The Winnipeg Jets are set to enter their third season in Manitoba and first in the new Central Division. Members of the hockey-crazed community are still thrilled to have their team back, but the pressure on Winnipeg to make the playoffs is growing.
Is it possible that fans and the media are expecting too much this season?
The Jets organization enjoyed its first normal offseason and training camp this year, after the move from Atlanta in 2011 and the lockout in 2012 disrupted the flow of things. The team is now preparing to open the season against the Edmonton Oilers on Oct. 1st, with what appears to be its strongest lineup in recent years.
Andrew Ladd, Bryan Little and Blake Wheeler will look to dominate offensively on the team’s top line. The second and third lines aren’t set in stone, but will benefit from the addition of Devin Setoguchi, Michael Frolik and of course, Mark Scheifele. These three will slot in along with the likes of Olli Jokinen, Evander Kane and perhaps James Wright. If that’s the case the fourth line will probably include Eric Tangradi, Jim Slater and Chris Thorburn. The defense is also deeper than last season. Ken Wiebe of the Winnipeg Sun tweeted the latest news on the defensive pairings.
As for the men between the pipes, it’s business as usual with Ondrej Pavelec starting and Al Montoya backing him up.
Overall there are a few improvements to a team that finished ninth in the East last year, four points out of the playoffs. Their 51 points (on pace for 87 in an 82-game season) was a slight improvement from 2011-12’s 84-point performance. Now that they call the Western Conference home, the road to the playoffs isn’t any easier. That is, aside from the fact that there are 14 teams vying for eight spots, rather than the 16 in the East.
The Chicago Blackhawks, St. Louis Blues and Minnesota Wild all made the playoffs last year and will compete against the Jets in the Central Division. Not to mention the Nashville Predators, Colorado Avalanche and an improved Dallas Stars squad.
Where should the Jets finish? Third is a possibility, but fourth is more likely. That leaves the Jets in the wild-card hunt under the NHL’s new playoff seeding format.
As for the Pacific, it features four playoff teams from last season, the Anaheim Ducks, Los Angeles Kings, San Jose Sharks and Vancouver Canucks. Plus, the up-and-coming Edmonton Oilers, bottom-dwelling Calgary Flames and Phoenix Coyotes.
Winnipeg is still a long way from being considered one of the big guns in the West. The Blackhawks, Blues, Kings, Ducks, Sharks and Canucks are all superior teams. Aside from the Blues and Kings, who play sound team defense, each team has a star or two who is capable of having a huge impact at any given moment in a game. And, every single one of these teams have something the Jets don’t: a proven goaltender.
Assuming those six teams qualify for the postseason and the Jets finish fourth in the Central, that leaves just one playoff spot in the Western Conference. Could the Jets take that spot? Sure, but they will have to be a different team than they were the past two seasons.
It starts with consistency, at home and on the road. The Jets can’t afford to lose stretches of games, especially to divisional opponents. Playing an uptempo style is fine, as long as the forwards backcheck and the defense doesn’t get caught pinching. The Jets need to be prepared to play more physical in their own end and develop a more effective forechek. Most importantly, their power play has got to be better, a lot better.
To expect the Jets to make the playoffs this season is not unrealistic. However, a ninth place finish shouldn’t necessarily be viewed as a failure. As long as the team shows signs of improvement and isn’t struggling in the same areas as last season (mainly the power play) then it may simply be a case of other teams having more talent, depth and experience.
The Jets are on their way up, while the window for other teams in the West is beginning to close. It won’t be long before Winnipeg is a regular in the playoffs.