Photo by Kevin McCartney
Even if it’s obvious to all of Europe that I’m Canadian from my dorky clothes and broken French, I didn’t really take notice until just the other day. I was staring at the efforts of generations of workers – over 140 years – that resulted in the Duomo in Florence pictured above, and I literally thought ‘I wonder how Claude Noel will vary his lines at home and on the road this year.’ Priorities.
The thought came from some news on Mark Scheifele that burned through the dry grass of Jets twitter accounts this week. The annual BioSteel fitness camp run by Gary Roberts and Matt Nichol includes a 4-on-4 tournament where apparently the Jets’ first pick turned some heads. Luke Fox from Sportsnet set the blaze with this quote:
Mark Scheifele is ready to go right this second. Tons of talent at the camp, but even amongst the likes of 40-goal scorer James Neal, the most beautiful offence usually came from the hands of Winnipeg Jets prospect Mark Scheifele. Anxious to see the 20-year-old get a lengthy string of NHL games under his belt.
It’s as much relieving as exciting. Even from Italy I could feel a million Manitobans relax for the first time since Cheveldayoff called the power forward’s name in 2011. The fact that Scheifele is working with fitness guru Gary Roberts at a young age, and got to work with established NHL power forwards such as Chris Stewart, Wayne Simmonds, David Clarkson, and the aforementioned James Neal is itself good news. The young man is taking his jump to the NHL very seriously. Plus he met Connor McDavid. I hope he got an autograph.
What does it mean for the lines?
In most cases, imagining lines isn’t a particularly useful exercise. Claude Noel isn’t reading this and will do as he likes. Instead, the value lies in recognizing that this roster is out of balance. We know before September arrives that Noel will be changing his lines often looking for balance, and we can expect at least one more waiver wire addition and some hopeful call-ups during the year from the tinkering GM, but we can safely bet nothing in the way of experienced, quality help. How Noel manages a shallow talent group up front will be an important part of the story for the 2013/14 Jets.
The Jets have a terrific power-vs-power first line, and we can anticipate that Noel will continue to play them against the other team’s best when he has last change at home. We’re left with two questions:
- Who will play the second toughs?
- What matchup will other teams pursue?
The lineup puzzle is not easy with this roster. In fact, we can’t even be sure what position Frolik or Scheifele will play this year, never mind who their mates will be or what kind of assignment they will be handed. A few other issues:
- I think Jokinen struggles to use his backhand (left) winger and excels when his forehand (right) winger is a capable scorer and perhaps big-bodied. Playing with Horton in Florida and Iginla in Calgary were his best years.
- To beat a dead horse, the loss of Burmistrov is also the loss of the only possession-winning checker the team has. Jim Slater gives up scoring chances at an alarming rate, despite the narrative around his shut-down role. In other words, the team doesn’t have a traditional checking line.
- Kane will draw tough assignments as a dangerous scorer. On the road, other teams may choose to put their best lines against him in an effort to keep the puck away from him while exploiting the Jets lack of depth. If he has to face Toews/Hossa or Koivu/Parise, it would be a tall order to ask the rookie Scheifele to be out there with him.
Where does balance come from?
We have seen in recent years that depth is required to win. Being able to roll 3 or even 4 lines of NHL quality players makes the other team’s job a lot harder. The Jets just don’t have that kind of depth. They have seven skaters who could play in a top-6 role, but only 8 that would make a better team’s top-9, and few traditional specialists. They have the added problem of having to move at least one player to a position of weakness – Frolik to RW, Scheifele to centre where he might be exposed as a rookie, or something we haven’t considered – in order to ice their eight players plus one body.
The Jets best bet at approximating depth is to spread out their talent. Consider these lines:
- Little / Ladd / Wheeler
- Frolik / Kane / Setoguchi
- Jokinen / Tangradi / Scheifele
- The players too awful to think about on vacation
Jokinen and Scheifele are playing together to give Scheifele an easier assignment and Jokinen a big-bodied scoring RW. Frolik has been moved to centre. He’s a smart player, and played centre in Junior (as many of the top prospects do). His faceoffs are not impressive in limited attempts, but it’s hard to imagine Scheifele being appreciably better as a rookie. Kane has some scoring help – though not the best the team can offer – and also some two-way support that might make a few shifts against Duchene or the forecheck of the Blues manageable. This lineup doesn’t win a cup, but it also avoids a night and day divide between the results of the top-6 and the bottom-6. Moreover, it gives the team two lines who can play second-level opposition, and doesn’t relegate Jokinen or Setoguchi to a checking role in a contract year (a recipe for unpleasantness).
Despite the many claims (even by me) that Jokinen and Schiefele will be auditioning for the same job of 2C, we can imagine this team organized in such a way as to reveal a hole at centre. Moving Tangradi outside the top-9, Frolik could take his LW role – if only the team had another centre. Does Eric O’Dell get a look for a soft-minutes assignment there? Is that Nic Petan’s job down the line? What does the team do when Grabovski is a free agent again next year?
The bottom line
We can’t know on August 27th whether this lineup is better or worse than what Noel comes up with for October 4th. What we can know is that this team is shy on NHL quality players at the forward position, and it will be up to the coaches to get creative to stay competitive. Despite my own belief that Scheifele and Jokinen will be considered for the same 2C job, the reality is that Scheifele could be the answer to fixing Jokinen’s game. Still, the team risks exposing its bottom-6 by putting all its talent into two lines. With just over a month until the season begins, we can hope Cheveldayoff can squeeze another NHL player onto this roster.