Kevin Cheveldayoff has remained pretty quiet in the offseason. Other than re-signing a few players (including prospective captain Andrew Ladd) and wading into the shallowest of unrestricted free agent depths, the Jets are taking their time in building this roster inherited from Atlanta.
This is fine for now. With the state of NHL alignment, the Jets are, of course, in a pretty strong Southeast Division alongside two teams who could win the East in Washington and Tampa Bay and another who are on the playoff bubble in Carolina. For the first season of any club, of course a team will want to give off a semblance of success by making a playoff run, but Winnipeg fans are slightly more educated in hockey than the ones the team left behind in Atlanta.
That said, the Jets have a number of players that the team can build around. The trick is to fill in the missing bits for a team that went 20th in offense last season and 29th in defense. Ahead are the six key core players of the Winnipeg Jets:
One: Andrew Ladd – It all begins with Andrew Ladd. He’s the team’s highest-paid forward, and the first guy who visited in June to pretty well say everything would work out fine in Winnipeg. More importantly, Ladd is a prototypical two-way player, a rare specimen who can score you 30 goals (29 last season) and maintain positive scoring chance differential without an extraordinarily high number of offensive zone starts. He was also first on the Thrashers last season in all Quality of Competiton metrics. In short, Ladd is a player cut from a similar cloth as Patrice Bergeron or Ryan Kesler, who is due to break out as one of the game’s better two-way players. With a $4.4M cap hit over the next five years, the Jets are prepped to get tremendous value out of the player who will likely be named the “first” captain in Jets 2.0 history.
Two: Alexander Burmistrov – Last year’s first round draft pick, Alexander Burmistrov is apparently pretty psyched about moving to Canada. He has just 74 NHL games and 6 goals to his credit, but for a player who put up some good numbers in junior, his percentages never took off in his rookie NHL season. He shot at just 6.5% and his teammate’s on-ice at even strength was just 7.18%. He played sheltered shifts (he was a rookie) and his production should have been higher, but he played a strong role as a “low events” player who minimized risk. He has the tools required to be a successful NHL player and a couple of years to develop his talent in Winnipeg.
Three: Evander Kane – Interesting that a player who is only at the start of his young career is already typecast as “that guy who knocked out Matt Cooke”. Lost in this is that Evander Kane scored 48 goals as an 17-year old for the Vancouver Giants of the WHL and is developing into a pretty strong scorer in his own right in the NHL, with 14-and-19 goal seasons to start his career and maintaining a sustainable shooting percentage of 9.1% in both those years. Critics might mention Kane’s minus-12 statistic from last year, but he played in front of some pretty weak goaltending and his PDO (on-ice shooting percentage plus save percentage, a reliable measure of luck) was the second lowest on the team ahead of only Rob Schremp among regular players. He’s the prototypical Good Canadian Kid™ that the old school Winnipeg media and fans will love, and likely in for a big raise after this season.
Honourable mentions to new pickup Eric Fehr, who will hopefully stay healthy, RFA Blake Wheeler, who is on the cusp of becoming a regular 20-goal scorer in the NHL, and Nik Antropov, a veteran forward who may be declining statistically, but still big and serviceable in his own right.
Four: Dustin Byfuglien – Forget the Byfuglien dollars for a minute: Byfuglien is signed for five more years top-pairing money. It’s tough to get a read on a player who has jumped between forward and defense considerably over the last few seasons, but he’ll need to remain on the blueline where the Jets have a pretty limited group. Last year, he was signed to a long deal after putting up some outrageous percentages in the first half of the season, before they came back down to earth (along with the fortunes of the team). He has high Fenwick number (a detailed +/- statistic taking into account goals, shots and misses, which is correlative with scoring chance differential) even when you adjust for the fact he starts more shifts in the offensive than defensive zone. Byfuglien can be used as a primarily defensive option at even-strength and bring out his offensive talents on the powerplay where he has scored 25 of his career 76 goals, and 8 of the 20 he scored last season. Given the lack of finish up front, Byfuglien may be coaxed into taking bigger risks, which may leave him defensively vulnerable.
Five: Zach Bogosian – This is another long-term option on defense for the Jets, and also a textbook example of why giving your draft picks time in the NHL right after their drafted can prove to be a risky maneuver. Bogosian has soaked up the tough minutes since his draft year, going from 5th to 3rd to 1st in quality of opponents faced, and he will be paid for it, money that may be tighter for the Jets in a few years. Certain players in that situation, your Stephane Robidas’ and Alex Pietrangelo’s, manage to maintain positive possession statistics. For all the good Bogosian has done in the NHL thus far, Winnipeg need him to play like a #1 defenseman well beyond his years and control the flow of play.
An honourable mention to Tobias Enstrom, however those three may be the options for the Jets looking ahead. Mark Stuart has been hampered by injury issues and may be better suited to a playoff team when he’s healthy. Ron Hainsey is still around for a couple of more seasons but will be a big money free agent and due for a big payout that may not be worth the Jets’ trouble.
Six: Ondrej Pavelec – Ondrej Pavelec is a fantastic goalie when he is in the lineup. Pavelec’s .923 save percentage was identical to Jonas Hiller’s, and higher than those of Cam Ward, Ryan Miller, Marc-André Fleury, Miikka Kiprusoff and Martin Brodeur. There may be issues with his conditioning, as he has never played over 60 games in a season, which has become a benchmark number for the starting goaltender. Him and Chris Mason are under contract for another season, but if Pavelec is healthy, this is his job. Mason has fallen off the map after a strong .925 save percentage year with Nashville back in 2007 and is little more than an above-average backup goaltender.