After a winter of delay and discontent, the best league in the world resumes activities this afternoon on 13 fronts. I know that a few people have tried to argue that the absence of the NHL didn’t equal the absence of hockey, but in a place like this where the next best option is tier two junior, the game did feel like it was on sabbatical, and thankfully, that respite ends today.
Winnipeg 2.0’s second season begins in a few hours at MTS Centre, as the Jets open against the representatives of our nation’s
sump hole for tax dollars capital. It’s a matchup that will likely offer a good test to the home side’s thin defence corps and questionable goaltending, and with that, maybe give us a few signs as to where the Jets are headed.
The Jets chose the path of patching holes in their summer shopping, and as a result the club largely looks as it did last April. Olli Jokinen, who I’ve discussed a time or fifty here and elsewhere, is the most expensive addition, He’ll start with Evander Kane and Kyle Wellwood, and as someone that watched the Finn closely over the last three years, I like one of those linemates better than the other.
Kane’s a terrific young player, but at the moment he’s best as the primary shooter on a line, and Olli Jokinen, for all of his and Brent Sutter’s efforts to round his game, remains the same sort of player. Wellwood does seem a good fit, and he and Kane played well together last year centred by Alex Burmistrov, but it might be asking a lot of him to be the creative force for that duo. I watched Alex Tanguay struggle with the task of aiding Iginla and Jokinen each of the last two seasons in Calgary, so that experience leads me to be wary of presuming Wellwood will have any easier a time with Kane and Jokinen.
If that group can get it together, though, Ladd, Little, and Blake Wheeler will certainly appreciate the help. Winnipeg’s best line took advantage of Claude Noel’s penchant for burying Jim Slater to fashion a good year, both on the scoresheet and via the underlying stats. They’ll need another year just like it for the Jets to get anywhere beyond the bottom 5 in the East, and Wheeler seems like the player to watch. He had a career season in 11/12 despite a terrible first 6 weeks, and his speed off of the rush was Winnipeg’s best weapon in the second half of the year. Wheeler had that career year even while shooting a career worst 8.2%, so if nothing else he appears to have room to grow on the goal scoring side of things.
The other new forward addition starts the year on the third line, as Alex Ponikarovsky, Alex Burmistrov and Nik Antropov have been joined in the hopes of providing scoring depth. Burmistrov is often overlooked when people discuss the future of the team, but he’s a better, more polished, player than most outsiders realize, and giving him two grown ups on the wings appears to be a sensible plan. Ponikarovsky got his offensive game somewhat back in harness after moving to New Jersey, and given the lack of depth last year’s iteration of the Jets iced, he and Antropov rekindling at least a little of the form they had in Toronto would assist Winnipeg tremdously.
In a strange way, as important as the first three lines might be to the club’s actual success, it still appears that the local media’s focus is on a kid that might be sent to Barrie in a week and a half. Mark Scheifele has made the club in the short term, but looking at the nine forwards above him, I’m not sure there’s a fit for him this year. I understand that plenty of fans operate under the presumption that famous kids from junior can just step in and be better than veterans, but the NHL is a grown man’s game, and although Scheifele is making progress, I’m not convinced he’s there. He’ll start with Jim Slater and Chris Thorburn, and unless Noel mistakes him for Tanner Glass, I suspect the young man will get a fairly easy ride in terms of matchups, at least at home.
The backline is missing a major contributor to open the year, and the ability of the Jets to manage Zach Bogosian’s absence without falling off of a cliff is vital. Bogosian got it together last year, and a team that had 5v5 and PK issues even with him in the lineup will certainly miss someone that can handle tough minutes. The Jets really only have one pair that can handle top-sixers, and Enstrom and Byfuglien, good as they are, largely get by via outshooting rather than shutting people down.
That could make for a long first month for Ondrej Pavelec. The Jets’ number one wasn’t very good last year, and for all of the apologia that get made for him, one fact never seems to be brought up. Winnipeg, shaky as they were in their own end in 11/12, cut roughly 150 EV shots off the total they allowed during the club’s last season in Atlanta. Despite that reduction, Pavelec’s EVSH% dropped from .928 to .917, and I can’t imagine an honest person arguing that the 10/11 Thrashers were particularly air-tight. At some point, I’d hope that people outside the mathosphere catch on, but I suppose if Jets’ management didn’t get the hint, it would be a bit much to expect the local press to figure it out.
Today’s guests were last year’s surprise package. The Senators opened up their game, trading chances in a much more liberal fashion than most decent clubs, and rode that choice and some solid work by Craig Anderson to a playoff spot before falling to the Rangers in seven.
The two stars of the show for the Sens are Spezza and Karlsson, and Spezza in particular must have licked his chops every time he saw the Jets looming on the schedule. He tallied 7 points in 4 games versus Winnipeg, and often made the Jets look silly, with this beauty late in the year a shining example:
Good grief. Winnipeg made plenty of players look that good, of course, but Ottawa is a team the Jets need to track down if they have any hope of the post season, so limiting Spezza and Karlsson will be job one, today and in the next two meetings.
I suppose, though, that the ability of Winnipeg to control the other teams when defending will be the story of the year no matter the opposition. That seems obvious even noting that the Jets are almost certainly a better team at forward. No matter my misgivings about Olli Jokinen from time to time, he’s a better player than Tim Stapleton, and Ponikarovsky is a better player than Tanner Glass, so those upgrades are clear enough.
Still, it’s the absence of Bogosian and the dexterity of the team in managing that absence in the near term that could determine the season’s outcome. Byfuglien and Enstrom will need to be able to shoulder extra defensive responsibilities without having their offence diminished too greatly, Stuart and Hainsey will have to survive second pairing minutes, and above all else, Ondrej Pavelec has to resemble an acceptable NHL goalie, and not just a guy that makes a few flashy saves.
It really is Pavelec’s success that holds the cards. The Jets likely have enough offence to get by, so a better season from their goalie will give them a sniff at the playoffs, and another like last year will have me pining for a buyout of his contract. It’s about that simple.
Game time is 2-ish on the People’s Network. It’s finally time to end the talk and see who has what.