August 03 2012 11:41AM
Will Pavelec earn his new contract?
photo by Michael Miller, via Wikimedia Commons
The Winnipeg Jets enter 2012-13 in a good place for an organization born from the Atlanta Thrashers' scrapheap. Still one of the youngest teams in the league, the Jets have a number of their best young players already contributing at a major-league level (Evander Kane, Zach Bogosian, Alexander Burmistrov). Bolstered by the eager reception of Winnipeg crowds in their first season, now the team should be able to get a better sense of the market abilities of the organization this year...there have already been whispers of an internal cap, no surprise in a location like the 'Peg. It already seems pretty clear that GM Kevin Cheveldayoff is focused on making the signings he needs to make (resigning Tobias Enstrom and very likely Evander Kane) rather than the ones he might dream of making (a la the Minnesota Wild).
The fact of the matter is that the 2012-13 Jets are very similar to last year's Jets, with at least one big addition and a few more fresh faces. This should be great news for Jets fans, as the 2011-12 Jets were a solid team (11th in the NHL in Fenwick Close, AKA their percentage of shots, explained here) and, as a young team, only stand to improve. Let's have a look at a few of the more important aspects of the team.
1A: Andrew Ladd - Bryan Little - Blake Wheeler
1B: Evander Kane - Olli Jokinen - Kyle Wellwood
3: Alexei Ponikarovsky - Nik Antropov - Alexander Burmistrov
4: Patrice Cormier - Jim Slater - Chris Thorburn
In the mix: Spencer Machacek, RW; Antti Miettinen, LW/RW
1: Tobias Enstrom - Dustin Byfuglien
2: Ron Hainsey - Zach Bogosian
3: Mark Stuart - Paul Postma
In the mix: Grant Clitsome, LD; Zach Redmond, RD
1: Ondrej Pavelec
2: Al Montoya
In the mix: Mark Dekanich
Key Additions & Subtractions
Cheveldayoff was an expert this offseason at filling the gaps in the lineup, most notably adding some offence by cycling out Tanner Glass for Alexei Ponikarovsky and signing Olli Jokinen to a lucrative short-term deal. Dropping the aging Chris Mason for the younger, capable Al Montoya was a savvy move as well, putting in place a guy who could end up looking as good statistically as Pavelec by the end of the year. Beyond Glass and Mason, another subtraction (that probably hurts more) is the loss of solid AHL prospect Arturs Kulda, a defensive specialist who could have been a better #3 D on the left side than Mark Stuart. Kulda, not resigned, has left for the KHL.
Offensively driven from the back end rather than the front, the Winnipeg Jets forwards are, for the most part, smart, sound possession players. The Ladd-Little-Wheeler line (or as we called it at AIH, Ladd's Little Wheeler), was an entire line of possession stalwarts, a trend that will likely continue this year. Whether any of those three breaks out offensively beyond 60 points is possible but unlikely, particularly because they can and will be leaned on for tougher minutes. Evander Kane is poised to break out, and Jokinen and Wellwood will be along for the ride...and though Jokinen is a little questionable in his own end, both Wellwood and Kane have exhibited the talent to control the possession battle. The third line matches a vastly underrated Corsi giant (Ponikarovsky) with capable big man Antropov and the immensely talented Burmistrov. Burmistrov matches the talent of an offensive threat with a reputation for adept penalty-killing. Last year, coach Claude Noel expressed an interest in rolling with three scoring lines, but it is actually this year that he could do it. 11th in the league in 5v5 shots-for, by swapping out the poor GST line of last year (Glass-Slater-Thorburn) for the Russian 3rd line this year those numbers could inch up into the top 7.
The Winnipeg fan and MSM convention was that the reason for Ondrej Pavelec's mediocre 2011-12 was the poor Jets' defence, but it's likely that a series of obvious defensive gaffes overshadowed what was a solid year. 11th in the NHL in 5v5 shots-against, a dip in defence for 4v5 might have also influenced the negative perceptions. There's no secret that the duo of Enstrom and Byfuglien are primarily offensive defencemen, but it's rarely appreciated how great a balance the two have struck. Enstrom is an intelligent, two-way player, and while Big Buff takes chances and uses his booming shot frequently, the pair rarely dip into negative possession hockey. Zach Bogosian is on the cusp of becoming a solid all-around talent, though the Jets still haven't been able to find an ideal match for him. It's possible that, with Hainsey's contract due up at the end of this year, he becomes trade bait and Clitsome sees time alongside Bogosian. Postma is the big name on third pair, as he finally gets a shot at the big time. He's not a logical fit for our pairings, and his time is running out as a prospect, so if he plays well he could be enticing trade bait.
