Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 24/4/2015 (1768 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
There's a theory floating out there on Cloud 9 — still crowded with Winnipeg Jets faithful locked arm in arm and singing merrily — that GM Kevin Cheveldayoff has absolutely nailed this draft-and-develop blueprint.
So the Jets boss now needs only to ease back in his comfy chair, throw his feet up on his desk and light up a celebratory stogie. Playoffs? Heck, yeah. Been there, done that. And surely there will be more to follow now, year after year after year.
Well, about all that...
Look, this late-season push to the playoffs by the Jets and the euphoria that swallowed this town whole over the last week has been memorable, but it also considerably cranks up the level on expectations in these parts. And so while Cheveldayoff & Co. were drawing hearty slaps on the back for their starry prospect pool and their work this winter near the trade deadline, it's what happens next that will really determine whether this franchise continues to be represented by an upward arrow or flatlines.
With that in mind, we dive in with our annual mini-post-mortem, beginning with five questions/issues that will need tending to this off-season:
1. Can they stick together as a team?
There have been a ton of references over the last few days/weeks/months about how this bunch is so tight, about how much it cares and about how much it competes. That's just peachy. But this team could look considerably different when it lines up for training camp next September. Change happens to Stanley Cup champs, to contenders and clubs rebuilding. It's a given.
There are eight unrestricted free agents and there's no way in Hades all eight return. That UFA crew includes forwards Michael Frolik, Drew Stafford, Lee Stempniak, Jim Slater, Jiri Tlusty, Matt Halischuk and T.J. Galiardi and defenceman Adam Pardy. Couple that with the fact Andrew Ladd, Dustin Byfuglien, Jay Harrison and Grant Clitsome are scheduled to become UFAs in 2016, that Paul Postma and Ben Chiarot are restricted free agents this summer and young guns such as Jacob Trouba, Mark Scheifele and Adam Lowry see their entry-level deals expire after 2015-16 and the Jets have a pile of players who are or will soon be looking for a pile of money.
Getting to the playoffs is one thing. Staying there consistently on a budget is the real challenge.
2. Prime-time players or more seasoning required?
A few gems from the Jets stable of prospects who could push for work with the big club next season — providing there is room:
— Big, team-first, two-way centre Andrew Copp, who joined the Jets from the University of Michigan. Veteran Jim Slater may be looking over his shoulder here.
— Slick Nik Ehlers, the nifty left-winger who just finished a season with the Halifax Mooseheads in which he had 47 goals and 132 points in 65 games, including playoffs, in the QMJHL. The Jets could use more skill up front, but it's either the big club or back to the Q for Ehlers, who isn't eligible yet for the AHL.
— Josh Morrissey, the top D-man at the world juniors, had a good camp last year and is now with the Western Hockey League's Kelowna Rockets. Very smooth skater, through-the-roof hockey IQ.
— Goaltender Connor Hellebuyck, who was so impressive in his first year as a pro in St. John's, going 28-22-5 with a 2.57 goals-against average and .921 save percentage. Is he ready now or in need of another heavy-workload year in the AHL?
— Centre Nic Petan, who posted massive numbers with Portland of the WHL — 322 points in 188 games over the last three years. Could be in the AHL. Small, but nifty.
3. Has the goaltending question been answered?
Ondrej Pavelec posted some solid numbers, thanks to a late-season stretch in which he helped drag the franchise into the playoffs. His GAA of 2.28, save percentage of .920 and five shutouts were all the best of his career. But he'll still have his doubters when the 2015-16 season opens and his paycheque jumps to $4.25 million and $4.75 million over the final two years of his contract.
Even though he lost the No. 1 gig to Pavelec late in the season, Michael Hutchinson finished 21-10-5 with a .914 save percentage and 2.39 GAA. His salary is also just $600,000. Consider this, as well: Over the last three years the Jets are 38-20-8 in games where somebody else — namely Hutchinson or Al Montoya — was tending the blue paint.
The playoffs have already shown that committing big money to netminders doesn't necessarily guarantee anything.
4. The captain and the big man
Two key components — both with Stanley Cup rings — are coming up on the final years of their deals, as hinted at above. Andrew Ladd, as suspected, finished the regular season putting off surgery and playing hurt and it was reflected in his offensive totals over the last few weeks. Still, he also posted a career-high in points with 62 and, for all the criticisms he receives from outside the room, inside it he's a respected leader and will likely command a significant raise to his current $4.5-million deal.
And putting aside his last couple of weeks — a suspension near the end of the season and a so-so playoffs — Dustin Byfuglien was this team's MVP candidate for most of the campaign. But now what? Keeping him will cost, too — he'll earn $6 million this year — both in money and term. He just turned 30 and there is a risk in signing him to a long-term deal, not for what might be on the horizon, but what his game might look like five years from now.
5. A new name under the microscope?
Toby Enstrom has quietly and efficiently done his thing for the Jets over the past few years as a steady puck-moving defenceman who helps those paired with him take their game to new levels. He worked especially well with Tyler Myers after the trade with Buffalo and still sees a ton of time on the power play.
All that said, Enstrom turns 31 in November and is scheduled to earn $5.75 million next season, third highest on the team next year to Byfuglien ($6 million) and Blake Wheeler ($5.8 million). And during the playoffs he was pounded by Ducks forwards, fuelling debate about whether he can stand the heavy going in the Western Conference and knowing that Morrissey — who has a similar skill set and is bigger — might not be far off from cracking the roster.
The Jets/Thrashers are the only organization he's known and he does have a no-trade clause in his contract. But you wonder, especially as the Jets try to make pieces fit, what might be out there if his name is floated.
Six promising numbers
Three ugly numbers
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