Embarking on the second season of their re-birth, the Winnipeg Jets hope to build off a season a year ago, which despite missing the playoffs, offered some optimism going forward. However, it can not be expected to get any easier for them this year as it looks like the Eastern Conference will once again be highly competitive and brutally deep.
For the Jets to accomplish the challenging task of cracking the top eight in the East they will need to further improve on the things they did well last year while eliminating the aspects that caused their downfall. For starters, as captain Andrew Ladd touched on prior to the beginning of training camp, they will need to get off to a strong start in this season that, to use what is becoming one of the most tiring cliches around the league, is a sprint rather than a marathon. The group of forwards, which does possess some quality depth, must continue to evolve offensively but more importantly perhaps is their need to offer more support to the defensive side of the game.
The need of the forwards to bring a more committed defensive approach is vital because the Jets defence is for a lack of a better term not that good. A scrappy bunch, they are capable of producing moments of solid play as a unit in their own zone but simply do not possess the talent level capable of playing a shut-down, lock-em-down style. Their saving grace last season more often than not was the play of goaltender Ondrej Pavelec who took a big step in becoming a bonafide carry-the-team-on-his-back type of goaltender. He will be busy this year and will certainly need to do more of the same if these Jets hope to rise in the East.
Averaging 2.70 goals per game a year ago, a respectable 12th best in the league, the Jets feature a solid four lines complete with speed, skill and grit. Although they do not have a clear cut number one line, they do have the luxury of having two lines that could lay claim to that label. Bryan Little flanked by Blake Wheeler and Andrew Ladd would seem to be the team’s most potent trio especially if the 26-year-old Wheeler can build off a 2011-2012 campaign that saw him take big steps towards becoming an all-star forward. Then their is the projected trio of free agent acquisition Oli Jokinen along with Evander Kane and Kyle Wellwood.
Coming off of a very productive season in Calgary, Jokinen brings some much needed size and scoring ability down the middle for the Jets whose lack of a big, strong centerman hampered them greatly last year. The verteran 34-year-old will hope to mesh with the 21-year-old Kane’s tremendous speed and lethal shooting ability. Wellwood, if he is indeed the third member of the line, will play a key role, as his positioning and puck-smarts should be a nice compliment to the speed and power of Jokinen and Kane.
After that top six comes a group of players who provide the club with solid two-way play but can also chip in offensively. Alex Ponikarovsky was another off-season pickup by GM Kevin Cheveldayoff brought in for his experience and ability to play a grinding game on the wing as well as being very strong on the puck. The skilled and determined Alex Burmistrov can be moved from a scoring line to a checking line but there were times last year when it was unclear which type of player the coaching staff wanted him to be.
Early pre-season injuries to Nik Antropov and Antti Miettinen could prove to be problematic and may force Cheveldayoff to keep top prospect Mark Scheifele and thrust him into the lineup as the third-line center or move him to the wing. The good news however with that is the fact that Scheifele is coming off a strong performance at the World Juniors and is already in top game shape.
Jim Slater and Chris Thorburn performed well on a consistent basis in their roles as checking forwards and will be counted on for more of the same. Spencer Machacek was a pleasant surprise at the end of last season and figures to factor into the team’s bottom six especially with the injuries to Antropov and Miettinen.
If the Jets ability to put the puck in the net was looked at as one of the team’s strengths last year, then it is needless to say that keeping the puck out of their net was the biggest weakness. Allowing 2.95 goals per game, the 5th worst total in the league, Winnipeg’s blueline struggled throughout the season and let them down in a number of games where a defensive breakdown here and a bad pinch there would cost them a game they might have otherwise won.
At the forefront of the team’s struggles defensively was the player they rely on more than any other defenceman, Dustin Byfuglien. Byfuglien’s flashes of offensive brilliance were outweighed by the number of poor decisions he made trying too much to be an offensive presence. There were far too many highlights of Byfuglien getting burned on a bad pinch and skating forwards chasing the opposition rather than being in good position defensively, and those instances simply must be cut down this year. Zach Bogosian continues to progress towards being a first-pair, shut-down blueliner but heads into the season with a question mark thanks to a wrist injury that kept him off skates the entire off-season and throughout the lockout. The good news is that Bogosian is a physical specimen and shouldn’t take long to regain his game-shape and strength.
Although their improvement defensively is an absolute necessity, Byfuglien’s puck-skills, vision and canon point-shot, Bogosian’s speed, power and equally hard shot, along with Tobias Enstrom’s exceptional skating and puck-moving ability gives the Jets some tasty offensive options from the backend. Ron Hainsey, Mark Stuart, Grant Clitsome, Derek Meech and Paul Postma round out the group, and whether they are capable or not, will all be relyed on to improve the team’s defensive fortunes.
In Pavelec, the Jets have a goalie who proved last year that he can be a difference-maker capable of bailing his team out and stealing a game. If his team is going to be better this year though the 25-year-old Pavelec will need to play a lesser role. That is not to say he won’t be the team’s most important player again because he will be, but if Winnipeg hopes to make the playoffs they simply cannot rely on their goaltender as much as they did in the 2011-2012 season.
Backing him up will be Al Montoya, who after appearing in a career high 31 games for the New York Islanders, has finally seemed to find some consistency after struggling early in his career. He will need to do exactly what Chris Mason did a year ago and that is to provide Pavelec and the Jets with some steady play in relief, something that will be especially important in tee short season with so many games bunched together.