Off-Season Game Plan: Winnipeg Jets

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Scott Cullen
5/13/2014 12:24:24 PM
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The Winnipeg Jets won 37 games last season, and the franchise hasn't won more than that since 2006-2007 in Atlanta, the last -- and only -- time that they have reached the playoffs.

Off-Season Game Plan looks at a Jets team that has an interesting core, a new coach and a problem between the pipes.

Many of Winnipeg's core players are in their twenties, in and around their prime years, so while that's reason for optimism, it's also reason for some urgency to take advantage of the kind of production being provided by the likes of Andew Ladd, Blake Wheeler and Dustin Byfuglien.

Byfuglien is an interesting case for the Jets, having shifted from defence to forward part way through last season. While Big Buff is an effective winger, his preference is to play defence, which might make him appealing as a trade candidate for other clubs that are willing to accomodate that desire.

But, if Byfuglien sticks around, the Jets have a quality group of forwards, with potential to be really good if Evander Kane and Mark Scheifele continue to develop. Their defence isn't as strong, overall, without Byfuglien, but Jacob Trouba's strong rookie season was encouraging. Basically, the Jets have a competitive group of skaters. Not great, necessarily, but competitive.

Then, it comes to goaltending, and that appears to be the area that needs fixing, only GM Kevin Cheveldayoff has backed Ondrej Pavelec as the team's starting goaltender going into next season. Maybe that's the stance that a GM has to take with a guy under contract for three more seasons, but his performance has been crippling to the Jets' playoff chances and if he starts 50-plus games again next season, that is a serious roll of the dice that the Jets are taking with a goaltender that has finished with a league average save percentage once in five NHL seasons.

The Jets did fare better under new head coach Paul Maurice, going 18-12-5 in the last 35 games, but that was largely due to favourable percentages and their possession stats only improved slightly over that span.

They are close enough to contend for a playoff spot next season, with a couple of savvy moves this summer and further development from young players, but if they don't do something to upgrade in goal, it may all for naught.

The TSN.ca Rating is an efficiency rating based on per-game statistics including goals and assists -- weighted for strength (ie. power play, even, shorthanded) -- Corsi, adjusted for zone starts, quality of competition and quality of teammates, hits, blocked shots, penalty differential and faceoffs. Generally, a replacement-level player is around a 60, a top six forward and top four defenceman will be around 70, stars will be over 80 and MVP candidates could go over 90. Sidney Crosby finished at the top of the 2013-2014 regular season ratings at 87.12.

Salary cap information all comes from the indispensable www.capgeek.com.

CF% = Corsi percentage (ie. percentage of 5-on-5 shot attempts), via www.extraskater.com.

GM/COACH
Kevin Cheveldayoff/Paul Maurice

Returning Forwards

Player Rating GP G A PTS CF% Cap Hit
Dustin Byfuglien 77.01 78 20 36 56 50.4% $5.2M
Blake Wheeler 75.85 82 28 41 69 49.9% $5.6M
Evander Kane 74.81 63 19 22 41 51.5% $5.25M
Bryan Little 74.61 82 23 41 64 52.9% $4.7M
Andrew Ladd 73.59 78 23 31 54 52.9% $4.4M
Mark Scheifele 66.91 63 13 21 34 48.6% $863K
Jim Slater 57.45 27 1 1 2 49.6% $1.6M
Eric Tangradi 57.40 55 3 3 6 53.8% $675K
Anthony Peluso 54.84 53 2 3 5 45.6% $563K

Free Agent Forwards

Player Rating GP G A PTS CF% Class '13-'14 Cap Hit
Michael Frolik 68.98 81 15 27 42 53.0% RFA $2.333M
Olli Jokinen 64.17 82 18 25 43 49.2% UFA $4.5M
Devin Setoguchi 63.46 75 11 16 27 48.8% UFA $3.0M
Matt Halischuk 58.07 46 5 5 10 44.5% RFA $650K
Chris Thorburn 57.18 55 2 9 11 43.3% UFA $867K
James Wright 53.76 59 0 2 2 47.7% RFA $650K

Shifted to forward at the end of his run by since-departed coach Claude Noel, Dustin Byfuglien appears to be set for that spot again next season. That presumes that Byfuglien doesn't get moved in the summer, which is always a possibility, but also operates under the premise that the Jets are better with Byfuglien at forward. Byfuglien, individually, had a 51.7% Corsi percentage before he was moved to forward and 48.0% after.

