Winnipeg Jets 2013-14 Season Preview

Share
Winnipeg Jets forward Evander Kane

Sep 19, 2013; Winnipeg, Manitoba, CAN; Winnipeg Jets forward Evander Kane (9) during the first period against the Minnesota Wild at MTS Centre. Bruce Fedyck-USA TODAY Sports

Last season, the Winnipeg Jets barely missed the playoff cut in the Eastern Conference. Now in a division that reflects their geographic location, the Jets are preparing for take-off. The club should be headed up the standings, but the new campaign could end in another failure to launch.

Entering last season with low expectations, Claude Noel‘s team needed just four more points to tie for a playoff spot. Three more wins would have given them the edge over the Washington Capitals for the Southeast Division crown. A Southeast Championship banner would have looked awfully nice, if out of place, in Manitoba.

Realignment obliterated the Jets remarkably shallow old division, and it has placed them in the much more appropriate Central Division of the Western Conference. Travel to Chicago and Minneapolis will be significantly easier than long-haul trips to Carolina and Florida, but division titles will be much harder to come by.

Though the Jets have no chance of topping the Blackhawks in the standings, they ought to be thankful for their position. Behind Chicago and St. Louis, the Central is the weakest of the new divisions. Winnipeg is well-equipped to battle with Minnesota, Dallas, Nashville and Colorado for third or fourth place in the group.

Evander Kane has become the face of the franchise with his signature blend of goals and big hits, but the occasionally immature winger has taken the spotlight off of captain Andrew Ladd. Ladd is arguably the most underrated player in the NHL at the moment, and he, not Kane, will be the driving force behind Winnipeg’s success.

Ladd needed just four more points last season to match his total of 50 from the season before, despite losing 34 games to the lockout. Seemingly out of nowhere, the 27-year-old morphed into an elite offensive force. The winger led the team in points, and his contributions in the locker room might have been even more important. A Stanley Cup winner with Chicago in 2010, Ladd provides the experience that Winnipeg will need to become a consistent contender.

Of course, Kane has earned much of the attention he gets. With a rare combination of strength and quickness, he is on the cusp of becoming an elite goal-scorer. With more energy than most power-forwards, he is a matchup nightmare. He can become a superstar if he can harness his rare natural talent.

Blake Wheeler nearly matched his career high in goals last season. He potted 19 in 48 games after lighting the lamp just 17 times the previous season. Wheeler stuck for 21 as a rookie with the Bruins back in 2008-09, and the former Minnesota Golden Gopher is finally living up to his potential.

Gifted on both wings, the Jets are shallow down the middle. Bryan Little managed 32 points as the top 2013 pivot, but he’s not an ideal first-line guy. Meanwhile, second-liner Olli Jokinen seemed to hit a wall in his 15th season. The 34-year-old’s ice-time-per-point spiked from 25:29 in 2011-12 to 55:03 last season.

Third center Alexander Burmistrov‘s move back to the KHL forced Winnipeg to bring someone in this summer. GM Kevin Cheveldayoff cut a clever deal at the draft to get Michael Frolik from Chicago. The 25-year-old was under-utilized by the Blackhawks. He scored 20-plus goals in each of his first two NHL seasons with the Florida Panthers, and he should do that again if given top-six minutes.

Rookie Mark Scheifele should also get a crack in the top-six. Since being drafted seventh overall in 2011, Scheifele has dominated in the Ontario Hockey League. The aggressive center has just one point in 11 NHL appearances, but his knack for goal-scoring could make him a Calder Trophy candidate as a rookie. He’ll be relied upon to add desperately needed depth-scoring all year long.

On defense, Ron Hainsey is gone, but there is still plenty of talent. Dustin Byfuglien will continue to be a physical force and a point producer. Tobias Enstrom‘s presence on the power play will be welcome after he missed more than half of last season due to injuries, and 23-year-old Zach Bogosian ought to further establish himself as a shutdown presence.

Rookie Jacob Trouba might jump straight into the top-four after playing one season at the University of Michigan. The American has a very well-rounded game, and he has franchise defenseman written all over him. After helping lead Team USA to gold at the 2013 World Junior Championships, he will also be in the hunt for Calder Trophy honors.

26-year-old goalie Ondrej Pavelec is the X-factor for Winnipeg. If he can’t improve upon his .905 save-percentage from last season, the Jets won’t accomplish their goals. In a recent ESPN player poll ranking the NHL’s best puck-stoppers, Pavelec finished outside of the top 25. The Czech-goalie led the league in starts last season, but he must provide more quality performances this year .

If Pavelec finally justifies the faith of his franchise, the Jets have a very good chance of beating the Dallas stars into fourth place in the Central Division. Fourth place doesn’t guarantee a playoff berth, but it will likely carry a wild card bid. Winnipeg’s rabid fan base just might get to see some playoff hockey next spring.

Chris Blanchard is a Boston, MA native and a student at Davidson College. He began writing about hockey as a Boston Bruins featured columnist for Bleacher Report in the fall of 2012. He has been covering the NHL for XN Sports since May of 2013.