Easier Travel but Harder Road for 2013-14 Winnipeg Jets

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Welcome back to Puck Drop: NHL Preview 2013-14, where our hockey department gives you a detailed look at each team from around the NHL leading to the start of this hockey season.  Check back often as new teams are added to our Puck Drop page.  Today we take a look at the 2013-14 Winnipeg Jets.

Last year was not an easy one for the Winnipeg Jets on or off the ice. A year after the NHL finally made its return to Manitoba the team was lost again, this time to a lockout that would effectively cut the Jets sophomore season in half. Winnipeg ownership was one of the strong voices of the lockout, attempting to return hockey to their tremendously patient fans. Allegedly the eager attitude of the Jets management to find middle ground as soon as possible sparked profane conflict with Boston Bruins owner, and “leader” of the owners, Jeremy Jacobs. On the ice the Jets were in the playoff hunt for the entire season, a quest aided exponentially by their Southeast Division membership. The Jets even held the division title for a significant periods of time. But ultimately they faded down the stretch, finishing four points out of the playoffs and paying homage to the fact that this is still very much a team in development.

Last Season

When Cam Ward went down to injury and Carolina started rapidly declining, it seemed like Winnipeg would take the division on virtue of being a mediocre team in a division of disappointments. At that point Washington was hovering around .500 and even that had required a big jump in quality. But on the back of Hart Trophy winner Alex Ovechkin, the resurgent Capitals took the Southeast and with it any opportunity Winnipeg had of making the playoffs.

However, despite the disappointing end to the 2013 season, there were plenty of positives for the Winnipeg Jets. For one, captain Andrew Ladd had a stellar season, putting up almost a point per game and earning a place on many people’s projected Team Canada roster in the process. Blake Wheeler also had an incredibly impressive season alluding to the fact that he has potential to be a 30 goal+ scorer over a full 82-game season. Meanwhile, on the backend Zach Bogosian and Dustin Byfuglien continued to headline the Jets blue line, though in Byfuglien’s case it wasn’t always for the right reasons, as whispers of his weight issues resurfaced.

The Offseason

As with Detroit and Columbus, the biggest move the Winnipeg Jets made this offseason was a transfer of conferences. Moving to the Western Conference spells the end of taking advantage of the Southeast for Winnipeg, something that will surely affect their 2013-14 playoff chances. While Winnipeg would have had a legitimate shot at the Southeast Division title, they move to the other end of the spectrum and join the Central, which looks like one of the toughest divisions in hockey. At this rate it could be a couple years before Winnipeg hosts post season hockey.

But the move west also has plenty of positives, which is why the Jets pushed so hard for relocation. Formerly home of the toughest travel schedule in the league, the Jets can expect shorter flight times now that treks to the Southern USA are not nearly as frequent. Furthermore, the Jets have brought a little extra fuel for their excursion west. GM Kevin Cheveldayoff was quick to address the hole at Right Wing, adding Devin Setoguchi and Michael Frolik. Both will be welcome additions to a currently uni-dimensional Jets offense. Matt Halischuk at forward and Adam Pardy on the backend are both nice depth additions who should see some time in 2013-14.  Meanwhile, Ron Hainsey is still exploring free agency due to what many believe was his role in the lockout negotiations. His loss will be felt as he played big minutes on the back end for the Jets.

Winnipeg’s wealth of young talent are also starting to make their way through. Mark Scheifle could be a player to watch in the Calder hunt as he could potentially challenge lackluster Olli Jokinen for the second line centre position. Meanwhile, World Junior standout Jacob Trouba has an opportunity to join a defensive corps with plenty of potential. But Winnipeg will also be suffering from the loss of another young talent in Alexander Burmistrov. Despite a disappointing 2013 season, the young Russian would have definitely looked nice in this revamped Jets lineup.

Storylines to Watch

The Jets have invested a lot of money and time in goaltender Ondrej Pavelec. So far they haven’t been getting the best return on that investment. This past season Pavelec largely underwhelmed, something that wasn’t evident if you watched his highlight tapes. He definitely won the Jets some contests in 2013-14, but also was incredibly unpredictable and let in a ton of poor goals, which were reflected in his stats. Winnipeg is going to need a much improved performance from him if they want to make the playoffs this year.

The top line in Winnipeg of Andrew Ladd, Bryan Little and Blake Wheeler is solid, the latter two getting large paydays in part due to this recent performance. However, past this group the scoring runs a bit thin. Two players must emerge as a compliment to Evander Kane in providing the Jets with a legit second line.  From a group that includes Mark Scheifele, Michael Frolik, Olli Jokinen and Devin Setoguchi, two players will need to step up in a big way to get the Jets the goals they need.

While, as stated above, the defensive corps has plenty of potential, they haven’t realized it yet. The team ranked a lowly 24th in terms of team defense last year – Pavelec’s underwhelming season didn’t help the defense.  Almost everyone on the staff will have to improve this season, along with the possible introduction of Jacob Trouba, if they want to significantly improve their goals against totals.

The fact that Claude Noel only signed a one-year deal makes it clear that this season is crucial to his longevity with the club. Anything but playoffs will probably lead to the charismatic coach being relieved of his position. Therefore, Winnipeg might take some risks with young prospects who may not quite be ready for the NHL in an attempt to win now.

Player to Watch

Everyone surrounding the Winnipeg Jets organization has been waiting for the incredibly talented Evander Kane to break out since the moment he first stepped on NHL ice.  Many believe that 2013-14 could finally be the year that Kane transforms into an elite NHL talent, and there is plenty of good evidence to support that possibility. With a deeper forward group in 2013-14, Kane should crack the 60-point plateau for the first time in his career.

 

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Main photo credit: clydeorama via photopin cc