That aside, in 32 games at (mostly) forward, Byfuglien had 10 goals, 12 assists and 102 shots on goal. On a per-game basis, those numbers would have placed him with pretty nice company last season. It's a little interesting that the bottom name on that list is Brent Burns, the Sharks' winger who also used to play defence.

Over the past three seasons, Blake Wheeler has 174 points, which ranks 22nd in the league over that span and last year's 50 even-strength points was tied for 13th in the league with David Krejci and Thomas Vanek. Wheelers is big and can move, which allows him to create mismatches depending on what gives him the advantage on a particular defender.

Evander Kane uses his terrific speed to generate shots at an elite level, but has been a relatively low-percentage finisher. Some of that is due to not getting first-unit power play time and, even at even-strength, could use better linemates to help him out. That doesn't absolve Kane of any responsibility for his production, which has dipped since scoring 30 goals in 74 games in 2011-2012, but there's still a lot to like about what he brings to the game.

After scoing 23 goals and a career-high 64 points, there is a case to be made for Bryan Little as an advanced stats All-Star as one of a handful of players to face top-tier competition, start more shifts in the defensive zone and still have a relative Corsi over plus-10 per 60 minutes. The common perception of Little might be that he's a good second-line centre but the 26-year-old is coming off a season in which he was a full-fledged No. 1 pivot.

Team captain Andrew Ladd has scored 98 goals over the past four seasons, ranking 24th in that span. He's a reliable two-way player that can be used in any situation and he is, averaging 19:46 per game in four seasons with the franchise.

Mark Scheifele had rounded into form, with 12 goals and 29 points in the last 39 games he played before suffering a season-ending knee injury. Considering that Scheifele managed five points in his first 24 games last season, and had his Corsi percentage rise from 46.7% to 49.7% over those splits, counts as positive indications that he could fulfill the second-line centre role going forward.

A sports hernia cost Jim Slater two-thirds of last season, and he's mustered a grand total of two goals and four points in 53 games over the past two seasons. While he's hit double-digits in goals three times in his career, Slater has also missed at least a dozen games in six of nine seasons, so it's getting difficult to count on him, even in a fourth-line role.

Though he has a paltry 15 points in 136 career games, big winge Eric Tangradi held his own in a depth role last season, putting up positive possession stats. As an inexpensive fourth-line option, the Jets could do worse.

Like most forwards that play less than six minutes per game, Anthony Peluso can't risk playing too many minutes, lest he be exposed. He's a scrapper who can handle the big boys, though, so as long as the Jets are going to leave a roster spot for that role, Peluso can fill it. At the same time, they could probably do without.

26-year-old Michael Frolik established that he hasn't completely forgotten how to create offence, scoring 42 points, his most since 2009-2010. He's still a low-percentage finisher, but a versatile forward who can play both ends of the rink.

A couple years removed from a career-best 28-point season, Matt Halischuk has been battling to keep a regular spot in the lineup and, last season, he was overrun in possession terms. He's a viable fourth-line forward, but also one that could quickly be replaced.

24-year-old James Wright has good size, but there isn't much else justifying his place on an NHL roster. Last season, he was one of eight forwards since 2000-2001 to play at least 500 minutes and not register a single goal.

The Jets have a solid core of forwards, but can use a couple of top-nine forwards to effectively take spots of unrestricted free agents Olli Jokinen and Devin Setoguchi. Given the free agent alternatives at centre, the Jets could be okay doing a short-term deal with Jokinen and then find a solid checking forward, like Blake Comeau, Jesse Winchester or Daniel Winnik could round out the group nicely.

