The curtain lifted on the 2014-15 NHL season Wednesday night with 30 teams all fixated on chasing one prize: the Stanley Cup.

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This article was published 8/10/2014 (2413 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Opinion

The curtain lifted on the 2014-15 NHL season Wednesday night with 30 teams all fixated on chasing one prize: the Stanley Cup.

Now, it's right about here that many seem obligated to spit out the party lines about parity, about everybody starting at zero. It's here where the references to the Colorado Avalanche -- who went from worst to first in the Central Division last year -- are to have us believe everybody is all-in on this pursuit of glory.

All of which, of course, is hooey.

Realistically -- and with all due respect to folks in Carolina, Buffalo, Florida, Edmonton, Calgary and here in Winnipeg who want to dream big -- just a third of the NHL has a legit shot at the thing.

And the juiciest storylines surrounding that angle as the campaign opens are:

  • Can the Los Angeles Kings not only win their third title in four years, but become the first to repeat since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997-98?
  • Do the Chicago Blackhawks cement their own place as legends by winning their third championship in six years?
  • Can new management in Pittsburgh finally land another Cup win for Penguins talents Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, who have won just one?
  • And is there actually an Eastern Conference team talented, deep and gritty enough to end the run of Western dominance that has seen teams out here win the last three and six of the last eight titles?

As for the Jets, who are in the midst of the second-longest post-season drought in the NHL at seven years and counting -- only Edmonton, eight years absent is longer -- the key question will be exactly the same as this time last fall when we presented our 2013-14 preview.

And the headline on that story would absolutely fit again: "Playoffs or bust?"

In no particular order, here are 10 things/questions/issues/concerns to monitor as the Jets open their fourth season in Winnipeg:

WHAT'S IT GOING TO BE, JETS: PLAYOFFS OR EPIC FAILURE?

There might be no greater sin in the NHL than to finish just this close to making the playoffs. It denies a franchise of both a shot at a championship and the top-end talent in the ensuing draft. To their credit, the Jets have landed some potential future stars with their four first-round picks in Mark Scheifele, Jacob Trouba, Josh Morrissey and Nik Ehlers.

But in the three years in Winnipeg this franchise has finished 11th twice and ninth once in the conference. Decent, but just not decent enough. Awful, but not awful enough.

Every draft offers up and hypes its share of "generational talent," but NHL scouts have been raving about Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel for years. That's the silver lining for any franchise that falls on its lips this season. (Worth noting, this week the Jets dropped from 66-to-1 long shots to win the Stanley Cup at the beginning of September to the current line of 100-to-1 -- tied with Carolina, and behind both Buffalo and Calgary at 200-to-1).

Securing a playoff spot next spring would eliminate the Jets from the McDavid/Eichel sweepstakes, but further legitimize their draft-and-develop strategy that has stocked the prospect shelves. But another ninth-to-11th finish in the conference would only crank up the frustration level by 100.

A good chunk of that frustration would come from within the team's own walls. Consider: Of the Jets' 23-man roster, 14 are 26 years old or older, including vets Jim Slater and Chris Thorburn (31), Mark Stuart and Adam Pardy (30), Toby Enstrom, Dustin Byfuglien and Grant Clitsome (29), Andrew Ladd and Blake Wheeler (28), Ondrej Pavelec (27) and Bryan Little, Mathieu Perreault, Michael Frolik and T.J. Galiardi (26).

Those players want to win now, not wait on the field of prospects to ripen.

PAV THE PIN CUSHION

Hey, so maybe you've heard: Ondrej Pavelec is under the microscope here in Winnipeg. His numbers: a 3.01 goals-against average and .901 save percentage all rank him at or near the bottom of the NHL. The big Czech was solid in the pre-season, but every goal against this season is going to become a referendum on his career. That issue simply won't go away unless he's the man who backstops this franchise to the playoffs.

What happened this week with the Jets trading for Petr Budaj and sending him to St. John's while opting to keep Michael Hutchinson as the No. 2 man is just as intriguing as what happens with Pavelec.

Hutchinson was brilliant in his three-game call-up late last year with the Jets and in the IceCaps' run to the Calder Cup final. But he hardly instilled confidence with a 3.73 GAA and .867 save percentage in the pre-season. In Budaj, they have secured a veteran safety net. To wrap up the backup discussion, the Jets have essentially replaced Al Montoya -- who signed in Florida for $1 million -- with Budaj ($1.4 million) and Hutchinson ($575,000).

The question that may soon be asked -- or not, if Pavelec can silence his critics -- might then be: how long before Connor Hellebuyck is ready?

THE MAURICE EFFECT

The Jets immediately responded after the coaching change last January, going 9-2 in their first 11 games under Paul Maurice.

But as injuries mounted and the sprint to the playoffs intensified, they faded with a 9-10-5 record after the initial surge.

