Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 7/10/2015 (2079 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
It all changes now for the Winnipeg Jets. It’s not about this town just being content to have its NHL squad back and it’s not about that four-year chase for a spot in the Stanley Cup derby.
One week in the post-season last April before being swept out by the Anaheim Ducks means expectations have changed. It means everyone — from those in the dressing room to even the most-cynical fan in Jets Nation — expects the Jets to not just return to the playoffs, but actually win a game next April.
But getting there and staying there are two entirely different tasks. Just ask any of the seven teams who appeared in the 2014 playoffs, including the Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings, who were absent a year later. And consider this: over the last three springs only seven NHL teams — the Montreal Canadiens, New York Rangers, Chicago Blackhawks, Anaheim Ducks, St. Louis Blues, Detroit Red Wings and Minnesota Wild — have been in the playoffs each year.
That’s a heckuva lot of turnover, people.
The annual NHL prognostications have the Jets all over the map this year. They are seen by some as a rising power in the Western Conference and yet still others have them pegged as a one-hit wonder.
How do the Jets get back to the dance? What are some of their key talking points and issues as the curtain rises on another NHL campaign?
Free Press hockey writers Tim Campbell and Ed Tait toss out a few ideas to munch on in our annual 10 Questions look ahead:
1. THE TWO ELEPHANTS IN THE ROOM
It already feels old typing these words, but here we go again: two of the Jets most important cogs — captain Andrew Ladd and Dustin Byfuglien — are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents next summer. Both are seeking raises and term. All of this isn’t new to any number of teams with big-name UFAs, including Tampa and Steven Stamkos and Anze Kopitar with the Kings.
But as much as the Jets expect their pair to be pros, to be able to handle the questions and still focus and blah, blah, blah, the issue isn’t going to go away until there is some sort of resolution. Jets are on a six-game unbeaten streak... what about Ladd and Byfuglien re-signing? Jets are on a six-game winless streak... what about Ladd and Byfuglien re-signing?
And the closer the season creeps to the trade deadline without an answer, the zanier things will become.
There’s a belief that once the first deal is done, likely with Ladd, some of the other pieces can begin to put into place by GM Kevin Cheveldayoff. But this doesn’t just impact Ladd and Byfuglien, or the four players who become restricted free agents next summer in Mark Scheifele, Jacob Trouba, Adam Lowry and Michael Hutchinson. It indirectly affects everyone in the dressing room.
2. THE WAY FORWARD IS DEFENCE
There was a lot of harping about this subject in Years 1, 2, and 3. And a lot of empty promises, too.
The reality of this hockey truism was hammered home last season for the Jets. They lived it and they succeeded with it and there is no better to drive home a point than to experience it.
Reducing their goals against to 210, a franchise-best, put the Jets into the NHL’s top 10 in this category and voila, into the playoffs.
It was a massive move for a franchise than had never been outside the bottom 10 in goal against.
And now that they know how to do it, do they have the will to do it again and even do it better?
Here lies the key to the season.
3. PROTECTING POINTS
Apart from penalties (see below), there was one other area that the Jets were particularly poor at last season.
As with penalties, a repeat performance here isn’t likely to yield a berth in April.
In 2014-15, the Jets had 11 instances where they were scored upon and blew points in the final five minutes of a game. The cost of those instances was 18 points.
Their own comebacks were infrequent, producing just five points from rallies in the final five minutes. The deficit in this area last season was 13 points, which is size large when you’re talking about thin margins for error in the difficult Central Division.
Some of it can be put down to learning Paul Maurice’s system to the point where it became instinctive. The team is farther down that road now, so should expect better.
4. BYE-BYE GREY, HELLO GREEN
The Jets were one of the NHL’s youngest squads for a good chunk of last year and only got greener this off-season with the decision not to return Jim Slater (32, now with Geneva), Lee Stempniak (32, New Jersey); Jiri Tlusty (27, Devils) while losing Michael Frolik (27, Calgary) in free agency.