Returning Defence

Player Rating GP G A PTS CF% Cap Hit
Jacob Trouba 71.45 65 10 19 29 49.0% $894K
Grant Clitsome 67.12 32 2 10 12 51.7% $2.067M
Tobias Enstrom 66.89 82 10 20 30 50.6% $5.75M
Zach Bogosian 63.37 55 3 8 11 49.4% $5.143M
Mark Stuart 61.70 69 2 11 13 47.6% $2.625M
Paul Postma 58.59 20 1 2 3 47.4% $713K

Free Agent Defence

Player Rating GP G A PTS CF% Class '13-'14 Cap Hit
Adam Pardy 57.93 60 0 6 6 53.7% UFA $600K
Keaton Ellerby 57.48 51 2 4 6 48.0% RFA $735K

One of the reasons that the Jets might have felt able to move Byfuglien to forward was the emergence of Jacob Trouba, who recovered from a neck injury and led the Jets in ice time following the Olympic break, averaging 23:33 per game. A 20-year-old who can skate, hit and contribute offensively, Trouba will have more responsibility heaped on him, but he has the makings of a No. 1 on the blueline.

Back surgery ended Grant Clitsome's season early, but he was logging nearly 20 minutes a night, with positive possession stats at the time of his injury. Clitsome can move the puck and play a solid game, though he's never played more than 63 games in an NHL season, so there's still some unknown regarding his performance over the course of a full season.

While Tobias Enstrom's offensive production dipped to a career-low 0.37 points per game last season, he still delivered relatively steady play while facing tough competition. He's small, but mobile and his ability to move the puck is important to the Jets' defence.

Zach Bogosian hasn't really made the mark that was expected when he was drafted third overall in 2008 and, on top of being bitten by the injury bug -- he's missed 70 games over the past four seasons -- Bogosian hasn't been able to successfully lock into a shutdown role. That's the objective, but there is still some unexplored potential in the 23-year-old's game.

A rugged veteran, Mark Stuart combined for 389 hits and blocked shots last season, ranking third among defencemen (behind Cody Franson and Radko Gudas), so there's no denying that he lays his body on the line. He also tends to spend more of his time in the Jets' end of the ice, though last season he was taking on tougher matchups, playing more minutes once Byfuglien moved up.

Paul Postma hasn't been able to hold down a regular spot in the lineup, playing 57 career games and while he has some puck skills and a big shot that suit him on the power play, Postma struggled at even-strength last season.

Between Postma, Keaton Ellerby and pending unrestricted free agent Adam Pardy, the Jets had a battle for playing time at the bottom of the defence depth chart. Ellerby could take on more minutes if Pardy departs, but that may just mean a more regular turn in the lineup.

The wildcard could be top prospect Joshua Morrissey, who is a fast-rising offensive defenceman. If he makes the club, that could raise the group's ceiling.

Returning Goaltender

Player Rating GP W L OTL GAA SV% Cap Hit
Ondrej Pavelec 60.64 57 22 26 7 3.01 .901 $3.9M

Free Agent Goaltender

Player Rating GP W L OTL GAA SV% Class '13-'14 Cap Hit
Al Montoya 68.70 28 13 8 3 2.30 .920 UFA $601K

Over the past three seasons, Ondrej Pavelec has cost the Jets approximately 45 goals compared to the league average, according to Hockey Reference's Goals Saved Above Average measure. It's one thing to be at the bottom of the league in save percentage and another to continually get played at a starter's workload. The Jets have invested money in Pavelec, but it's really had to rationalize him in a starter's role, especially if the team considers itself ready to contend for a playoff spot.

There may be challenges to getting rid of Pavelec, not least of which is that Cheveldayoff has said that Pavelec will be the No. 1 goalie next year, but he also may not be particularly appealing to other teams with the Jets paying half of his salary.

Given how much it has been a problem lately, though, the Jets have to investigate opportunities to upgrade their goaltending. A trade for Manitoba native James Reimer could work, or signing a free agent like Jonas Hiller, Brian Elliott, Ray Emery or Tomas Vokoun could be worthwhile.

