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Puckin' Around With Spector

Winnipeg May Have Ready-Made Playoff Team

When the Quebec Nordiques were relocated to Denver, Colorado in 1995 and became the Avalanche, Colorado hockey fans got themselves a ready-made playoff team. Thanks to a blockbuster trade which landed them future Hall of Fame goalie Patrick Roy midway through 1995-96, they became a Stanley Cup championship team.

While no one would consider the new Winnipeg Jets, formerly the Atlanta Thrashers, a potential Cup contender at this point, Manitoba hockey fans might have themselves a playoff contender to cheer for this season.

Most pundits, in making their predictions for the 2011-12 season, didn’t include the Jets amongst their list of potential playoff contenders for

The critics don’t expect the offense, ranked 20th overall last season, to significantly improve in 2011-12. They also pointed out the defense gave up the second-most goals-against and the fourth most shots-against last season, while possessing the fourth-worst penalty kill.

They’re also concerned about this season’s extended travel schedule, last season’s second-half swoon, and the apparent decline in the performance of veterans Nik Antropov, Ron Hainsey and Chris Mason.

Few analysts expect the Jets to finish higher than 13th overall, and it appears only the Winnipeg press believe this team could have a shot at a post-season berth this season.

The criticisms are valid, but there’s several factors which could work in the Jets favor this season.

While they did collapse in the second half of last season, the then-Thrashers had a winning record in the first half, and while the ending was a disappointment, they still remained in the playoff chase until late in the season.

Team captain Andrew Ladd and defenseman Dustin Byfuglien, who joined the club from Chicago in the summer of 2010, both had their best performances to date in ‘10-‘11.

Ladd, 25, netted 29 goals and 59 points, ten points higher than his previous career best of two years prior. Byfuglien, 26, was shifted to defense and scored 20 goals and 53 points, the latter significantly higher than his previous best of 36 points three seasons prior.

They finished 1-2 in team scoring, and with both now entering their playing prime, it’s conceivable they could improve on last season’s numbers.

Winger Evander Kane was a sophomore last season, and displayed significant improvement, with 19 goals and 43 points, good for fifth overall in team scoring. Only 20, it’s possible Kane could net around 25 goals and 55 points this season.

Center Bryan Little has struggled with inconsistency in his young NHL career, but last season netted a respectable 48 points. At only 23, Little still has considerable upside.

Swedish blueliner Tobia Enstrom is perhaps one of the most under-rated puck-moving defensemen in the NHL. He’s had consecutive 50-point seasons, and probably would’ve netted more than 51 points last season had he not missed ten games to a broken finger and a shoulder injury. Enstrom, 26, is clearly in his playing prime, and a third straight 50-plus point performance wouldn’t be a surprise.

Right winger Blake Wheeler joined the club in a February trade from the Boston Bruins, and after potting only 27 points in 58 games with the Bruins, went on a tear with the Thrashers, with 17 points in 23 games.

If those latter numbers are any indication, the 25-year-old Wheeler could be poised for big things in his first full season with the Jets.

Promising young blueliner Zach Bogosian struggled through last season, in part due to an apparent clash with the former coaching staff. The new management of the Jets, however, have shown their faith in Bogosian by re-signing him to a two-year deal, and at only 21, his best seasons are still ahead.

Another youngster worth watching is sophomore center Alexander Burmistrov.  He netted only 20 points in 74 games as a rookie, but the 19-year-old has considerable offensive skills, and should only get better as he develops.

Goalie Ondrej Pavelec was certainly overworked in his first full season as an NHL starter, facing 1,705 shots in his 58 games. Of all goaltenders who played less than 60 games last season, only Boston’s Tim Thomas and former Florida Panther Tomas Vokoun faced more shots than the 24-year-old Pavelec.

While Pavelec’s goals-against average was a lofty 2.73, his save percentage was .914, with four shutouts. Pretty good numbers for a goalie facing as much rubber as he did last season, suggesting he could post better stats this season if he has a better defense in front of him.

It’s true their overall goals-per-game number last season ranked close to the bottom third of the league, but they generated the 11th-most shots on goal, and their power-play was twelfth overall.

If the most of the aforementioned Jets scorers can cash in on their chances more often this season, those offensive team numbers will surely improve.

The poor defensive numbers, of course, cannot be overlooked or blithely dismissed.  It’s expected new head coach Claude Noel and his staff will place more emphasis on improving the Jets performance in their own end this season.

Even a modest improvement in their defensive game, like 20th overall, could pay significant dividends, especially if their young scorers improve as anticipated.

Of course, nothing is certain in anticipating the outcome of an NHL season for any team.

Players expected to improve can see their development stall, or struggle to adjust to new coaches and systems. Injuries to key players can take a toll. Lofty expectations can come crashing back to earth over the course of a gruelling 82-game NHL schedule.

But there’s enough promising young talent on this Jets team, many of which displayed their potential or provided tantalizing glimpses throughout last season, to perhaps surprise and confound the experts, especially if they can improve their game at both ends of the ice.

Don’t be too quick to write off these Jets this season. They could fly higher than expected.

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They’re also concerned about this season’s extended travel schedule, last season’s second-half swoon, and the apparent decline in the performance of veterans Nik Antropov, Ron Hainsey and Chris Mason.

Winnipeg’s got a better roster than people give them credit for, but I feel this is going to do them in, along with the fact that every player on the roster had to uproot their life on about two weeks notice this summer, and should still be settling in.  I do expect them to be a playoff team the year after, though.

Posted by steviesteve on 09/28/11 at 03:06 PM ET

DocF's avatar

I honestly believe this team will be better just because they will be playing in front of people instead of empty seats.  The travel is going to be brutal to players who are used to taking MARTA to an away game, but it could be worse.  They could be the Islanders who are going to go into complete freak out mode when they move somewhere west.

The coaching staff last year helped kill this team as much or more than lack of talent.


Posted by DocF from Now: Lynn Haven, FL; was Reidsville, NC on 09/28/11 at 03:51 PM ET

shanetx's avatar

I do expect them to be a playoff team the year after, though.

I think the move to the western conference, next year, will be far worse than the move west this year.

Posted by shanetx from Floydada, Texas on 09/28/11 at 04:00 PM ET

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About Puckin' Around With Spector

I’m Lyle Richardson. You might know me from my website, Spector’s Hockey, my thrice-weekly rumor column at THN.com, my weekly column at Eishockey News (if you read German), and my former gig as a contributing writer to Foxsports.com.

I’ll be writing a once-weekly blog here with my take on all things NHL. Who knows, I might actually find time to debunk a trade rumor or two.