Until last season, the Jets had employed a host of would-be centres and waiver wire additions in prominent roles on the right wing. Antropov, Wellwood, Burmistrov, Miettinen, and Santorelli all played significant minutes on the starboard while with the team. Perhaps it shouldn’t have been a surprise, then, that this position was a bit of a mess last season.
Still, unlike the left wing, at this time last year it seemed like the team had finally found a solution. All of Frolik, Setoguchi, and Halischuk joined the team in a single off-season, along with two-way deals for Jerome Samson and Andrew Gordon. Instead, the team converted one of their top defenders to play this wing, put Setoguchi in a position to fail, lost Halischuk to injury and ineffectiveness, and let Samson and Gordon play their whole seasons in the minors. Only Frolik emerged as a solution, and he now awaits an arbitrator to determine his contract amount.
Some teams can turn a hunk of clay into an NHL player. And some teams take the opposite approach.
The primary questions we ask ourselves in this series are how many goals we can expect and how the depth chart measures up to the rest of the Division.
The Depth Chart
Wheeler began last season with a definitive whimper, struggling to score or make a positive impact on the play whatsoever. His first 28 games included just 5 goals and a -6 rating. Rumours swirled about an injury, or the pressure of his new contract. Eventually Frolik moved into the top line, tough minutes role and Wheeler’s easier assignment led to an outburst of scoring. He managed 52 points in the final 54 games of the season. Despite that remarkable feat and a career year for total points, he has some unanswered questions from last year. Will he repeat his putrid start? Was the move to the Western Conference too much for him to handle in a tough-minutes role? Perhaps most importantly, can he keep up point-per-game scoring from a 2nd line role? From an organizational perspective, the biggest question might be who can be counted on to play tough minutes if not Wheeler?
Expected goals: 28
Frolik was another casualty of the Blackhawks’ depth and cap crunch, and much like Ladd and Byfuglien before him, showed himself to be a better player than anyone had recognized from watching him down the lineup in Chicago. He came over as a defensive and PK specialist, supporting Scheifele in the early days and then Jokinen when that was obviously a mess. He ended up on the top line as a scoring, two-way winger with seemingly endless effort. He scored at his highest rate since he was a sophomore in Florida in 2009/10, and he often did it with little help and/or against the toughs. An incredible season. Naturally, the Jets are risking a spoiled relationship over dollars while sitting with almost $14M in cap space.
Expected goals: 15
It literally pains me to include him here, but even the Jets team site has him listed as a right winger. I suppose I’ve officially lost my bid to see him back on the blue line where he belongs. Is he an acceptable third line winger? Sure. But the team effectively traded a 25 minute, 20 goal/60 pt defender for a crease crashing 3rd liner with positional problems. Why, we might reflect? In my esteemed opinion, it’s because the team couldn’t organize a breakout. Even in his current hybrid role as a special teams defender and even strength forward, I believe (and we know what that’s worth) that he’s being significantly underutilized. We can argue until October about what this player is best at, but the simple, ever-lasting truth is that these things don’t happen on well-coached, high achieving clubs. Mike Babcock doesn’t look at the third highest scoring defenceman of the last 4 NHL seasons and wonder what kind of bottom six winger he could be. Even Brent Burns went into a top-6 role and it was based on him being a poor fit as a defender.
Expected goals: 18 (11 of which I predict will come while he’s playing defence, but we will count them here)
You might remember him from such calamities as winter 2013, when the club lost 12 of 19 games from December to mid January with Thorburn as the team’s 3rd line left winger. It would be among the reasons Noel was let go. Finally free of the obligation to pay a likable stick-optional type who cannot contribute positively to an NHL hockey club, the team renewed his contract for three years with a substantial raise. At 31, Thorburn’s already limited NHL skills as a second-class fighter are on the downward slide. Expect him to be his usual anchor on the ice, and his usual delightful self off the ice.
Expected goals: 2 (And both times there is a twitter battle about whether this guy can score.)