Some of this is by design, of course, with Jets brass believing three of their prospects have ripened in Andrew Copp (21), Nic Petan (20) and Nikolaj Ehlers (19) — the last two, incidentally, won’t be able to partake in a wobbly pop pre- or post-game any time the team crosses the border. Alex Burmistrov, all of 23, also returns to drop the Jets average age. This just in: Clearasil might now replace Just For Men as the most-popular product in the club’s change room.
What’s significant here is the Jets aren’t crossing their fingers and hoping the young guns can contribute, they are putting them in positions to be important players — Ehlers working on the right side of a line with Mark Scheifele and Mathieu Perreault to open the season, Petan as a versatile forward who can bounce all over the lineup, Copp as a fourth-line centre/penalty killer and Burmistrov as a defensively responsible winger on Adam Lowry’s flank.
5. IT STARTS RIGHT NOW
The Jets start with a four-game road trip and by mid-November they will have played 12 of their first 19 on the road. The first quarter is their most challenging schedule quarter of the season.
There is a stretch of eight of 10 on the road in February but those games are fairly well-spaced. As well, the Jets have just two of their 12 back-to-back instances after the all-star game, so there appear to be higher schedule demands early as opposed to late.
6. BAD BOYS, BAD BOYS, WHATCHA GONNA DO...
No team spent more time killing penalties last winter than the Jets as Paul Maurice & Co. pushed the edge on being one of the NHL’s hardest teams to play against. But while getting nailed for finishing checks late or for dropping the gloves can represent toughness, it’s the careless stick infractions that kept piling up for the Jets last season. The Jets had the 13th-best penalty-kill percentage in the NHL last year at 81.8 per cent and that number will have to improve if the penchant for penalties doesn’t change.
What’s difficult now for the Jets to overcome is this reputation, completely earned. It’s like trying to get a red-wine stain out of a white carpet.
7. CAN THEY MAKE IT YESTERDAY’S NEWS?
This question had to be near No. 1 last season but really only ranks middle of the pack at best this time around.
But it’s always a question — what about that goaltending?
Both Ondrej Pavelec and the Jets are feeling pretty good about things after a year of career-best numbers for the No. 1 netminder. Backup Michael Hutchinson had a lot to do with the team’s success, even if he wasn’t all that effective in the late going. Both netminders had their breakthroughs in 2014-15.
A decline would be troubling for the Jets, who can ill-afford to slip at all in the tight Central race.
8. MORE BAND-AID SOLUTIONS?
No truth to the rumour the Jets doctors and training staff replaced the door to the medical room with a turnstile last year due to the constant procession of wounded. There were stretches last season when the team was hammered by hurts, particularly to the defensive corps with Byfuglien, Toby Enstrom, Jacob Trouba, Mark Stuart and Ben Chiarot all missing chunks but the team managed to more than tread water during their absences. But we also saw in the playoffs how the heavy grind of the long NHL season can also take a toll with Ladd, Trouba, Perreault, Bryan Little and others all fighting through injuries in the series with Anaheim.
The Jets finished with 232 man-games lost to injury last season and while that might seem like a lot, it ranked just 15th (Columbus was first with a whopping 502). Every team suffers through injuries. What the Jets hope to avoid is that perfect storm like last year when one particular unit gets decimated.
9. GOOD PROBLEMS TO HAVE
Winnipeg’s right side of Tyler Myers, Jacob Trouba and Dustin Byfuglien might be the deepest in the league. Will it live up to the billing? Just as important, can Maurice find enough minutes for them all?
Many teams would love to have this kind of problem.
What the Jets will need to refine is their pairings — will things evolve differently or will it be Enstrom with Myers, Mark Stuart with Trouba and Chiarot with Byfuglien on a full-time basis?
And when someone is injured, which is inevitable, will the contributions from the understudies come even close to the award-winning job done last season by the likes of Adam Pardy and Jay Harrison?
10. THE FINAL VERDICT/OUR BEST GUESS
Will the Jets play to a white-out crowd again next April? Great question. And for what it’s worth...
Tim Campbell: Leaning yes. Have always been a proof/evidence sort. The Jets provided the proof last season, so they deserve the nod here. Fourth in the Central seems attainable.
Ed Tait: Yes. The injection of young blood gives the Jets a boost. I have them finishing fourth in the Central (behind St. Louis, Chicago and Minnesota) and seventh in the West.