Saturday, May 31, 2014

Pool Outlook for Winnipeg

Moving to the Western Conference in the league re-alignment was going to end up being a daunting change, as the Winnipeg Jets geographically got the move that they wanted, into the new Central Division, but they did move out of one of the easier divisions to play in, the old Southeast Division.  To their credit, the Jets stayed in the race, played a reasonably consistent season, but they were a little short on skill, when you looked at them on paper, but they certainly made the most of it in the 2014 season, coming only seven points short of a playoff spot in the West.

It may not be fair to rag on the Jets too much, but they are somewhat of a rag-tag bunch of players, which were built out of the wake of the 2010 Chicago Blackhawks Stanley Cup winning team, when they had to disband out of the salary cap rules.  Now four years removed, players like Dustin Byfuglien and Andrew Ladd still remain on the team, in large capacities, and they may be questionable pieces to build a franchise around.

The Jets have been doing a good job through the draft, finding new skilled players to help build this franchise into something their new adopted Canadian city can be proud of, but they are still lacking that identity that isn't based in Chicago.  High expectations on kids like Evander Kane or Mark Scheifele haven't bred winners just yet, but we may be able to look towards others like Jacob Trouba for leadership into the new age for this team.

Leading the team in the 2014 season was forward Blake Wheeler, who has had a rocky start to his NHL career, but after a number of seasons toiling around in the mid-range player brackets in past years, Wheeler has finally emerged as a leader on the scoresheet for the Jets, finishing 45th in pool scoring in 2013 and improving on that to 32nd in 2014, thanks to a 69-point season in all 82 games.  Wheeler has been known for having some reasonable potential in his youth, but being a late-bloomer and somewhat of a wild card, when it comes to contract negotiations, has possibly soured some on jumping on his bandwagon as a quality player.

Not very far behind Wheeler for top spot for the Jets was Bryan Little, who finished with 64 points in all 82 games, as he was trying to regain some of that magic he had with the Atlanta Thrashers, a few years ago.  Andrew Ladd also had a top-100 finish with 54 points in 78 games for the Jets, while Olli Jokinen came back with an okay year, 43 points in all 82 games.  The Jets do have some more potential coming up in the organization and it isn't until they occupy the top spots in team scoring, that the team will start to win more games and be a bit more of a force in the West.

On defense, it was very much a lot of the same that we've seen out of Winnipeg/Atlanta for the past few years, as Dustin Byfuglien led the team with 56 points in 78 games, ranking 80th overall in pool scoring.  He was followed by Tobias Enstrom, who had 30 points in all 82 games, ranking well down in 278th spot.  Jacob Trouba was a bright spot, coming up a little bit later in the season, as he finished with 29 points in 69 games and helped keep the team in the race, until late in the season.

Goaltending for the Jets was supposed to be somewhat of a steady position, heading into the 2014 campaign, with all the team's eggs on Ondrej Pavelec.  Pavelec finished with 22 wins, 1 shutout and 3 assists on the year, giving him 49 points, but he played so many minutes, that his overall scoring average in the pool suffered, falling below 1 point for every 60 minutes played (0.905), which translated into a sub-par season and a lack of playoffs.  Al Montoya was decent in relief, but the team did the right thing with their number one goalie and stuck with him, through thick and thin.

2015 Pool Outlook

The lack of an established impact scoring forward or lights out goalkeeper make the Winnipeg Jets somewhat of an anti-climactic franchise, especially when you're trying to pick your hockey pool team for the year.  Sure, the Jets have some talent on this team, but no one is going to be putting this team on their list of teams that you must get players from.  You sort of resign yourself to the Pavelec's and Bryan Little's of this team, even though you may race for a Byfuglien or Enstrom to man your blueline, but there isn't anything sexy about the blueline.

If you are going to make a comparison from how the team looks on your pool list to where they should end up in the standings, I would gather that they would end up in about the same place, no?

The Jets are not without their up-and-coming prospects, however.  We already know that Jacob Trouba should be on your list for a good defender in the 2015 season, but you should be keeping an eye on young forwards like Josh Morrissey, J.C. Lipon or Nicolas Petan.  Their impact on the league and the team may still be up in the air, but all three have certainly earned their praises in the junior ranks, enough so to earn some long looks at training camp and with how the Jets struggle offensively some games, the team would be silly not to give these guys a shot.

Free Agency and the Salary Cap

Unrestricted free agency will be interesting for management and with the players that are heading to the open market, it will be a telling sign about the direction of the team when you see who they choose to negotiate with prior to July 1st or who they decide to let go.  Olli Jokinen, Al Montoya, Devin Setoguchi, Chris Thorburn and Adam Pardy are all in that group on the way out.

Of course, there is less urgency when trying to sign restricted free agents these days, but the group that the Jets have asks the question, "who won't be qualified for restricted free agency and who will be let go?"  Michal Frolik, Matt Halischuk, Keaton Ellerby and Patrice Cormier are a number of players, who could just as easily be sent packing, as they could be kept around for depth.

The salary cap will play nicely for the Winnipeg Jets, with the projected number at $71.1 million.  I currently have 15 Jets players (seven forwards, seven defensemen and a goalie) on their projected roster, coming in at around $48.3 million, leaving nearly $23 million in open space, if they choose to use it.  Not bad gap space for eight more roster players.  I don't think the Jets will be major players in the free agent market, but they could easily play in the depth player market, which won't necessarily be cheap either.

The cupboards are a bit bare on the blueline for Winnipeg, as they don't have much waiting in the wings, let alone much in the way of blue-chip talent.  I think with that being said, I don't think the Jets would sell the farm with the most offensive or the most defensive kind of guy, so they would look somewhere in the middle, which leads me to think that a guy like Roland McKeown, who played for Kingston in 2014, might be the guy to fit the bill, playing in both ends well and still learning.  McKeown is ranked in a few places to go a little bit later in the 1st round, but I could see him jump up to the early parts of the draft to fill the need.  Forwards will be available down the line, but they may be silly to pass up on a 1st round defenseman.

The strength of the Jets will fall to what they have already in the system, as they continue to grow from within.  Their strong showing in the 2014 season, plus a little bit more experience for young stars like Evander Kane and Mark Scheifele will go a long way to a better 2015 season.  The Jets will also need to exercise a keen sense of value in the market place to maintain their standing, if not improve it this coming season.

It has been well-documented that the Jets are in no hurry to really make that push to the off-season, but you would think that they would be getting close to that point.  Yes, they will be relying on their own picks and yes, it looks like Pavelec will still be the guy to carry the load and yes, the blueline will be the key component of keeping their heads afloat... so, with all of that being said, I'm predicting a lack of change in their standing in the 2015 season.  They'll keep the fans excited up until the last couple weeks of the season, but until they have that bonafide, established talent up front, I am not going to give them the benefit of the doubt any time soon.

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