Jets: Five Things You Need To Know
By Scott Burnside
Unless we completely miss the boat, there's going to be a significant drop-off from the top four teams in the Southeast to the Winnipeg Jets. Last season's emotional return to the NHL for the first time since the Jets left for Phoenix in 1996 may have been one of the feel-good stories of the season, but that didn't mask what have been historic problems with the team in keeping the puck out of their own goal. The Jets finished with 84 points, tied with the Tampa Bay Lightning for third and two ahead of the Carolina Hurricanes in the division and eight points out of eighth place in the East. Management insists it will continue to try and build slowly from within, and there are interesting young pieces like Mark Scheifele and defenseman Jacob Trouba, who was the ninth overall pick last June, but we're not sure this team is ready to take the next step yet.
1. Historic Problems
Let's start with something the franchise has never been able to reconcile: its shoddy defense and goaltending. The team has consistently ranked near the bottom of the league in goals allowed per game and that was the case a year ago, when they were 26th in that crucial category. Of the bottom eight teams in goals allowed per game, only Ottawa made the playoffs, and they were the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference. Defensive scheme and personnel is one thing, but the goaltending remains a bit of a mystery, although you wouldn't think the Jets believe that having signed Ondrej Pavelec to a five-year, $19.5-million deal in the offseason. The problem is, we're not sure he's a franchise goalie even though he's now being paid like one. And there's also the issue of his drunk driving charge in the Czech Republic, stemming from a traffic accident in his hometown of Kladno last May, which somehow eluded the team before the deal was signed. Pavelec has stretches where he's carried the Jets, but he has yet to show the consistency that will be crucial to getting the Jets into the playoffs. The Jets will also have to get along without Zach Bogosian, another defenseman who has yet to prove he was worth the No. 3 overall pick the Thrashers expended in 2008.
2. More Baggage
Pavelec will have some fence-mending to do with management and his teammates, but he's not the only guy who will carry some baggage into the room. The Jets are going to have to decide what they're going to do with Evander Kane, the former No. 4 overall draft pick who has skill -- he led the team with 30 goals a year ago and played well for Canada at the World Championships -- but has left some cold with his attitude. During the lockout, he was shown in Las Vegas yucking it up with stacks of money, which rubbed more than a few people the wrong way. Still, in spite of some negative press last season at home, the Jets signed Kane to a whopper six-year deal worth $31.5 million. Whether it's a harbinger of things to come or not, Kane didn't play well in Russia, lasting just 12 games with Dinamo Minsk, for whom he scored just once. Throw in the Pavelec deal and those are two high-risk long-term deals presented by GM Kevin Cheveldayoff.
3. Promising Prospects
The Jets have promised to be a "take it slow" team in terms of building and developing through the draft. Jets fans are already salivating at the prospect of seeing their top two picks from the past couple of years -- defenseman Jacob Trouba, who is just off a turn with the U.S. team at the World Junior Championships, and Scheifele, who was returned to junior after a brief taste of the NHL life at the start of last season. Guys who might make a more immediate impact include Ben Maxwell, who played well when called up by the Jets late last season and was solid for the Jets' AHL affiliate in the playoffs. Spencer Machacek led St. John's in scoring last season and so far this season and had nine points during an 11-game call-up for the big club.
4. Home Sweet Home
It's not all doom and gloom in Winnipeg by any stretch. The Jets' 84 points were the most in the past five years for the doomed Atlanta Thrashers franchise. They also boasted the best record among Southeast Division teams against division opponents at 14-6-4, which will be crucial given a schedule that will be heavily weighted to divisional play. Not surprisingly, the Jets were also dynamite in the intimate confines of MTS Center, regularly credited with being the loudest building on the circuit. The players responded with a 23-13-5 record at home and the second-ranked home power-play unit in the league. But the problem for the Jets is the other half of the NHL schedule that requires them to play away from home.
5. Leadership Questions
This brings us to Claude Noel and the biggest challenge in finding enough leadership in that Jets room to overcome a 14-22-5 road record last season. We are big, big fans of Andrew Ladd, who was second on the team with 28 goals, and Kyle Wellwood, a smart, likeable player, as is Blake Wheeler. But what about guys like Dustin Byfuglien, Nik Antropov, Kane et al? Are they ready to assume a leadership role? Bringing in Olli Jokinen and Alexei Ponikarovsky doesn't address that issue. It's one thing to be able to produce in front of a raucous home crowd, but with the playoffs on the line in the second half, this squad couldn't produce enough gritty efforts to put them over the top. Not sure anything that happened in the offseason changes that one iota.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
Experience: Entering second full season as NHL head coach
Stanley Cup titles: 0
Blue Line: Tobias Enstrom
Signed to a five-year, $28.75 million extension with the Jets, Tobias Enstrom is starting to reap the benefits of performing at a consistently high level. When healthy, the diminutive, playmaking blueliner serves as an ideal complement to his steady partner, Dustin Byfuglien. When those two are on, they are extremely dangerous and make up one of the more potent defensive pairings in all the NHL. You won't get a lot of shots out of Enstrom, but his power play assists and average of 24 minutes per game more than compensate.
Who's On The Move
The offseason signings/acquisitions and departures for the Jets:
• June 13: Re-signed C Jim Slater.
• June 14: Named Perry Pearn assistant coach.
• June 26: Re-signed G Ondrej Pavelec.
• July 1: Signed LW Alexei Ponikarovsky.
• July 2: Signed C Olli Jokinen.
• July 4: Signed G Al Montoya.
• July 13: Re-signed C Kyle Wellwood.
• July 27: Re-signed D Tobias Enstrom.
• Sept. 11: Re-signed RW Spencer Machacek.
• Sept. 15: Re-signed LW Evander Kane.
• LW Tanner Glass (unrestricted free agent, signed by Pittsburgh)
• G Chris Mason (unrestricted free agent, signed by Nashville)
• RW Eric Fehr (unrestricted free agent)
• D Mark Flood (unrestricted free agent)
• C Jason Jaffray (unrestricted free agent)
• D Randy Jones (unrestricted free agent)
• G Peter Mannino (unrestricted free agent)
• RW Tim Stapleton (unrestricted free agent)