Jets: 10 Things You Need To Know
By Scott BurnsideAn understandable clean slate accompanies the former Atlanta Thrashers to their new digs in Winnipeg. And why not? The excitement in the city is palpable. Players and management report spontaneous outbreaks of hockey joy in the streets, at the airport and in shops and restaurants.
Still, no matter how often rookie GM Kevin Cheveldayoff insists that this franchise is looking forward, it has inherited one of the worst-run teams in recent NHL history. A decade of play in Atlanta yielded one playoff appearance and no playoff victories. The team that sets up shop at the MTS Centre cannot be expected to take more than a shuffling step forward.
Still, for fans and this franchise, that might be enough.
Never mind the inherent pressures of having to move a franchise and get it ready for action in about four months, but throw in the tragic death of Rick Rypien and the arrest of Dustin Byfuglien, and it's tested the mettle of this fledgling organization.
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Atlantic: NJD | NYI | NYR | PHI | PIT
NE: BOS | BUF | MTL | OTT | TOR
SE: CAR | FLA | TMB | WAS | WPG
Central: CHI | CMB | DET | NSH | STL
NW: CGY | COL | EDM | MIN | VAN
Pacific: ANA | DAL | LAK | PHX | SAN
1. History repeating itself
The history of the Atlanta Thrashers, er, Winnipeg Jets is a history of being defensively miserable. Former coach Craig Ramsay got the Thrashers off to a great start last season only to see the team fall to pieces in the second half. Defensively, the team resembled all the other Thrashers squads before it, ranking 26th in shots allowed per game, 29th in goals allowed per game, 27th on the penalty kill and 26th in five-on-five goals allowed. With much of the same personnel, it's hard to imagine a dramatic turnaround regardless of how many fans are watching.
2. The drop-off
For the first third of last season, the Thrashers looked as though they had turned a corner and were going to be a playoff team for just the second time in team history. But it didn't work out that way; they slumped in the middle of the season and couldn't pull themselves back into contention, finishing 12th in the conference and 13 points out of the last playoff spot. In a recent interview, Jets captain Andrew Ladd said that some players seemed to think the team's good start automatically would lead to the same results throughout the season. Instead, the games got harder, and Ladd said the team didn't respond with the required work ethic. That hard lesson should come in handy.
3. Ondrej Pavelec, myth or reality?
After collapsing and suffering a concussion seconds into the Thrashers' first game last season, Pavelec returned and turned in some eye-popping performances. At one point, the goalie won six straight games in November and earned the first star of the week. But in 14 of his last 20 games, Pavelec allowed three or more goals and had just four victories during that period. It goes without saying that consistent goaltending is crucial to any team, especially a young team like the Jets. Chris Mason had a disappointing 3.39 GAA and .892 save percentage.
4. Zach Bogosian, myth or reality?
It is not a stretch to suggest that unless Bogosian fulfills the potential that made him the third overall pick in the 2008 draft, the team's chances of becoming a playoff contender are significantly stunted. There have been a number of issues clouding Bogosian's slow development, including injury. At times, Bogosian has shown smooth skating, deft puckhandling and physical play that suggests he could be Drew Doughty-like. But those moments have been few and far between.
At one point, it appeared the Thrashers might consider moving Bogosian, although a deal never materialized and the restricted free agent signed a two-year deal worth $5 million on the eve of training camp. Although Cheveldayoff wouldn't address Bogosian's issues with the coaching staff, he made no bones about the fact that he expects Bogosian to be a big part of the team's future.
Cheveldayoff said it's unfair for outsiders to criticize the pace of that maturation process. That said, watch for coach Claude Noel to take a special interest in the education of Bogosian this season.
5. Big Buff
Dustin Byfuglien was eventually charged on suspicion of being under a controlled substance and driving his boat while impaired, along with a couple of minor boating offenses. There were rumors he was way over his playing weight, but when he arrived in Winnipeg, there was no hint of that. The assumption is Noel will continue last season's experiment that saw Ramsay move Byfuglien back to the blue line after he enjoyed a breakout season in 2009-10 in Chicago as a forward.
Early on, the move looked like a stroke of genius, but Byfuglien disappeared in the second half, and so did the Thrashers' playoff hopes. Despite finishing with 20 goals, Byfuglien managed just two in his last 21 games. Byfuglien signed a five-year, $26 million extension that kicks in this season and seems like a pretty big commitment for the Jets.
6. Do fans matter?
You talk to the players and they will acknowledge that playing in front of a half-full building (as was often the case at Philips Arena) gets you down. When visiting teams don't worry about noise and distraction from an angry home crowd, there goes the home-ice advantage. So, what kind of advantage will Jets players feel playing in front of a sold-out building every night? Ladd said it could be significant. He recalled cars stopping and honking their horns while he was doing an interview at Winnipeg's historic Portage and Main intersection. Players certainly will feel it, especially when the season starts to drag.
7. Free agency
If people thought the Jets would go hog-wild on July 1 and try to reward their fans with some big-name players and big contracts, they would have been disappointed. Instead, the Jets took a very cautious approach to building the team, preferring to see what talent resided in house and in the system before committing to significant free-agent additions.
"We've said from the beginning it's going to be a process. There is no quick fix," said Cheveldayoff, who admitted there might have been temptation to stray from that plan. "We had to not lose sight of our thought process."