Anthony Peluso is the punchline to a joke about how bad Thorburn is, because there was a time when Thorburn was so bad that a waiver wire player with no NHL experience was legitimately considered the better option by fans. The truth is, it was a tough season for Peluso. His cup of coffee in the lockout year suggested he might have some NHL skills to contribute, but in his first full year, Peluso was left in the snow on more shifts than not. It’s not easy to play in a game while ice cold, and Peluso averaged the fewest minutes per game of the regulars at just 5:46. Should he get more? He can’t be expected to move the puck in the right direction and can’t keep up with the team’s transition speed. The simple answer is no. He’ll likely stick with the club due to waiver requirements and a refusal by the Jets to pay NHL dollars to players in the AHL.
Expected goals: 0
JC Lipon (rookie)
Normally I would just give a top-5, but that top-5 is awful. JC Lipon continues to perform better than logic says he should at every level. The guys around him get bigger and faster, the goalies get better, and Lipon just keeps finding a way. Early concerns in his pro debut gave way to a 42 point, 136PIM season for the spirited six-footer. Still, just 9 goals in 72 games and just 1 point in 14 playoff games are serious concerns. A cup of coffee in this NHL season would mean he’d already made book as an overaged 3rd round selection. He’s not an NHL difference maker at 21, but he’s still making waves at the pro level and keeping the dream alive. With Gordon gone to Philly, Lipon will be move up the depth chart in St John’s and we might see him in Winnipeg come spring.
Expected goals: 0
I’ve counted a generous total of 63 from this position this year. though Byfuglien won’t score all of his goals as a forward. As always, counting goals from last year’s RW group is an exercise is dissection, and I’m not that kind of researcher. If we include Setoguchi and Halischuk, we get 48 from this wing last year, plus however many of Big Buf’s you want to count.
This wing was a mess last year (as was the other wing) and the team is entering the season with even less balance and more questions. If an injury strikes, it’s anyone’s guess what happens next. Already the opening lineup calls for at least two players out of position. What will it look like in December? Your guess is as good as mine.
What we do know from history is that entering October out of balance is a season lost. Injuries always create opportunities, so to build holes in your lineup for unproven, young players to fill is just a code for having poor depth. A club that badly needed another 2-4 NHL quality forwards last season has somehow managed to make that problem worse in the same off-season that everyone in the Division improved. In the off-ice competition of professional hockey, the Jets’ management group lost. If only there was an executive draft…
Around the Division
Chicago: Kane, Hossa, Versteeg, B. Smith, McNeill
Dallas: Hemsky, Nichushkin, Garbutt, Eaves, B. Ritchie
Minnesota: Pominville, Coyle, Niederreiter, Haula, Fontaine
Nashville: Neal, C. Smith, Bourque, Nystrom, Jarnkrok
St Louis: Oshie, Tarasenko, Reaves, Ferriero, Rattie
(I’m no expert on these lineups, so you may know something about these depth charts I’ve missed. Please let us know in the comments!)
For whatever reason, the Central has a weakness at RW, particularly with depth at the position. Minnesota is overflowing with forward talent, such that Haula is listed at every forward position depending on who you ask. Meanwhile, the loss of Sobotka in St Louis has given them much less flexibility in their lineup and left a hole in the top 9. They have considerable talent available in their system, and we may see a young player or a grinder playing above his level for stretches of the season. The addition of Hemsky in Dallas gives them a classic top-6/bottom-6 feel, while Chicago still has the group to beat for high end talent.
The Jets measure up well at this position, with Wheeler and Frolik living up to Dallas (with a 19 year old in the 2 slot) and Nashville (who still lack high end scoring). I’d even take them over Pominville and Coyle. Byfuglien and Thorburn, however, is an anagram for ‘the Jets are going to get scored on a lot’ (with byfg left over). And should Wheeler or Frolik be injured, the team could unravel in a big hurry.