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Off-Season Game Plan: Winnipeg

Scott Cullen
5/31/2011 9:31:09 AM
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It's already been an eventful offseason for the hockey fans of Winnipeg because, finally, Winnipeg once again has a team in the NHL.

Off-Season Game Plan looks at the roster coming north from Atlanta and what could be done by management to give a young, talented team a shot at being competitve for the long haul.

There is a certain luxury for a team coming to a new market (even if it's an old market), in that the slate is wiped clean when it comes to fans' expectations. In Atlanta, frustration was growing with a team that didn't win a playoff game in 11 seasons and it was increasingly difficult to sell fans on waiting for the young talent to mature.

In Winnipeg, there figures to be a honeymoon period of sorts as the fans will be so excited to have NHL hockey back that there isn't necessarily going to be pressure to win in 2011-2012.

That's not all bad, by the way, as it can allow the team to build properly, without making rash moves in the hopes of just sneaking into the postseason.

The core of the team is promising; certainly holding more talent and potential than an expansion franchise would typically offer, such are the benefits of relocation.

Centre Nik Antropov, defenceman Ron Hainsey and goaltender Chris Mason are the only regulars under contract for next season that are over 30 years of age, so the future holds the promise of better times ahead for a team that has missed the playoffs for four straight seasons.

Building around their young core, Winnipeg also should have the benefit of a deep-pocketed owner. David Thomson is the richest man in Canada, reportedly worth $23-billion, so he has the wherewithal -- should he choose to flex his financial muscle -- to make the team more competitive than the typical small market club.

Eventually, the challenge that will face the team in its return to Winnipeg may be luring unrestricted free agents to a market that hasn't been part of the league for close to a generation and, believe it or not, has been known to have unpleasant weather during hockey season.

It's a challenge that Edmonton has faced to some degree, but if the money is there to pay free agents and the team is a winner, there should be players interested in playing for a team in front of a passionate, knowledgeable fan base.

But, cross that bridge when the time comes. In the meantime, enjoy the return of NHL hockey, Winnipeg.

GM/COACH
Rick Dudley/Craig Ramsay

Returning Forwards

Player Rating Cap Hit
Bryan Little 71.25 $2.383M
Evander Kane 71.19 $3.1M
Nik Antropov 66.94 $4.063M
Jim Slater 64.74 $1.0M
Chris Thorburn 63.61 $867K
Alexander Burmistrov 61.38 $1.5M
Tim Stapleton 59.54 $525K
Patrice Cormier 59.13 $854K

Free Agent Forwards

Player Rating Class '10-'11 Cap Hit
Andrew Ladd 73.50 RFA $2.35M
Blake Wheeler 69.79 RFA $2.2M
Anthony Stewart 66.81 RFA $633K
Radek Dvorak 64.39 UFA $1.7M
Rob Schremp 63.89 RFA $751K
Eric Boulton 59.55 UFA $650K

There have been some ups-and-downs in Bryan Little's four NHL seasons, but he's coming off a strong 2010-2011 campaign, during which he scored 49 points and was a career-best plus-11.

Little may not have the offensive upside to be a top-shelf number one centre, but he could be a very good number two down the middle, able to score and play both ends of the rink.

19-year-old Evander Kane made impressive progress in his second season and, already the leading hitter on the Thrashers, seems well on the path to becoming a top power forward as his body fills out.

It won't be long before Kane is a 30-goal scorer in the league and he could very well become the offensive focal point of the team.

Off-season hip surgery slowed Nik Antropov and his ice time dropped from 18:14 per game in 2009-2010 to 15:39 per game last season and, not surprisingly, his point total crashed from a career-high 67 to last season's 40.

Antropov had three straight 20-goal seasons prior to last year, so it's fair to expect more production out of him in the future, but he also needs more ice time in which to do it.

While his numbers looked decent (12 points, plus-4 in 36 games) before suffering a season-ending concussion, checking forward Jim Slater also had the worst five-on-five shot-differential per 60 minutes (from www.behindthenet.ca) among the club's forwards.

Overall, he's been a solid role player in his six NHL seasons, so if he's healthy, Slater should still have a place in the lineup, whether with this franchise or another team that could use a blue-collar player who is good in the faceoff circle.

While 19 points and minus-4 might not seem like a breakout kind of season, Chris Thorburn could still stake his claim to breakout status because he played 13:48 per game, the first time he's played more than 10 minutes per game.

Thorburn can play centre and wing, isn't afraid to mix it up and is durable, having played all 82 games in two of the last three seasons, which isn't bad to have on the third or fourth line.

Alexander Burmistrov surprised some by making the team right out of camp and performed respectably for a 19-year-old, though he was a minus-11 in his last 13 games to finish at minus-12 for the season.

He needs to improve on faceoffs and most definitely get stronger, but Burmistrov is a talented young player that should be able to put up points as he matures into a more significant role; it just may take some time.

After proving he could score in Europe and in the American Hockey League, Tim Stapleton did get a chance with the Thrashers last season, playing 45 games, scoring five goals and seven points.

He's already 28-years-old so there may not be a lot of upside waiting to be discovered, but Stapleton could hold on as an inexpensive extra forward.

