The draft is done, the schedule released, unrestricted free agency exploded July 1 with signings coming fast and furious, totaling dollars never before seen, but remember the old saying, “dollars don't skate.”
All teams made off-season changes, and the time for organizations to see exactly what their team will look like and how successful it will be, is getting closer every day. Training camps will start in mid-September. Meanwhile coaches are spending hours on a daily basis reviewing video of new players, prospects and trying to get a handle on what kind of a team they have.
For Paul Maurice the off season was a busy one. He was an assistant coach with Canada at the World Championships in Belarus, relocated his family to Winnipeg, watched a lot of video and yet hopefully had some down time, because once training camp starts its full speed ahead.
So when the Jets open the season in Phoenix against the Arizona Coyotes what will the team look like? A team that will have to compete in a very tough division and a very tough conference.
Ask most hockey people for a list of eight teams that will make the playoffs in the West and for the most part you get the same answer: Los Angeles, Anaheim, San Jose, Chicago, St. Louis, Colorado, Dallas and Minnesota. No Jets, no Oilers, no Flames, no Canucks, no Predators, no Coyotes. But every year there are surprises. Example number one: Many picked Colorado to be a basement dweller last year, not a division winner.
On paper, the top eight forward positions for the Jets seem set. So simply for a starting point, we will throw out the following line combinations:
Bryan Little between Andrew Ladd and Michael Frolik. Mark Scheifele between Blake Wheeler and Dustin Byfuglien (Maurice was very clear in his post season news conference that Byfuglien would be a forward). Newcomer Mathieu Perreault with Evander Kane and (let the discussion begin). There will be competition for that spot and competition for the remainder of the forward spots. Jim Slater will centre the fourth line with a list of candidates that includes Chris Thorburn, Anthony Peluso, Eric Tangradi, Matt Halischuk, TJ Galiardi, Eric O'Dell, Carl Klingberg, Adam Lowry, Scott Kosmachuk, and so on. The challenge is to have one out of this group step up and grab a top nine position. One to watch is Lowry.
Now we have heard a variety of other line combinations, from Kane teaming up with Scheifele, to Byfuglin or Wheeler on the line with Little and Ladd with Frolik moving down, etc. That will all sort itself out at training camp and the pre-season games. There are always surprises good and bad, and there are always injuries that play a part.
Perrault will help the power play -- which lacked consistency -- will help in the face-off category -- which needed to be better -- and can play on any of the top three lines.
And on the topic of face-offs, Scheifele got better and better last season until he was hurt, to the point where he became Canada's go to guy at the World Championships.
There are other questions with regards to the forwards: Can Little repeat his great season of last year? Will Wheeler continue the climb to being a dominant winger? What can Byfuglien do in the dual role of winger/point on the power play? What will Perreault add?
And then there is Kane. Will it ever get to the point where he is just “Evander Kane, a very good player for the Winnipeg Jets.” At this point, he's another young player whose potential is unknown.
Little, Wheeler and Byfuglien are all coming off career years. Despite his youth, Scheifele getting hurt really slowed the Jets charge for a playoff spot. The team was on an 11-3-1 run when he got hurt, and prior to the injury he was playing the best hockey of his young career.
The back end is probably more of a wild card. A healthy Zach Bogosian is key. He needs to become the player the Jets think he can be, the player he feels he can be: Namely, a defenceman that can play in all situations, be counted on to be a shutdown guy, and a player that can handle big minutes.
A healthy Toby Enstrom -- who played all 82 games last year – is also a key for the Jets. For now let's pair him with Bogosian.
Mark Stuart played big minutes at the end of the last season while paired with Jacob Trouba. Trying to keep Stuart healthy is not easy simply because of how hard he plays the game.
Twenty-one times last season Trouba led the team in minutes played and will again be given the opportunity to be a special player. His 10 goals was a franchise mark for rookie defencemen. We all know about the sophomore season in many ways being tougher simply based on expectations.
Add Grant Clitsome, Paul Postma, Keaton Ellerby, Adam Pardy, and Josh Morrissey to the list and probably somewhere in that group you will come up with your starting seven.
Morrissey had a great playoff with St. John's after a very good season in junior. Because of his age, Morrissey either stays with the Jets or goes back to Prince Albert. And there are others that have not been listed that will for sure make the final decisions on “D” difficult,” just as it should be. But one to watch is Morrissey.
Good goaltending is a must. And just as Bogosian needs to be the player that everyone feels he can be, so does Ondrej Pavelec, more so than any other player on the team, simply because of the position. Not many veteran players are forced to be at their best right from day one of camp, but fairly or not, that is the position Pavelec is in. And to be clear, all of last year's pitfalls for the Jets can't be thrown on his shoulders, but the Western Conference is full of very good goaltenders and for the Jets to be a playoff team, Pavelec is going to have to show he can be an elite player.
Michael Hutchinson will battle hard for the number one spot as he is coming off a great season. Hutchinson enjoyed success in the ECHL and AHL, before being promoted to the big club at the end of the season, and then had a great playoff run with the Ice Caps.
Connor Hellebuyck is coming off a great college career and was with team USA at the World's, getting a chance to face pro shots. He is one to watch.
The key stat going forward for the Jets is once again goals against. Only Nashville (with no Pekka Rinne for most of the season) gave up more goals than the Jets in the Central Division. Other concerns include the home record needing to be better (and with the great atmosphere at the MTS Centre, there no reason for it not to be), the power play being more consistent (taking advantage of power plays at key times in a game is as important as how many power play goals you score), and getting the extra point in overtime and shootouts.
The Jets were one of the best penalty killing teams in the league, but need to cut down the infractions as only five teams in the entire NHL were shorthanded more.