Ed. Note: Between now and the end of the month, we’ll be previewing each of the teams in the new-look Central Division. We have asked Ezra Ginsburg of Illegal Curve to help us preview the Winnipeg Jets, as he answers 5 questions we posed to him…
1. The Jets seem to be putting a lot of faith in the young core to get the job done. Good move or bad move?
Heading into the 2013-14 regular season, the Jets have 11 players under contract through 2015-16 at an average age of 24.8 years old including Zach Bogosian (7 years, $36 million), Blake Wheeler (6 years, $33.5 million) and Bryan Little (5 years, $23.5 million) – all of whom signed long term deals this past summer. Along with Captain Andrew Ladd, forward Evander Kane, defensemen Tobias Enstrom and Dustin Byfuglien and goaltender Ondrej Pavelec, the core of this team has been clearly established.
Although it has been argued that the Jets have overpaid to keep their talent in Winnipeg, the fact remains that the upside for this group remains sky high, namely when it comes to 22-year-old forward Evander Kane and Zach Bogosian, 23. If Kane is able to return to being a 30-goal scorer (or better) and Bogosian is able to stay healthy the entire season, the Jets will have a good shot at making the playoffs. If either regresses, the Jets will be hard-pressed to make the playoffs. It’s really quite that simple. The line of Ladd, Little and Wheeler is a bonafide No. 1 line in the NHL, so you know what you’re going to get on a nightly basis. But it is young Kane and Bogosian who have the ability to take this team to the next level in this writer’s humble opinion.
2. Is this Claude Noel’s last chance to prove himself as Winnipeg’s head coach?
Back in late June, the Jets gave Claude Noel a one-year contract extension with one year left on his original contract that was signed before the 2011-12 season, which at the very least was a vote of confidence from Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff and the ownership group.
Despite missing the playoffs the past two seasons, Noel has led his club to a respectable 61-56-13 record; and although the first two years have been full of highs and lows (some very low), Noel seems to be fully entrenched as the respected general for this young group. Case in point: Last year in mid-March, Alexander Burmistrov was struggling with his game, so Noel benched him for four games. The result was three wins out of four games for the Jets and a signal to the rest of the team that poor play would be rewarded with a spot in the press box.
Now, to say that Noel must make the playoffs to keep his job next year would be naive because the Jets are still growing and are in a new division this year. However, Noel must still prove that he is taking this young core in the right direction, something that I believe he has done to this date.
3. What can we expect from highly-touted prospects Jacob Trouba and Mark Scheifele this season?
There is every reason to believe that 2011 No. 7 overall pick Mark Scheifele and 2012 No. 11 overall pick Jacob Trouba will play the majority of this season in the NHL. Scheifele, 20, has spent the last two seasons with the Barrie Colts of the OHL and figures to be given a spot on one of the forward lines while Trouba, 19, is expected to make the team’s active roster after signing a three-year entry-level deal out of the University of Michigan last April.
As far as what to expect from Scheifele and Trouba, I think one word is key: Realistic. The NHL is a man’s league and to expect either of these players to dominate in their first full NHL seasons would be unrealistic. That is not to say that Scheifele isn’t capable of contributing offensively this year, but growing pains and scoring slumps are part of NHL life so don’t expect a 70-point season from him. As far as Trouba goes, expect him to start the season as a bottom-pairing defensemen with either Mark Stuart or Grant Clitsome. Trouba is a fantastic skater and has an edge to his game and I expect him to become a fan favorite in Winnipeg very quickly.
4. Do you believe realignment helps or hurts Winnipeg’s chances at a playoff spot?
The 2013-14 regular season marks the return of the Jets to the Western Conference and a spot in the newly formed Central Division. So what does that mean as it relates to the Jets playoff hopes? Quite simply, it means that the Jets are going to be in tough.
The Central features the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks and the always tough St. Louis Blues, in addition to young, up-and-coming teams such as the Minnesota Wild and Colorado Avalanche. I am of the opinion that NHL realignment doesn’t affect one team any differently than the next because of the parity in the league. Having said that, the Central is a better division than last year’s Southeast Division, which means it will only be tougher for the Jets.
So if I am forced to give an answer, I would say it hurts the Jets chances at a playoff spot.
5. What needs to happen for the Jets to make the playoffs this season?
First of all, the Jets are going to have to be better at keeping the puck out of their own net. The Jets ranked 24th in the NHL last season in goals against (2.94 GAA), which needs to improve if the Jets are going to get over the playoff hump. The Jets simply don’t have enough offensive firepower to be an offense-first squad so a higher commitment to team defense is a must in my opinion.
Special teams were also a sore spot for this team last year and that must also improve. The Jets had the NHL’s worst power play last season (13.8%) and their penalty killing percentage was ranked in the bottom third (79.7%; 24th). The Jets announced that assistant coach Pascal Vincent will run the power play this season (Perry Pearn ran the PP last year), so the hope is a fresh set of ideas will lead to improved success.
You can follow Ezra on Twitter: @ICEzzyG