The Winnipeg Jets finished the 2013-14 season with a 37-35-10 record, the same as their first full year in Winnipeg. In the two seasons after year one, no playoffs but the feeling around the team going into this offseason is different, very positive, and there are reasons for that.
Bryan Little, Dustin Byfuglien and Blake Wheeler had career years for points. Little was 23-41-64; his previous high for points was 51. Wheeler was 28-41-69; his previous high for goals was 21 and his previous high for points was 64. And offensively, the year started slowly. In his final 54 games, Wheeler picked up 52 points -- 38 in his last 38 games. Wheeler has become an elite NHL player and his play earned him a spot on the U.S. Olympic team. Byfuglien scored 20 goals for the second time in his career, while 56 points was a career high. More on Byfuglien later.
Youngsters Mark Scheifele and Jacob Trouba contributed big time. Despite missing 17 games due to injury, Trouba set a franchise mark for goals by a rookie defenceman with 10, led all NHL rookies in average per game ice time, and 21 times led the Jets in average per game ice time. He was a perfect fit with Mark Stuart, who may have played the best hockey of his career. His win at all cost attitude earning him praise and a new, well deserved contract. Stuart set career highs for minutes played and embraced, handled, deserved the extra ice time. Scheifele started the season cautiously. Afraid to make a mistake, making sure he was responsible defensively, perhaps feeling everyone was dissecting his every move. But on a six game road trip in November, Scheifele showed his offensive talents, going 12-16-28 over the next 35 games and until the knee injury challenged for the league's rookie scoring lead. Jets were on an 11-3-1 run when Scheifele went down; lost in overtime the game he was hurt in and then went winless in the following five, finishing 7-9-4 after his injury.
Paul Maurice signing a four year extension is another positive. He seemed to be able to bring the best out of this team going on an 11-3-1 run before injuries hit and the team's charge for a playoff spot slowed with a six game winless stretch. In the end, the team was 18-12-5 in the 35 games with Maurice behind the bench. A team that has always struggled in the second game of back-to-backs went 3-1 in the final four situations. The power play got better as more movement was implemented, at one point the penalty kill (Stuart led the Jets in per game penalty kill time) was the number one road PK in the NHL, the final road record in a tough western conference was 19-18-4 and the leadership group of this team took a more active role in the room.
In his postseason interview, captain Andrew Ladd made it very clear how important it was to have coach Maurice back. "I want him back. Great coach, great mind. Good for the guys. Everyone in that room wants to play for him. He takes the grey area out, it's black and white."
Evander Kane talked about "the confidence that Maurice was able to bring to the group." For Trouba, the coaching change was an eye opener. Claude Noel had given him the opportunity to play big minutes right from the start and Trouba turned it into a great rookie season. On Maurice, "there was no doubt he was going to get the best out of us." For Wheeler there is more to being an NHL player that just points. "You want to be a leader, and that is more than speeches. Go about your daily business as a professional. This is the most frustrating year I have ever been a part of. I believe this group is good enough to make the playoffs. I believe in the core group." For Ladd it goes ever further than that. "We are not here just to make playoffs - we want to build something here."
But there are still reasons for concern. The home record has to get better. The Jets had 42 home points this past season, the lowest of any Central Division team, and if not for a win in Calgary in game 82 of the season, Edmonton would have been the only Western Conference team with fewer home points than the Jets. The win kept the Flames behind the Jets. But why is the home record not better? The atmosphere in the MTS Centre is outstanding. The fans are loud, they know the game, come out to cheer their team. MTS Centre needs to be "home ice advantage." Consistency at home is a must to become a playoff contender. The Jets started the season with eight of ten at home, won three. They came out of the Olympic break with nine of 12 at home, won three. Game to game player consistency has to be improved, from the goaltending out. The five and six game losing and winless streaks can't happen. To recover from that is just too difficult, especially in the Western Conference. Special teams will have good and bad swings, but the need for consistency incudes both the power play and the penalty kill.
