. But both Hellebuyck and Comrie are considered among the brightest goaltending prospects in the game and, should they shine at the AHL level — shine again, in Hellebuyck’s case — they could muddy the goaltending picture with the Jets very quickly. And that’s a good thing for any organization.