By Scott Billeck (@ScottBilleck)
WINNIPEG — When the first puck falls to the ice on Thursday night at TD Garden in Boston, the Winnipeg Jets will have a new look team but the same ambition heading into the 2015-16 season.
Finally, for many, the National Hockey League’s preamble session is over. In all actuality, the preseason was more than just the throes it often devolves into. More than any other year, the draft and develop scheme fronted by GM Kevin Cheveldayoff sparkled, producing a slew of roster battles filled with excitement for both fan and pundit alike.
For the first time in the club’s 2.0 history, its name will be mentioned in the playoff lore of the year before. The expectation for every season since inauguration has been hockey in late April. Only last year were the Jets able to live up to the talk.
Playoff hockey can be a cruel mistress, as the Jets found out after being swept up quicker than a sale item at a Manitoba Walmart by the Anaheim Ducks. But fans got a taste of the path to the Holy Land. A young team some see as cup contenders in a few years got a vision of how things need to go throughout the 82-game regular season schedule. And a city steeped in hockey tradition were able to wear white once again.
The Jets success didn’t happen via shear luck, either.
Nine Jets had 15 or more goals last season, a marked improvement over years past where the production load rested heavily on the shoulders of the top line. Mathieu Perreault’s determined play on the power play and as a consistent threat in five-on-five situations gave the Jets some much-needed depth. And the emergence of forward Adam Lowry as a physical force who can chip in on the scoresheet solidified three potent lines at times last year.
And the core did what the core should.
Captain Andrew Ladd led the way in scoring with a career-best 62 points, followed by linemate Blake Wheeler’s 61 and the man who centred both of them most of the year, Bryan Little, with 52 points. Dustin Byfuglien was the team’s top scoring defenceman with 45 points, this despite being derailed for 13 games.
Key additions: LW Matt Fraser, C Alexander Burmistrov (returns from KHL stint).
Key losses: RW Michael Frolik, LW Lee Stempniak, RW Eric O’Dell, D Keaton Ellerby, C T.J. Galiaridi.
From the farm: LW Nikolaj Ehlers, LW Nic Petan and C Andrew Copp.
2014-15 by the numbers:
Jets 2014-15 record: 43-26-13 – 99 points. 5th in the Central, 2nd in wild card, 7th in Western Conference.
Power play: Tied for 17th, 17.8 per cent
Penalty kill: 13th, 81.8 per cent
Longest winning streak: Five games
Longest winless streak: Six games
Corsi/Fenwick close: 5th, 53.46 per cent/6th, 53.19 per cent
Top scorer: Andrew Ladd – 62 points (24 goals, 28 assists)
Most power-play goals – two tied at 9, Andrew Ladd and Bryan Little
Most game-winning goals – two tied at 6, Andrew Ladd and Blake Wheeler
Most short-handed goals – 4, Blake Wheeler
Most overtime goals – four tied at 1, Bryan Little, Andrew Ladd, Dustin Byfuglien, Mathieu Perreault.
Most shots – 244, Blake Wheeler
Highest shot percentage (minimum 50 GP) – 16.2, Bryan Little
Most PIMs – 124, Dustin Byfuglien
Average TOI – 23:49, Tyler Myers
Tales from Training Camp:
From the onset, head coach Paul Maurice fiddled with his line combinations, even trying veteran centreman Bryan Little out on the wing – a spot he recorded both his highest goal total with 31 during the 2008-09 season, and his lowest with 13 a year later.
The veteran bench boss crafted various brews, citing that as the season presses on, injuries and the like can shake up a roster in a such a way that players are forced to play outside of their comfort zones. Jets fans will have to look no further than Adam Pardy’s brief foray into a forward role last season as proof-positive.
It was also made known that defenceman Grant Clitsome, who missed most of last year with a reoccurring back injury, failed his physical. Maurice said the news didn’t come as a surprise to the team and doesn’t expect Clitsome to suit up this season for the Jets.
And then there was the rookie battle, but more on that in a bit. Here a few storylines heading into the upcoming season:
1. Is Pavelec a changed man?
Let’s face it, each new season hinges on the play of the 28-year-old former Calder Cup winner. And Pavelec’s overall history would suggest no, he’s likely not going to become Carey Price before his career runs dry. But evidence by advanced statistics, the Jets needn’t Pavelec to be Price, but for Pavelec to be just above average.
Pavelec’s career numbers are still well below league average for starting goaltenders. But Pavelec boosted his performances and his numbers tremendously over the last quarter of the season, posting a hat trick of shutouts to cap off a regular season that was good enough for a postseason berth.
The Czech Republic native’s .920 save percentage was six ticks higher than his previous career-high and his 2.28 goals-against average was in a different hemisphere relative to his career numbers.
Can he keep it up? It would seem the solid performances by rookie Michael Hutchinson sparked some motivation inside of Pavelec, who watched helplessly for a time as Hutchinson rose to prominence and a couple of early nods for rookie of the year. Couple that with a defence-first system imposed by Maurice and Pavelec might yet crack .920 again.
With Connor Hellebuyck sent back for the AHL for what would seem like another season in the minors, the ship is Pavelec’s. He’s the No. 1 in Winnipeg and if history tells us anything, he has a decent-sized leash. Sure, the Jets rode the hot hand with Hutchinson, and it certainly helped them get into the postseason, but they aren’t paying the man nearly $4 million a season to ride the pine.
2. Where are the contracts?
Andrew Ladd and Dustin Byfuglien still have yet to be re-upped by the club. The pending unrestricted free agents at the end of the upcoming season have both expressed their desire to stay with the club, but as Ladd said on Friday, sometimes delays are just the way she goes.
Both Ladd and Byfuglien said early on in training camp that he lets his handlers take care of the day-to-day stuff.
Byfuglien professed his love for his surroundings in Manitoba and for the team itself, saying he’d have no issue with being a Jet for the rest of his career.
As of writing this, both men are poised to head into the regular season without extensions. Both will become unrestricted free agents at season’s end if both sides can’t agree to terms before July 1, 2016.
It’s a talking point that will be beaten to death throughout the course of the season. What remains to be seen is what role it plays in their performance on the ice.
3. The future is now.
Those were precisely the words of Cheveldayoff just as camp kicked off.
Chevy’s stable of quality prospects has only grown since taking over the team in 2011 and it started overflow this preseason, perhaps more so than years past. Even heading into the last week of camp, four prospects had legitimate shots at the 23-man opening day roster.
The banishing of gritty forward J.C. Lipon back to the AHL came with some hesitancy from Maurice, who praised the forward’s feisty on-ice nature but ultimately choose to stick with 2014 first rounder Nikolaj Ehlers and a pair of 2013 picks, second rounder Nic Petan and fourth rounder Andrew Copp.
Arguably, Nik Ehlers, the ninth overall selection, was the most likely candidate to make the roster out of camp. Former University of Michigan star centre Copp is slated for a fourth line role to start the season after the Jets declined offering free agent Jim Slater a new deal over the summer.
Petan, arguably, came to camp the least likely to make the team out of the three. His 5-foot-9 stature leaves a little to be desired in the size department, but the dynamic former Portland Winterhawk’s star proved his worth beyond his years – and size – showing flashes of brilliance on the puck and off it, with the added bonus of not fearing the dirty parts of the ice despite his diminutive stature.
23-man roster and projected lines to start the season:
Nic Petan: 19
Nikolaj Ehlers: 27
Andrew Copp: 9
Alexander Burmistrov: 6