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Jets hope seven is their lucky number

Team facing extra pressure this season to take giant leap forward

TREVOR HAGAN/WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

TREVOR HAGAN/WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

The pressure has never been more intense and Paul Maurice’s hot seat has never been toastier.

From the upper echelons of management to the players scrapping for roles on the fourth line, the 2017-18 NHL season promises to be a defining one for the Winnipeg Jets.

The team oozes youthful promise but after years of middling success and missing the playoffs, there seems to be universal agreement the Jets need to take a quantum leap forward — into the NHL post-season and beyond.

So, on the eve of training camp, here are seven key questions to ponder as the franchise begins its seventh season in Winnipeg since relocating from Atlanta:

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The pressure has never been more intense and Paul Maurice’s hot seat has never been toastier.

From the upper echelons of management to the players scrapping for roles on the fourth line, the 2017-18 NHL season promises to be a defining one for the Winnipeg Jets.

The team oozes youthful promise but after years of middling success and missing the playoffs, there seems to be universal agreement the Jets need to take a quantum leap forward — into the NHL post-season and beyond.

So, on the eve of training camp, here are seven key questions to ponder as the franchise begins its seventh season in Winnipeg since relocating from Atlanta:

Winnipeg Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck (37) shuts down Nashville Predators' Kevin Fiala (56) on a breakaway during first period NHL action in Winnipeg on Saturday, April 8, 2017.

JOHN WOODS / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES

Winnipeg Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck (37) shuts down Nashville Predators' Kevin Fiala (56) on a breakaway during first period NHL action in Winnipeg on Saturday, April 8, 2017.

What is the goaltending plan?

The Jets opted to run with then-23-year-old netminder Connor Hellebuyck to begin the 2016-17 season, retaining Michael Hutchinson as his backup and demoting the franchise’s perennial No. 1 goalie, Ondrej Pavelec, to the American Hockey League.

It made some sense entrusting the job to a relatively inexperienced guy, considering the overall youth of the roster. But a lot of fingers were being crossed within the organization when the plan to go with Hellebuyck was hatched.

The results were not particularly pretty. Hellebuyck, a college standout with parts of two terrific AHL seasons under his belt and a solid stint with the Jets during the 2015-16 season when Pavelec missed 33 games with a knee injury, finished last year 26-19-4. At first blush, the record looks decent. But his goals-against average of 2.89 and save percentage of .907 were below acceptable standards for an everyday masked man in the NHL.

Enter veteran Steve Mason, heading into his 10th season in the NHL, to stabilize the situation in the crease.

Signed July 1 to a two-year deal, at US$4.1 million per season, the 29-year-old Mason is a proven starter after gigs in Columbus — where he made his exceptional league debut, winning the 2009 Calder Trophy as the NHL’s rookie of the year — and Philadelphia.

His most recent stats with the Flyers — a 26-21-8 record with three shutouts, a 2.66 GAA and .908 save percentage — aren’t exactly miles ahead of Hellebuyck’s but the Jets brass looks to his overall body of work and are trusting he’s the established starter they can rely on until Hellebuyck or blue-chip prospect Eric Comrie assume the role.

Maurice, Winnipeg’s head coach, said earlier this week he’s excited about the arrival of the guy he’ll call on most often to provide the last line of defence.

"Clearly, he’s had some great years in the NHL," said Maurice. "He’s a veteran goaltender. He has a routine that he wants before and a routine he wants after. So, he’s a good pro in terms of how he approaches getting ready to play and that’s refreshing," he said. "It’s also good for our other young goalies that are here to watch that, to watch a guy who has been in the league who puts the time in to get ready to play and to practice."

How Maurice juggles a heavy workload for Mason while ensuring Hellebuyck doesn’t get rusty on the bench will play itself out, he said.

"We’ll use the same set of rules for Steve that we would for Connor. You want to get on a roll, feel free and we’ll let you run with it."

Kyle Connor

BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Kyle Connor

Will Kyle Connor emerge as a star?

The Jets taskmasters want this kid in the opening-night roster against the Toronto Maple Leafs, playing top-six minutes on the left side with centre Bryan Little.

You don’t devise a mini-camp heavy on drills aimed at strengthening the very areas he struggled in last season as an NHL winger if you’ve pre-determined the AHL is where he’s headed.

Maurice wants the 6-1, 188-pound Connor — who looks about 10 pounds thicker this fall — prepared to battle for pucks every shift, winning more than he loses. That was absent from the 20-year-old Shelby Township, Mich., product’s game after he made the team out of the 2016 training camp, and it became abundantly clear he was ill-equipped to handle the rigours of the NHL.

He has speed to burn, an elite shot and a flashy set of hands but he’s not in college anymore and needs to play a man’s game deep in the corners and on the wall.