Top Prospects

Player Pos. Team/League Stats
Joshua Morrissey D Prince Albert (WHL) 28-45-73, +6, 59 GP
Nicolas Petan C Portland (WHL) 35-78-113, +47, 63 GP
Adam Lowry LW St. John's (AHL) 17-16-33, -1, 64 GP
Eric Comrie G Tri-City (WHL) 2.57 GAA, .925 SV%, 60 GP
Scott Kosmachuk RW Guelph (OHL) 49-52-101, +52, 68 GP
Andrew Copp C Michigan (Big 10) 15-14-29, +1, 33 GP
Connor Hellebuyck G UMass-Lowell (HE) 1.79 GAA, .941 SV%, 29 GP
J.C. Lipon RW St. John's (AHL) 9-32-41, even, 72 GP
Brenden Kichton D St. John's (AHL) 10-38-48, +8, 76 GP
Julian Melchiori D St. John's (AHL) 1-10-11, +19, 50 GP
Eric O'Dell C St. John's (AHL) 17-25-42, +9, 42 GP

The 13th pick last summer, Joshua Morrissey had an outstanding year in Prince Albert. If the Jets are willing to live with the mistakes of a smart, teenaged offensive defenceman, then Morrissey (who has six points in eight AHL playoff games) could be a viable challenger for an NHL job as a 19-year-old.

An undersized playmaker, Nicolas Petan was a second-rond pick last summer and has been tearing up the WHL for the past couple seasons. Between regular season and playoffs, he's tallied 289 points (in 176 games) and while size may be an issue, the only way to find out if it's going to pose a problem is to wait and see how he does at the next level.

A 6-foot-5 winger-turned-centre, Adam Lowry completed his first pro season and is probably not far from challenging for a spot in Winnipeg. The third-round pick from 2011 picked up his play after Christmas, scoring 28 points in his last 43 regular-season games.

One of the game's better goaltending prospects, Eric Comrie was a second-round pick in 2013. He struggled in a couple of AHL games at season's end, but had a tremendous season in the WHL. He's also only 18-year-old, so it's going to take time before he's the answer to the Jets' goaltending questions.

Drafted in the third round in 2012, Scott Kosmachuk has improved steadily throughout his junior career and had a monster year with a powerhouse Guelph team in the OHL. He can make the jump to the AHL next season to see if his scoring will come to the pro game with him.

A solidly-built centre who was picked in the fourth round last year, Andrew Copp is making quick progress, coming off a strong sophomore season at Michigan while also putting up five points in five games at the World Juniors for Team USA.

There's not much more that Connor Hellebuyck can do in college to raise his profile. Through two years at UMass-Lowell, Hellebuyck has a .946 save percentage and a dozen shutouts. He's signed with the Jets and might be expected to start in the American Hockey League, but if he keep stopping pucks, there should be room for him.

An aggressive winger picked in the third roudn last summer, J.C. Lipon had a solid pro debut and wasn't shy about it, leading the Ice Caps in penalty minutes with 136.

Not the biggest blueliner on the block, Brenden Kichton was initially a fifth-round pick of the Islanders, was not signed, and then was drafted in the seventh-round by Winnipeg in 2013. A heady player who can quarterback a power play, Kichton ranked sixth among AHL defencemen in points as a rookie pro.

A third-round pick in 2010, Julian Melchiori is a big, stay-at-home defenceman who has missed time with injuries in each of his first two pro seasons.

Eric O'Dell turns 24 this summer, which puts him on the older side as a prospect but, in addition to scoring 97 points in 101 AHL games over the past two seasons, he also played 30 games for the Jets last season (3 G, 4 A, 51.0 CF%) so he's able to contribute now.

Jets advanced stats and player usage chart from Extra Skater

DRAFT
9th - Nick Ritchie, Nikolaj Ehlers, Jake Virtanen, Haydn Fleury

FREE AGENCY
According to www.capgeek.com, the Jets have approximately $49.9M committed to the 2014-2015 salary cap for 16 players.

Check out my possible Jets lineup for next season on Cap Geek here.

Needs: Two top nine forwards, one top four defenceman, goaltenders.

What I said the Jets needed last year: Two top six forwards, two top nine forwards, one top four defenceman, goaltender.

They added: Michael Frolik, Mark Scheifele, Devin Setoguchi, Jacob Trouba.

TRADE MARKET
Dustin Byfuglien, Evander Kane

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.

Jets celebrate (Photo: Canadian Press)

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(Photo: Canadian Press)
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