21st-ranked in 5v4 shots-for, the Jets' powerplay was not particularly impressive, and to make matters worse they didn't get a lot of powerplay time relative to the rest of the league. Obviously, the addition of Olli Jokinen was a move to address the former problem; and though it is too early to tell, the possibility of playing Postma at the point on one of the units could similarly bolster shot generation. Frankly, what this unit really needs is an opportunity to play, which the Jets were not particularly efficient at providing.
One area that was not addressed during the offseason was the penalty kill, which as I mentioned above was not a strong point. The difficulty is not in finding forwards up to the task, but defencemen (which is why the loss of Kulda was a bit disconcerting). Bogosian is one of their best killers, but neither Postma nor Byfuglien are really up to the task, nor are Stuart nor Hainsey particularly good options. Clitsome has done it in the past with a little success, but perhaps the best guy for the job on the left side, Enstrom, saw his PK minutes reduced greatly last year. Hopefully this was just due to injury, though Noel has shown an active interest in filling the holes with guys like Stuart who won't play much at evens. Either way, this unit has not really changed from last year, and should once again languish a bit.
Cheveldayoff handed a rich contract to Ondrej Pavelec this offseason, and the length (5 years) suggests that the organization thinks they have a quality franchise goaltender on their hands. I'm here to say "not so fast." Pavelec has really only demonstrated one year of above-average play (2010-11), and has otherwise been an average to below-average goaltender. Turning 25 in August and with 187 games (5,585 shots-against) under his belt, his time for demonstrating high-level talent is fading. The rough part for Jets fans is a.) too many of them disagree with me, and think he was the Team MVP last year, and b.) what the hell are they going to do when the troubling goaltending continues? This is a good team - a playoff team - outside of the net, but their fate will go the way of Pavelec. As I suggested above, Al Montoya lies in the shadows, and if he plays better than Pavelec this year Jets fans will have another reminder that maybe Pavs wasn't worth the princely deal. Lost in the shuffle was the brilliant bone thrown to Mark Dekanich, who save for injury has been a very promising talent (though a year older than Pavelec).
In the System
In a couple of drafts, Cheveldayoff & Company have been able to revamp a weak Thrashers prospect system that had much of its high-end talent rushed to the NHL. Players like Jacob Trouba, Adam Lowry, Scott Kosmachuk, and Zach Yuen have all demonstrated the possibility of contributing a couple of years down the road. More importantly here are the high end prospects, starting with Mark Scheifele. While it's not likely that he will stick with the team this year, the Jokinen contract signals an ETA of 2014-15 at the latest, more likely 2013-14. Four enticing prospects will spend most of this year in the AHL: defenceman Zach Redmond, centre/left wing Ivan Telegin, left wing Carl Klingberg, and goaltender Edward Pasquale. Redmond is incredibly agile and smart with the puck, and he uses his body well. A right-handed shot in an organization chock full of them, he's more likely to make a different NHL team happy than Winnipeg. Telegin is a blazingly fast forward with good hands and a history of PK prowess in the OHL. The AHL will be a good test to see if his game works at the next level. Klingberg is a physical forward that goes to the net for his goals. He could be a poor man's Tomas Holmstrom with some seasoning. Pasquale has been strong at each of his stops from the OHL to the ECHL to the AHL last year. Still quite young (21), another strong year in the AHL could lead to a call-up in 2013-14.
Individual: All of Ladd's Little Wheeler will hover between 50-60 points, with Ladd threatening 30 goals again. Kane will press 35 goals, with an upside possibility of getting 40, and Jokinen and Wellwood will both approach 55 points. The 3rd line will likely all be around 35 points, though I could see any one (or two) of them having some good puck luck and getting up to 40 points. Enstrom and Byfuglien will continue as usual to sit at around 50 points, and Bogosian could sneak up to 40 points if given enough PP time. No other defenceman will impress too much, though Postma could approach 30 points if he's given a spot on the powerplay. Montoya will outplay Pavelec and no one will know what to do with themselves, so they'll just call Pavelec the Team MVP again.
Team: The Jets will be embroiled in a very competitive division, so it's unlikely they'll win the Southeast. That said, they have the pieces to be a playoff team if Pavelec's play can improve even slightly. I'm going to wager hat happens and the Jets sneak into the 7 or 8 spot in the East.
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