The 17th-overall pick in the 2015 draft had only one goal and three helpers in 19 games and a club-worst minus-eight before he was shuffled to Manitoba in December. After the shock of the demotion wore off, he rebounded with the Pascal Vincent-coached Moose to finish with 25 tallies and 19 assists in 52 games. He returned for the Jets final contest of the season and netted career goal No. 2.

Maurice says Connor’s fuller frame is noticeable, but most importantly he’s showing a willingness to engage in tussles for the puck and doesn’t check out if the initial battle is lost.

"This week, in so many ways, was designed around Connor’s play. Getting on the puck, staying on the puck, controlling it when you’ve got someone leaning on you. Understanding how hard you have to stay on that puck and fight for it," Maurice said earlier this week.

"There’s an understanding of what he needed to get better at. I think that’s true of his personality. I think this guy’s really focused on hockey and getting there. He’s not sitting back saying, ‘I gotta get a chance’ … he’s going out and doing things to make himself a better player, so he just takes it."

Indeed, Connor’s fate is in his own hands and he has a chance to make at least one training camp decision very easy for Maurice and GM Kevin Cheveldayoff.

Winnipeg Jets' Jack Roslovic (52), right, and Andrew Copp (9) during spring practice eariler this year.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Winnipeg Jets' Jack Roslovic (52), right, and Andrew Copp (9) during spring practice eariler this year.

What’s up with the competition for work in the bottom six?

There’s a battle royale brewing, with no fewer than 11 players vying for the last five forward spots in Winnipeg. Only three will actually play, at least initially, while lucky Nos. 4 and 5 (or, more specifically, 13 and 14) take a seat at the far end of the press box.

The incumbents include Andrew Copp, Marko Dano, Shawn Matthias, Brandon Tanev and Nic Petan, while recently signed veteran Matt Hendricks comes over from Edmonton. Then there’s newcomer Michael Sgarbossa, signed to a one-way deal July 1 after playing 29 games split between Anaheim and Florida last season, highly touted former first-round pick Jack Roslovic, second-rounder Brendan Lemieux, and JC Lipon and Chase De Leo.

Copp, who supplied nine goals and eight assists in 64 games and proved to be a serviceable asset for coach Maurice, isn’t going anywhere. He just signed a new two-year deal with an average annual value of US$1 million. It’s a one-way deal, meaning he gets paid the same whether he’s a Jet or a Moose, and there’s a good chance he would not clear waivers if he was demoted. He’s only 23, has played 142 games with the Jets over parts of three seasons, kills penalties and can fill a temporary gap on a top line and is emerging as one of the team’s young leaders.

Hendricks, known as a skilled faceoff guy, was added to bolster the club’s problematic penalty kill and to provide another veteran voice in the dressing room. Matthias, who has another year left at US$2.125 million, had an injury-filled 2016-17 campaign, and the club is still eager to see what a healthy version of the Mississauga, Ont.-born left-winger brings to the table. He’s a third-line guy who likely drops if Kyle Connor makes the roster and Mathieu Perreault slots in with Adam Lowry and Joel Armia.

Tanev, who seems to have earned a permanent spot in Maurice’s good graces, and Dano should win the final two jobs, although expect Sgarbossa to push. He’s a natural centre who can play either wing, forechecks well and has been a consistent scorer at every level except the NHL.

Petan, Lemieux and Roslovic are in tough to stick with the Jets but stand as the most obvious call-ups if the club experiences a rash of injuries, while Lipon and De Leo slide further and further down the depth chart.

 

Can the Jets solve their discipline, penalty-killing woes?

The Jets’ proclivity for taking penalties has been a dominant topic of discussion the last two or three NHL seasons. For the club to make a leap in the standings and usurp a playoff spot from a Western Conference rival, it must find a way to balance playing a physical style while sticking within the rules.

Winnipeg Jets head coach Paul Maurice signals to Michael Frolik (67) in the penalty box during first period NHL action against the Edmonton Oilers in Winnipeg on Saturday, January 18, 2014.

JOHN WOODS / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES

Winnipeg Jets head coach Paul Maurice signals to Michael Frolik (67) in the penalty box during first period NHL action against the Edmonton Oilers in Winnipeg on Saturday, January 18, 2014.

The numbers from the 2016-17 campaign are ugly. Winnipeg took the fourth-most minor penalties (305) in the league, spending 10:10 minutes per game in the box (sixth-most in the NHL). The team’s penalty kill generated a 77.5 per cent efficiency rating — 26th in the NHL — and was even worse at home, just 75.2 (third worst).

Sixty-two times opponents’ power-play units lit the lamp — third-most in the league. When so many games are won or lost by a goal, a lousy PK is a dagger to the heart of a team desperate to take the next step.

Hulking defenceman Dustin Byfuglien took a league-high 40 minor penalties last year. At times, his sheer brawn makes him an easy target for officials but at times his erratic play in the defensive zone forced him to either grab or chop down an oncoming skater.