On January 11, coach Claude Noel moved Byfuglien to forward. As much as Byfuglien made it clear his preference is to play defence, for the good of the team he made the switch. Coach Maurice did tinker with the lines when he came aboard, but liked having Byfuglien's size up front. In four on four situations including overtime, and on power plays, Bufuglien dropped back to defence. The experiment was a success. In his postseason media interview, Byfuglien was asked if he would start next year at forward, his reply was a quick (with a smile), "I hope not." When coach Maurice was asked in his postseason media conference where Bufuglien plays next year, his reply was a quick (with a smile) "forward." Byfuglien being a forward really does add balance to the top two lines.
Individually, a number of Jets are unrestricted free agents. Decisions will have to be made on players like Olli Jokinen, Chris Thorburn, etc. There are restricted free agents that need to be signed, with Michael Frolik leading that list. Coach Maurice moving him to the Andrew Ladd/Bryan Little line was a very good move.
Like any Canadian city, goaltending is always a much debated topic and Ondrej Pavelec was not spared. From trading him, to buying him out, to simply releasing him, fans expressed their opinions. Are all the Jets problems Pavelec, no. Does he like the rest of the team need to be more consistent, YES. It was an up and down season for Zach Bogosian, his progress slowed because of injury, missing 15 mid- season and then missing 11 of the final 12. When paired with Toby Enstrom in January, the two became a very good shut down pair, with Bogosian playing the best hockey of the season. It was also an injury filled season for Evander Kane, and for Jim Slater. When the Jets went into their final game of the season in Calgary, because of injury, they were minus Al Montoya, Keaton Ellerby, Andrew Ladd, James Wright, Chris Thorburn, Grant Clitsome, Dustin Byfuglien, Devin Setoguchi, Zach Bogosian and Mark Scheifele, then lost Slater and Trouba in game. It was a very gutsy effort and thanks to a number of call-ups from St. John's, found a way to win.
Last to address the media was general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff, and started with the news of the four year extension for Paul Maurice. "We talked about team and direction. He's excited to be part of this. He likes our size, speed and the youth of our core." On the team, "we want to establish our core and build around it. We have some holes that need to be filled. But won't deviate from our plan to draft and develop. The ultimate objective is to go far in the playoffs. Making playoffs is the start of the ultimate goal." As for going forward, "we have room to improve at forward. You need strength down the middle in the west. We are in a tough division. We need to get better in our division. Five of the eight teams in the west playoffs are from the Central Division."
The one player Cheveldayoff was asked about was Pavelec and his future with the team. "We certainly realize there's lots of areas for improvement. He is relatively young when it comes to being a starting goaltender. You give those young players those opportunities to excel and there's going to be some bumps along the way. He is part of our group. Yes, Ondrej Pavelec is our number one goaltender going into next season. No one person on this team is greater than the sum of its parts. " On Scheifele and Trouba, who will both be heading to the World Championships, "both made an impact - not just played. And both battled injuries."
After the annual Draft Lottery, nothing changed for the Jets -- they will pick ninth, which brings us back to some of the youngsters. Last year, Josh Morrissey was picked 13th, in 2012 it was Trouba at nine over all, and in 2011 it was Scheifele at seven overall.
Like all off seasons, plenty of work to be done leading up to the draft and then the draft itself. Will the Jets again be involved in draft day deals to fill some of the holes they talk about? Will they decide that parting ways with a core player is something that has to be done, what will they look for in their first selection? Then July rolls around and it's UFA time. To stay away from the temptation to get involved early is a smart move. Getting into bidding wars over players is not the way the Jets want to, nor should, operate. Then training camp, a very exciting time of the year, where you get to see how much better your young players are compared to a year ago, and which of those young players will challenge for a spot with the big team. The offseason goes by in a hurry but in markets like Winnipeg, when it comes to NHL/Jets conversation, there is no offseason.