The Winnipeg Jets hit the post-season for the first time since they relocated from Atlanta in 2011-2012, thereby taking a huge leap forward in the minds of many. And now the time has come for more, with the franchise primed to prove themselves as a legitimate playoff threat and now just a team capable of squeezing into the post-season every so often.
The Jets finished the regular season with a 43-26-13 record, scoring 223 goals and allowing 204 goals against. They did well at home, going 23-13-8 at the MTS Centre. But there will be questions going into the 2015-2016 season and there will be a lot to prove.
General manager Kevin Cheveldayoff watched veteran forwards like Lee Stempniak and Michael Frolik depart, but he also brought in Alexander Burmistrov from the KHL and will hope to give head coach Paul Maurice another four line team. In part, this will have to come out of using prospects like Nikolaj Ehlers.
Andrew Ladd was Winnipeg’s most industrious forward, scoring 62 points including 24 goals. Nine of those came on the power play and six were game-winners. Ladd averaged 20:04 of ice time a game and remains a perfect fit for Maurice’s up-tempo system, but he also spent most of last year with a sports hernia. He’s slated to become an unrestricted free agent in July of 2016, so a decision will have to come regarding his future with the franchise.
Bryan Little is another top offensive threat for the Jets. He had 52 points in 70 games and added three points in four playoff games. He’s got a slick wrist shot and can handle life as the top line centre, plus he is adaptable and plays sound defensive hockey. 29-year-old Blake Wheeler is another quality forward. He added 61 points in 79 games and he’s a big chap at 6’5, 225 pounds. Wheeler likes high-traffic areas and has great skating ability, too.
After Wheeler, the Jets have even more depth at right wing. Drew Stafford was re-signed after coming over in the Evander Kane trade. He had 43 points last season and is a well-versed player. And the aforementioned Burmistrov can play all three forward positions and is as estimable without the puck as he is with it. Throw Mark Scheifele and Mathieu Perreault and you’ve got an impressive top six.
The Jets weren’t the most disciplined team in the NHL. They were shorthanded 308 times, but they managed to be rather effective on the penalty kill. They even tied for the league lead with 10 shorthanded goals. Winnipeg will look to defenceman like Tyler Myers and Toby Enstrom to help contain things. Myers came up with 28 points in 71 games, while Enstrom had 23 points in 60 games and will continue to run the power play.
Dustin Byfuglien continues to be one of Winnipeg’s most daunting players. He had 18 goals last season for a total of 45 points and can be used as a power forward when the situation calls for it. Defensively, he’s not the quickest player in the world but he can clear the crease and play big minutes. At 6’5, 260 pounds, he’s a huge dude.
Jacob Trouba had 22 points in 65 games and is a quality shutdown defenceman. The 21-year-old from Rochester also has an underrated point shot and plays responsible hockey. Trouba was one of the biggest reasons for Winnipeg’s defensive success last season. The team allowed just 28.7 shots against per game and played solid containment hockey. Look for more of the same this season.
Ondrej Pavelec played 50 games and put up 22 wins, posting a 2.28 goals against average with a .920 save percentage. He also managed five shutouts and had one of the best seasons of his career, but he was also prone to unreliable stretches – especially mid-season. Maurice reduced Pavelec’s role as the year carried on and he’ll have to fight to maintain his role as the starter.
Barrie native Michael Hutchinson will challenge Pavelec for the top spot. He won 21 games last season, with a goals against average of 2.39 and a save percentage of .914. Hutchinson is consistent, but things fell apart in his final 15 games and his save percentage slipped to .890 over that period. Maurice is likely gearing toward a tandem setup and Hutchinson will test Pavelec throughout the season.
The Jets excel at developing players and will start to reap the benefits of responsible scouting in the years to come, with Cheveldayoff’s handiwork all over the prospect pool. Nikolaj Ehlers tops most lists and seems ready to break the lineup. The 19-year-old from Denmark is on the small side, but he makes up for any inadequacies with skill and finesse. Ehlers had 101 points in 51 games last season with Halifax, plus he led the QMJHL in playoff scoring with 31 points in 14 games.
Centre Andrew Copp is another prospect worth checking out. Many are looking at the 21-year-old from Ann Arbor to slip into the fourth line, which would go a long way to addressing Winnipeg’s lack of depth down the middle. Copp is a quality grinder and plays a defensively responsible game, plus many have him pegged as a future team captain.
The Path Ahead
The Jets are a fun team to watch, without question. They play a robust game and that won’t change any time soon. They have big forwards and can pound the opposition on most nights. Their best bet is to get ahead on the scoreboard and wear the opposition down with grinding and physical play, as their goaltending isn’t quite at the level it needs to be.
And if there is a weak link, it will be found in goal. Pavelec and Hutchinson could be a dependable duo, but they’ll have a lot to prove. Prospect goalie Connor Hellebuyck might be rushed to the foreground if either netminder falters and that’s not a bad thing. There’s a lot to like about the Jets and this season should find them in the post-season once more.