Was it evidence of a tired hockey player or laziness? The 32-year-old from Roseau, Minn., played the most minutes per game (27:26) of any skater, finishing with nearly 2,200 minutes of ice time in 80 games. A deeper blue-line this season with a healthy Tyler Myers and the insertion of Dmitry Kulikov should cut down on Byfuglien’s ice time to a more manageable number.

While he’s coming off a down season in Buffalo after several years with the Panthers, the Russian-born rearguard said strengthening the penalty kill is a big part of his career revival in Winnipeg.

"They say smart players play on the penalty kill and I consider myself a smart player," said Kulikov. "I played on the penalty kill for most of my career in Florida and I enjoyed it. I enjoy the challenge of playing against the best players on the other team."

How close is the fabulous Finn to reaching his potential?

Patrik Laine, the No. 2 overall lottery pick in 2016, is the gift that keeps giving.

Laine scored 36 times last season as an 18-year-old rookie, represented the Jets at the all-star game and quickly became Winnipeg’s most dangerous sniper. Veteran stars Mark Scheifele and captain Blake Wheeler love playing with him.

Patrik Laine.

BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Patrik Laine.

So, what is Laine’s upside? There is good reason to believe he has the physical tools and the mental toughness to become the NHL’s most-feared goal-scorer, if he isn’t there already.

The Jets are wrestling with a position decision on the Finn.

Does he play on his off side, the left wing, where he has a better shooting angle on the net or on the right, where Maurice believes he has the most potential? Expect the Jets to experiment but they want him to find a permanent home eventually.

The most interesting debate surrounding Laine concerns his position in the club’s power-play hierarchy.

Maurice was ripped last season for putting Laine on the No. 2 unit but he has not strayed from his original rationale:

If Laine is to occupy the left point on Winnipeg’s power play, a la the right-handed Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals, he must play with a sufficient number of left-handed shooting linemates.

The Caps use lefties Evgeny Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom to complement Ovie; the Jets, with most of their forwards firing from the right side, get their lefty help from Nikolaj Ehlers, Perreault and Connor, if he makes the club out of camp.


Winnipeg Jets' head coach Paul Maurice

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Winnipeg Jets' head coach Paul Maurice

Can Maurice build an elite team?

The Jets recently gave Maurice a multi-year contract extension, a clear signal from GM Kevin Cheveldayoff and Jets chairman Mark Chipman that they believe he’s done a lot to nurture the club’s young talent. After all, that was his primary directive when he was hired midway through 2013-14.

In three full seasons since, he has guided Winnipeg to a 118-100 regular-season record (a .541 winning percentage) and one playoff berth, which is a thorny issue for trigger-happy fans convinced the club is merely treading water and not serious about winning.

Maurice must now transition this talent-laden but still inexperienced bunch into savvy, stone-cold winners. It hasn’t been easy.

"I like the way our players have developed and I have to make sure that continues," said Maurice. "And probably, I’ve got to make sure that I don’t get into the grind too early on them. There might have been times there where certain players heard it more than they needed to.

"To be honest with you, I have lots of faith and confidence in the direction that we’re going. I know you look at the playoffs as a miss and that’s a failure for any team. But we made the decision to do what we’re doing. I’ve got lots of confidence in my ability and the team’s ability to get it done."

The Winnipeg Jets' Tyler Myers (57) leaves the ice after the game against the Edmonton Oilers at Investors Group Field following the Winter Classic.

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The Winnipeg Jets' Tyler Myers (57) leaves the ice after the game against the Edmonton Oilers at Investors Group Field following the Winter Classic.

Will we see a return to form from Enstrom, Myers?

After the carnage of 2016-17, when they used 10 defenceman, the Jets will be praying for better health for their blue-line brigade. That is especially true for Toby Enstrom and Myers, Myerswho gobbled up a combined US$11.25 million in cap space but had limited impact.

Their chief concern is likely for Myers, a 27-year-old who played only 11 games last season and is coming off season-ending surgery for a lower-body injury.

The towering defender also rehabbed from hip and knee surgeries in the past but it’s hard to deny that, if he’s in good health and in top form, he could be a massive force for the Jets. So far, that’s a big if. But Myers has looked good in early ice sessions. He is a swift puck-mover with a huge wingspan.

Enstrom, meanwhile, has been with the franchise since the Atlanta days and is coming off a frustrating season, playing only 60 games due to injuries that included a concussion and season-ending knee surgery.

He’s 32 now and getting closer to the end of his career but always used his savvy and dedication to fitness to thrive as a smaller guy in a big man’s game.

Will this be a bounce back year for Enstrom, his 11th in the NHL? Only time will tell.

jason.bell@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @WFPJasonBell

mike.sawatzky@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @sawa14

Read more by Jason Bell and Mike Sawatzky.

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