Patrice Cormier hasn't played a lot of hockey in the last two years, playing 40 games (including playoffs) in his final year of junior due to a suspension, then missing time last year with a broken foot and then a concussion.

As a result, Cormier might need more time in the AHL to develop his all-around game, but he has the kind of aggressive approach that should serve him well in a checking role eventually.

The Thrashers hit a few home runs in their trades with the Chicago Blackhawks last summer, and one of them was the addition of Andrew Ladd, who evolved from a physical, two-way checking winger into the team's leading scorer with 29 goals and 59 points.

Ladd played a much bigger role than he had previously in his career and thrived, handling the responsibility of scoring and the more difficult matchups that come with it. Now, he'll just have to deal with the expectations (and, quite possibly, payday) he's created with his performance.

Blake Wheeler was also given more of an opportunity in a scoring role once he was acquired from the Boston Bruins and he was rather productive, scoring 17 points in 23 games with Atlanta.

Wheeler has the size, speed and skill to be much more than what he's shown through his first four NHL seasons, but he needs to put it together over a full season to establish that he's a bona fide scoring winger, worthy of top six ice time and the responsibility that comes with that designation.

After doing precious little, scoring a dozen points in 105 NHL games going into last season, Anthony Stewart had some good moments on his way to scoring 39 points in 80 games in 2010-2011.

With no goals in his last 23 games, though, it's difficult to invest too much more than a qualifying offer in Stewart. If he has another reasonably productive season, then a long-term deal could be in the cards.

Time could be running out on Rob Schremp. Though he just turns 25 this summer, he hasn't been able to secure a regular spot in the lineup and managed just four points in 18 games after landing in Atlanta.

The new ownership might be willing to make a big splash by throwing significant money at a free agent like Jussi Jokinen, Brooks Laich or Ville Leino, but if free agents can't be convinced right out of the gate, short-term fixes may be in order.

Returning Defencemen

Player Rating Cap Hit
Dustin Byfuglien 77.65 $5.2M
Tobias Enstrom 76.60 $3.75M
Ron Hainsey 64.23 $4.5M
Johnny Oduya 62.23 $3.5M
Mark Stuart 61.21 $1.7M

Free Agent Defencemen

Player Rating Class '10-'11 Cap Hit
Zach Bogosian 61.38 RFA $3.375M
Freddy Meyer 60.62 UFA $600K

The other big home run acquisition for the Thrashers last summer was Dustin Byfuglien, who switched from wing back to defence and became one of the most dangerous offensive defencemen in the league, scoring 20 goals and 53 points.

Byfuglien also signed a long-term extension, so he's going to be a fixture for a long time to come on the Winnipeg blueline and, now that he's going to focus on playing defence, he should be able to improve his play without the puck.

While Byfuglien provides the size and power, Tobias Enstrom is the lightning to Byfuglien's thunder, using superior skating skills and puckhandling ability to generate offence from the back end.

26-year-old Enstrom registered a career-high 51 points last season and, while he was a minus-10, he had the second-best shot differential among the club's defencemen.

Ron Hainsey's minutes were dialed back under the new coaching staff, four minutes fewer per game than in each of his previous four campaigns, and his offensive impact, not surprisingly, decreased, but he was a plus-3 and remained durable, playing in all 82 games.

Whether he's worth a $4.5-million cap hit for 18 minutes a night is debatable, but having a proven veteran defenceman who is versatile enough to play in all situations shouldn't be dismissed so easily either.

While Hainsey's ice time was cut, Johnny Oduya played heavy minutes, nearly 21 per game, and took on the tough defensive assignments, but given his poor shot differential and minus-15 rating, maybe it was asking too much of Oduya to fill that role on a nightly basis.

Going into the final year of his contract, Oduya could be moved, either in the summer or leading up to next season's trade deadline if Winnipeg isn't in contention.

After coming over from Boston, Mark Stuart didn't enjoy much success in Atlanta, going minus-8 in 23 games, playing just 14:51 per game, but it was enough to earn a contract extension.

He's a physical stay-at-home defenceman and could certainly play a regular role, but that requires some projection beyond what he's provided for the last couple seasons.

The great enigma on defence is Zach Bogosian, the talented 20-year-old who was a team-worst minus-27. Sure, he took on the toughest defensive assignments, when he wasn't a healthy scratch, but the results don't suggest that Bogosian was consistently successful in that shutdown role.

Bogosian had some level of conflict with assistant coach John Torchetti that may have contributed to his subpar season, but that seems like an awfully trivial reason, for what should be a star career, to go off the rails.

In any case, either Bogosian will be a prominent part of the Winnipeg defence or he'll be the centrepiece of a blockbuster deal.

If Bogosian gets re-signed, Winnipeg will have a full (if potentially expensive) group on defence, with maybe room for either a bargain veteran free agent or a prospect like Arturs Kulda to move up from the minors.

Returning Goaltenders

Player Rating Cap Hit
Ondrej Pavelec 69.72 $1.15M
Chris Mason 52.12 $1.85M

After a scary collapse on opening night, Ondrej Pavelec stepped into the net for the Thrashers and was excellent for the first half of the season, posting a 2.44 goals against average and .927 save percentage in 38 games before the All-Star break, only to falter down the stretch, with a 3.33 goals against average and .883 save percentage in 20 games after the break.

