Winnipeg Jets Season Preview
Record Last Year: 37-35-10
Goal Differential: -21
Team 5v5 Fenwick: 51.05% (11th in NHL)
5v5 Sh%: 8.1%
5v5 Sv%: .912
PP SF/60: 45.6 (21st in NHL)
PK SA/60: 51.4 (11th in NHL)
If you have looked at Bovoda's betting odds for who will win the Southeast, you will see that the team with the worst "chance" at winning the division is the Winnipeg Jets at +700. Those aren't terrible odds by any means but most people have the Jets as the "underdogs" in the Southeast and the least likely to make the playoffs. To me, this is surprising because Winnipeg wasn't that bad of a team last year. They weren't exactly a "good" team either, but compared to the rest of the Southeast, the Jets were pretty much in the thick of things until the latter part of the season. They had only one fewer win than the Southeast champion Florida Panthers, two more points than Carolina and the same amount of points as Tampa Bay. It's just kind of hard to believe that the odds of them winning the division are so much lower than them.
A possible reason why Winnipeg hasn't been receiving much love from the writers and oddsmakers is because Carolina and Tampa Bay both had very active off-seasons while the Jets didn't make much noise that caught the national media's eye. The Jets may have not broke any headlines but GM Kevin Chevyldayoff made a few good signings and it could help Winnipeg surprise a few people this season.
Who's In? Olli Jokinen (C), Alexei Ponikarovsky (LW), Al Montoya (G), Mark Dekanich (G), James Wright (C)
Who's Out? Tanner Glass (LW), Tim Stapleton (LW), Chris Mason (G), Eric Fehr (RW), Randy Jones (D)
The Jets had a pretty underrated off-season when it came to addressing needs up front. Their second line center spot was a revolving door for most of last season and they were able to fix this by signing Olli Jokinen. Jokinen's strong boxcar numbers were mostly driven by a strong on-ice shooting percentage but he was also being thrown out against the toughest competition Brent Sutter could put him against. Claude Noel doesn't use his second line like in that fashion and will probably give Jokinen easier assignments. Jokinen is in the latter stages of his career but I think he provides a good short-term solution for the Jets, who had issues with forward depth last year.
Another underrated signing made by by Jets was getting Alexei Ponikarovsky for one-year at $1.8 million. Carolina fans know that Ponikarovsky's days as a 20-goal scorer are likely over and he is most useful on a checking line where his only role is to drive possession, work hard and possibly provide some secondary scoring. That's exactly what the Jets need him to do though, as he was brought in as a replacement for Tanner Glass on the third line. Noel likes to use his third line in a tough-minute role and having a guy who can push the play forward is key.
The Jets also decided to lock-up goaltender Ondrej Pavelec for five years at $3.9 mil. per season and they brought in two other goalies to compete for the back-up spot. The first candidate is Al Montoya, who spent the last two seasons as one of the Islanders many goalies and he's coming off a pretty down year. He played in 31 games for the Isles and posted an even strength save percentage of .901, which is considered replacement level. The other goalie, Mark Dekanich, was supposed to be the back-up for Steve Mason in Columbus last season but an injury derailed his season. He has played well in the AHL and will probably be competing with Montoya for the back-up job. Neither can be much worse than Chris Mason was last year.
Reasons for Optimism
It's possible that Winnipeg's strong home record last year was due to variance, but a look at the team's Fenwick close splits shows that the Jets did a better job at controlling possession at even strength when they were playing at home than they did on the road. I would probably attribute that to Claude Noel's line matching more than anything else, but they can probably continue to do this with Jokinen and Ponikarovsky now on the team. The Jets 48.03% Fenwick close on the road is very troubling but this team is still very tough to play at home and that will create a problem for other teams.
Stronger Up Front
Last season, the Jets had a very strong line with Andrew Ladd, Bryan Little and Blake Wheeler and these three should be able to stay intact for this season. After that, they had problems when it came to finding a center for the second line as they regularly had to shift Nik Antropov and Alex Burmistrov in and out of this role. There should be more consistency this season with Jokinen taking over the second-line center duties and he is probably good enough to take advantage of the softer minutes he'll play this year. Put him on a line with Evander Kane and one of Nik Antropov or Kyle Wellwood and Winnipeg's top-six looks pretty legit. Having Ponikarovsky to take the tougher assignments instead of Tanner Glass will help them out, too.
Byfuglien/Enstrom Lead the Defense
One of Winnipeg's strongest features is their top defense pairing of Dustin Byfuglien and Tobias Enstrom, which might sound odd because both of these two are more known for their offense than their defensive play. Watching Byfuglien play in the defensive zone can be an adventure at times but these two are pretty stellar when it comes to driving the play forward. They took on a little more defensive responsibility last year, too by killing penalties and getting matched up against opposing team's top lines than they did in years past. They still get a zone start push, but I think they are a fine top defense pairing and are pretty lethal when you combine them with Winnipeg's top line.
Reasons for Concern
Is Pavelec Good Enough?
The Jets made a pretty big gamble back in July when they extended goaltender Ondrej Pavelec for five years at nearly $4 mil. per season. Pavelec has been the de facto starting goaltender for the Jets/Thrashers franchise the last couple of years and his performance can be described as average at best. Pavelec had a good year in 2010-11 but he stopped only .906 of the shots he faced last season and his career numbers are worse than that. Winnipeg was in the top-half of the NHL in Fenwick close, so they won't have to depend on Pavelec that much but they are still trusting a lot of years and quite a bit of money in a goaltender who has been slightly above-average at best in the NHL. Montoya and Dekanich provide decent insurance policies at the very least.
After Byfuglien, Enstrom and Bogosian, the Jets blue line doesn't have much to offer. Whoever plays with Bogosian will have to eat up a lot of defensive zone draws because of Byfuglien/Enstrom and I'm not sure if they have the right people suited for that. Ron Hainsey is always hurt, Grant Clitsome and Mark Stuart are probably a third-pairing defenseman on most teams and the rest features guys who are entering their first full-season in the NHL. Supposedly the team is high on Paul Postma and while he has played well in the AHL, he is still largely unproven as an NHL-er.
When I look at the Jets roster, I see a lot of players who can succeed with a push in zone starts (Byfuglien, Enstrom, their entire top-six) but not many guys who can handle the toughest assignments. They have a Jim Slater's line eating up most of the defensive zone draws but that unit was plowed at even strength last year and didn't do much to drive the play forward. Ponikarovsky might be able to help them out here but they still have a lot of holes on defense in regards to finding guys to take the tough draws. Bogosian might be forced to take on this role alongside of Stuart, Hainsey or one of the guys from the third-pairing. That is, unless Byfuglien and Enstrom can take on an even bigger role, which I kind of doubt they will.
Winnipeg is in a similar boat to Florida where a few things need to go right for them to win the division, mostly their goaltending, but any team can get lucky in a shortened year so the Jets may very well in be in the mix throughout the season. It's hard to say they'll be a contender with their problems on the blue-line, but I think they are good enough to compete for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Remember, the Southeast is still the tightest division in the NHL and the Jets shouldn't be counted out early.