8. Who will step up?
There are interesting pieces within the lineup, whether it's Bogosian or Evander Kane or Blake Wheeler, who came over from Boston last season. Among the more interesting youngsters is Alexander Burmistrov, the 19-year-old who was the eighth overall pick in the 2010 draft. Talk to coaches and players around the team, and they will tell you Burmistrov has eye-popping skill. With one year under his belt, the opportunities will be abundant for the smooth-skating center. Then there's Mark Scheifele, the Jets' first pick in June's draft.
Kids like Kane and Bogosian made a seamless jump from junior to the NHL because their every step wasn't analyzed and debated by the public at large. There's no place to hide in Winnipeg, so Scheifele has to be handled a bit differently. The debate over whether to keep him up with the big club may be moot given that fans were chanting his name after the Jets' first preseason game.
9. Kyle in the house
We admit having a personal bias toward well-traveled forward Kyle Wellwood, who entered the league in Toronto and instantly earned raves for his hockey smarts and ability to move the puck. His abilities will be key to a Jets team that needs all hands on deck to move up the standings. Wellwood isn't a kid anymore at age 28, and he's bounced around from Vancouver to Russia to San Jose in the past couple of years. He will get all kinds of opportunities to see if those skills haven't eroded.
10. The Antropov factor
Nik Antropov is one of many NHLers who will enter the regular season with a heavy heart after the Lokomotiv jet crash in Russia. He knew many of the players on the ill-fated flight, and assistant coach Igor Korolev was as former teammate in Toronto and godfather to one of his children. Antropov is one of the most beguiling players in the NHL given his size (6-foot-6, 240 pounds). Yet there are long periods when he is a peripheral player prone to taking bad penalties. There also have been issues with durability. His goal totals dropped from 24 two seasons ago to 16 in 2011-12. With two years left on a deal with an annual cap hit just north of $4 million, Antropov simply has to be more consistent.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
Experience: Entering first full season as NHL head coach
Stanley Cup titles: 0
• There was some surprise that Craig Ramsay wasn't asked to take the Jets on their maiden voyage given his experience. There was more surprise when they didn't go with a coach with more NHL head-coaching experience than Noel, who has coached just 24 NHL games after he took over for Ken Hitchcock in Columbus.
Still, Noel is a former player and a man with a lengthy résumé that includes head-coaching gigs in the minor pros and work as an NHL assistant. Cheveldayoff believed that Noel's demeanor with a young team will be a key.
"He's a teacher," Cheveldayoff said.
As a former minor league coach, Noel is familiar with the almost annual process of team-building and teaching systems and ideas to a whole crop of new faces.
"He finds ways to get to know the person and know the player," Cheveldayoff said.-- Scott Burnside
Best bet: Dustin Byfuglien
For those of you who may have been living off the grid for the last year or so, Dustin Byfuglien is now a defenseman. Yeah, caught us by surprise at the time, too. But he's a mighty good one. Second in the league only to Alex Ovechkin in shots (347), Byfuglien was among the top defensemen in all fantasy categories with the exception of plus-minus. We won't be surprised when he puts in a commanding showing this time around. -- Victoria Matiash
Risky pick: Ondrej Pavelec
After recovering from a neurocardiogenic syncope, Pavelec went on to be a steady hand in net, posting a 2.73 GAA and .914 save percentage. Due to a lack of goal support, though, he managed just 21 wins in 54 starts. He's set to be the No. 1 tender and his overall fantasy value will again be limited (or enhanced) by how much success the team has on the other end of the ice. -- Tim Kavanagh
Sleeper pick: Eric Fehr
Fehr is a sure-fire second-line winger with a chance to end up on the top line. Fehr plays with size and skill, but we won't know what his potential is until he has a chance to unleash it. Playing with the Jets will be his first chance to step out of the shadows of the Capitals' stars. Think about the way Tomas Fleischmann exploded last season with the Colorado Avalanche. Fehr has that same potential. -- Sean Allen
Who's On The Move
The offseason signings/acquisitions and departures for the Jets:
• June 8: Named Kevin Cheveldayoff general manager.
• June 24: Named Claude Noel head coach.
• July 4: Signed D Randy Jones, LW Tanner Glass, D Derek Meech, C Aaron Gagnon and D Mark Flood.
• July 5: Re-signed LW Andrew Ladd.
• July 8: Acquired RW Eric Fehr from Washington for RW Danick Paquette and Winnipeg's 2012 fourth-round pick.
• July 9: Acquired LW Kenndal McArdle from Florida for C Angelo Esposito.
• July 15: Named Charlie Huddy assistant coach.
• July 18: Re-signed RW Blake Wheeler.
• July 22: Named Pascal Vincent assistant coach.
• Sept. 9: Signed C Kyle Wellwood.
• Sept. 14: Re-signed D Zach Bogosian.
• RW Anthony Stewart (unrestricted free agent, signed by Carolina)
• RW Radek Dvorak (unrestricted free agent, signed by Dallas)
• LW Eric Boulton (unrestricted free agent, signed by New Jersey)
• D Freddy Meyer (unrestricted free agent, signed by Swedish club MoDo)
• C Rob Schremp (unrestricted free agent, signed by Swedish club MoDo