It was the heaviest workload of the 23-year-old's career, and his team defence was questionable in front of him, so Pavelec is still on track as Winnipeg's number one between the pipes but, obviously, remains a work in progress.

Veteran Chris Mason should have been a stabilizing presence, easing the pressure on Pavelec, but Mason's .892 save percentage was the worst of his NHL career. He's signed for another season, so Mason, if he can bounce back, would figure to a worthy complement to Pavelec for one more year.

Top Prospects

Player Pos. Team/League Stats
Carl Klingberg LW Timra (SEL) 5-3-8,-6, 49 GP
Paul Postma D Chicago (AHL) 12-33-45,-4, 69 GP
Arturs Kulda D Chicago (AHL) 5-12-17,-1, 69 GP
Spencer Machacek RW Chicago (AHL) 21-32-53,+18, 67 GP
Ivan Telegin C Saginaw (OHL) 20-41-61,+14, 59 GP
Ben Maxwell C Chicago (AHL) 11-30-41,-2, 49 GP
Julian Melchiori D Kitchener (OHL) 1-18-19,+24, 63 GP
Ben Chiarot D Saginaw (OHL) 10-27-37,+6, 64 GP
Zach Redmond D Ferris St. (CCHA) 7-13-20,+3, 26 GP
Edward Pasquale G Chicago (AHL) 2.93 GAA, .900 SV%, 22 GP

A second-round pick in 2009, Carl Klingberg is a big winger who will play a solid up-and-down game, but managed just eight points in 49 Swedish Elite League games before arriving in North America late in the season. His numbers did improve (five points in 11 games) after he moved to Timra following a slow start at Vastra Frolunda.

It's possible that the 20-year-old will develop some scoring ability but, even if he doesn't, he has the combination of size and speed to be a reliable two-way winger.

Lanky blueliner Paul Postma has established his offensive credentials, scoring 27 goals and 74 points in two AHL seasons, so he could be first in line for a promotion if Winnipeg needs help on the power play. Otherwise, 22-year-old Postma can still get physically stronger to improve his game without the puck.

Latvian defenceman Arturs Kulda has put in three-plus seasons in the American Hockey League and could be ready to make the jump to the NHL. He played six games with the Thrashers over the last couple seasons, but should be ready for more regular duty if there is room on the Winnipeg blueline.

Like Kulda, winger Spencer Machacek has spent three years in the AHL, improving his point and plus-minus numbers in each of his three AHL campaigns. Machacek may be able to earn a third or fourth-line job in Winnipeg, but would seem to be on the roster bubble.

19-year-old Ivan Telegin requires a little more projection than some other Winnipeg prospects, but he improved his production nicely in his second OHL season and provides the hope of a becoming a big, skilled pivot by the time he's pro-ready.

Acquired from Montreal in the Brent Sopel trade, Ben Maxwell has established that he's more than capable as an AHL centre, but has just two points in 32 career NHL games. Maxwell would improve his chances if he could get stronger; he's been overmatched at times in his NHL stints thus far.

19-year-old defenceman Julian Melchiori doesn't provide much offence, scoring one goal last season, but stands 6-foot-4 and led Kitchener Rangers defencemen with a plus-24 rating. Given some seasoning in the American Hockey League, he could have some long-range value.

Another big body coming out of junior, Ben Chiarot is a physical presence who improved his production in his fourth OHL season, particularly after getting traded from Sudbury to Saginaw.

After four years at Ferris State, Zach Redmond might be closer to the NHL than some prospects coming out of junior. Redmond has good size and moves the puck well; it will be up to him to carry his game to the next level as he gets accustomed to a longer pro season.

A fourth-round pick in 2009, goaltender Edward Pasquale split his first pro season between the ECHL and AHL, but showed enough to think that the 20-year-old could have an NHL future with some more time in the minors.

With so many defencemen on the list, other prospects like Sudbury's Eric O'Dell and Ohio State's John Albert could also fit as a couple of the more promising forwards in the organization.

Here's a look at a roster for next season, with no major additions, due to the uncertainty of a new market and what the plans might be for the new owners: http://bit.ly/iMqmrW

DRAFT
7th - Dougie Hamilton, Ryan Strome, Ryan Murphy.

FREE AGENCY
According to www.capgeek.com, the Winnipeg has approximately $36.7M committed to the 2011-12 salary cap for 16 players.

Needs: Two top nine forwards, depth forwards, depth defencemen.

What I said the Thrashers needed last year: One top six forward, two top nine forwards, one top four defenceman, one additional defenceman, starting goaltender.

They added: Andrew Ladd, Anthony Stewart, Alexander Burmistrov, Fredrik Modin, Ben Eager, Tim Stapleton, Dustin Byfuglien, Brent Sopel, Freddy Meyer, Chris Mason.

TRADE MARKET Nik Antropov, Jim Slater, Ron Hainsey, Johnny Oduya, Chris Mason.

Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.



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