Season Preview: Winnipeg Jets
The honeymoon is over in Winnipeg.
Entering their fourth season in Manitoba, the Jets triumphant return to the city is yet to yield anything of significance.
No major trades, no marquee free agent, no play-offs. This team remains the Atlanta Thrashers in a different set of jerseys. But with Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel on the horizon, do the Jets take another year in the basement in the hope of grabbing a new franchise player?
With Dustin Byfuglien moving to forward again this season, the Jets have a solid top 6.
Blake Wheeler led the team with 28 goals and 69 points, making Team Canada’s Olympic roster in the process, while Bryan Little had a career best 64 points. Team Captain Andrew Ladd passed 50 points for the third straight year (discounting the truncated 2012/13 campaign, in which he still scored 46 points) – giving Winnipeg an effective, if unheralded, first line.
21-year old Mark Scheifele got his first serious opportunity with the club last season, and Michael Frolik had his best season since 2010. But the ongoing battle between the club, the local media and Evander Kane seems no closer to being resolved.
Kane is capable of scoring 30 goals again, but the strained relationship often seems like an unwelcome distraction for a team coming under increasing pressure to move forward – especially when you consider how thing the depth chart becomes beyond the top two lines. Winnipeg needs Kane at his best if they are to compete.
Mathieu Perreault is a solid addition, signing a 3-year, $9m as a free agent this summer, with former Avs and Sharks winger TJ Galiardi also joining – but Devin Setoguchi departs for Calgary; and while Anthony Peluso and Jim Slater may work hard, they’re not really scaring anyone in a division loaded with talent.
Offensive prospects seem thin on the ground for the Jets as well. Alexander Burmistrov remains in the KHL for at least one more year and Patrice Cormier continues to struggle to make the grade at NHL level, but giant winger Adam Lowry might get a chance to show what he can do this year.
At The Back
Tobias Enstrom struggled to get back to his best last year, having missed more than 40 games over the previous two seasons. If the 29-year old can find form again, Winnipeg has one of the most underrated puck moving D men in the league at their disposal.
The rest of the Jets blue line was ravaged by injury last season. Jacob Trouba was extremely impressive in his rookie season, but missed 17 games, while Zach Bogosian was sidelined for 27 games as the 3rd overall pick in 2008 continues to battle health issues.
Grant Clitsome also missed more than half the season as the Jets blue line creaked under the strain.
Without Byfuglien, Winnipeg needs its top 6 to stay healthy this year – with a lack of depth at the back also a concern.
Between The Pipes
Ondrej Pavelec received the backing of the Jets top brass during the summer, despite an awful 2013/14 campaign.
The big Czech barely cleared a .900 save percentage and averaged more than 3 goals per game against. In a Division boasting at least two of the leagues best stoppers, Winnipeg needs more from the 27-year old if they are to progress at all.
Remarkably, the club chose to waive Peter Budaj less than 24 hours after acquiring him from Montreal – giving 24-year old Michael Hutchinson the opportunity to build on the three starts he was given last season.
Even with the lack of depth at the top and along the blue line, goaltending remains the clubs hot button topic – and could break the Jets season before it has even begun.
Behind The Bench
Paul Maurice took Carolina to the Stanley Cup Final in 2002, and to the Conference Final in 2009, but has an even bigger task on his hands in Winnipeg.
The Jets went 18-12-5 under Maurice after he succeeded Claude Noel in January, with the 47-year old agreeing a contract extension in April.
Maurice is a smart cookie; but with the rest of the Central Division taking a step forward this summer, the former Toronto coach will need to draw on all of his experience this coming season.
Biggest Addition – Mathieu Perreault
Winnipeg isn’t exactly the destination of choice for free agents, but Perrault moves North after scoring 18 goals and 43 points in 69 games with Anaheim last season.
Whilst the two locations could not be more contrasting, Perreault provides some much needed depth and could break 20 goals for the first time if he can stay healthy.
Biggest Loss – Olli Jokinen
The veteran Finn may not be the force he was with Florida nearly a decade ago, but he brought a wealth of experience to the Jets.
Again depth is the issue here, with Winnipeg losing another player who could have given them a much more balanced line up this season.
Key Man – Ondrej Pavelec
It’s hard to imagine Pavelec being worse this season (unless he actually forgets how to skate), but Winnipeg needs significant improvement from their #1 if they are to have any hope moving forward.
This Seasons Chances…
It wouldn’t be entirely surprising to see Winnipeg propping up the West by the seasons end – perhaps even the entire league! Whether they are worse than Calgary or Buffalo remains to be seen, but it’s almost impossible to imagine a scenario where they don’t finish last in the Central Division again this year.
Of course the silver lining to it is a shot at McDavid or Eichel – which is perhaps not bad thing for as club in desperate need of something to cheer about now the welcome wagon has lost its shine.