The 18-12-5 record under Maurice would translate into a playoff spot if extended over 82 games. But the inconsistency under Maurice -- injuries or not -- has also been the trademark of this franchise since its arrival in Winnipeg.

Just when you think the club is taking the proverbial next step, it twists an ankle and stumbles sideways or backwards.

THE MAURICE EFFECT, PART DEUX -- A DEFENSIVE BUY-IN

If Maurice has been asked once, he's been asked a thousand times since his arrival about which area would need the biggest correction for the Jets to morph into a playoff team. And he always comes back to one area -- goals against. Winnipeg was 22nd in goals against per game last year and was minus-10 in goal differential (227-237). Trimming that number is paramount in flipping the totals in one-goal games (21-15-10 overall) and move closer to a team like Colorado, which was 28-4-8 in those tight contests.

ROOM TO MOVE?

Just how tough is the NHL's Central Division, the neighbourhood in which the Jets reside? The Central provided five playoff teams last spring, more than any other division. It featured three 100-plus point teams (Colorado, 112; St. Louis, 111 and Chicago, 107) and includes the Dallas Stars, who added Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky and drew rave reviews for the work of GM Jim Nill during the summer.

A late-season swoon by the Jets saw the Nashville Predators -- 7-1-2 in their last 10 -- overtake and drop them into the Central cellar. Clearly, if the Jets are to make a push, their record against their own Central foes -- 9-15-5 last year, including eight one-goal losses and five more setbacks in overtime or in the shootout -- has to be vastly superior.

BIG BUFF: A FORWARD, A D-MAN OR A HYBRID OF BOTH?

What does it say of Dustin Byfuglien that 528 games into his NHL career this is a topic still being debated? It says he is a rare mix of power, size and skill that still remains a bit of an enigma for all those coaches who have tried to pigeonhole him into one position vs. the other.

And maybe it says something of Maurice -- who happens to have 478 more NHL coaching wins than you and I -- that he doesn't want to lock the big man into one spot, but use him both as a quarterback on the point on the power play and in four-on-four situations and as a power forward in five-on-five situations.

In any case, consider this: Byfuglien tied a career high with 20 goals last year and set a career high with 56 points. And the Jets will take that kind of production again, whether he's playing on the top line, on the third trio or periodically manning the blue-line.

NEW FACES, NEW RESULTS?

The Jets hardly made a splash this summer, despite all the speculation that swirled around Evander Kane. Gone are expensive roster-spot stealers like Olli Jokinen and Devin Setoguchi, along with fourth-liner James Wright, No. 2 netminder Al Montoya and depth defenceman Zach Redmond. Jokinen and Setoguchi were replaced by Perreault and rookie Adam Lowry while Wright's spot looks to be filled by a combination of a healthy Matt Halischuk and newcomer T.J. Galiardi. Those aren't headline-grabbing moves, but they do better fit the Jets blueprint.

THE ROOT OF THAT EVIL

The Jets penalty-killing unit finished tied for ninth last year at 83.2 per cent and coaches will rave if their special teams are top 10 material. But there was some ugly behind that number: only five teams -- Ottawa, Philadelphia, L.A., Detroit and St. Louis -- were short-handed more than the Jets.

A team with as much size and speed up front as the Jets should also be drawing more penalties. But, instead, Winnipeg had more power plays than its opponent in just 25 games last year (16 were even).

... AND FURTHER TO THAT, ABOUT THAT POWER PLAY?

As solid as the PK unit was, the power play was hardly a game changer. The Jets finished 25th overall with the man advantage and, considering the number of one-goal games they appeared in, that has to be considered the ultimate in lost opportunity.

Some factors/numbers are inter-related here: the Jets were 28th in the NHL last year in faceoff percentage (46.9 per cent) and often started their own man advantages fighting just to get the puck back. That's why the addition of Perreault, an excellent man on the draw who works well on the wall on the power play, could be one of those additions that pays off big time.

THE BONUS ROUND

In an effort to keep this to 10 topics, we finish by jamming a few more into one final chunk:

  • Does Evander Kane find a home with Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler and morph into a 40-goal scorer? Along the way, does he say something -- anything -- that indicates he actually wants to be here? Does that really even matter if he's scoring?
  • Can the Jets get some offensive pop from their bottom-six forwards? Last year's combination of Matt Halischuk, Eric O'Dell, Eric Tangradi, Chris Thorburn, Jim Slater, James Wright, Patrice Cormier and John Albert combined for a total of 17 goals.
  • Will the Jets blue-line be hammered by injuries -- again -- and is there enough depth in the D corps? A year ago the Jets lost Zach Bogosian, Grant Clitsome, Jacob Trouba and Mark Stuart for significant chunks, testing their organizational depth.
  • And, finally, just how patient are hockey fans in this town?

ed.tait@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @WFPEdTait

 

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