Even though winning and losing is not the end all in NHL pre-season games, how you play is. The Winnipeg Jets finished an eight-game exhibition schedule with a 5-0 loss to Tuukka Rask and the Boston Bruins in a game played in Saskatoon on Friday. The Jets finish with a 1-4-3 record and from players to coaches, all know there is work to be done in preparation for Tuesday's season opener in Edmonton (TSN 1290). There are also some roster decisions to be made as the Jets currently have 26 players remaining – 15 forwards, nine defencemen, and two goaltenders.
The Jets did get a scare late in the game as Dustin Byfuglien went down awkwardly in his own zone, stayed down for a bit and then skated off very much favouring his left leg. Post game, head coach Claude Noel said Byfuglien was fine. The Jets also played without defenceman Zach Bogosian after he left last week's game in Edmonton. Bogosian is expected to be ready for the opener.
Back to the 1-4-3 record. Individuals have great pre-seasons and bad starts to the year, so do teams, and vice versa. Great pre-seasons do not mean great starts, so don't read too much into the record. However, back to the "there is work to be done" that we heard after the loss.
Defending is still the biggest concern for Noel. In the 5-0 loss there were missed assignments, incorrect reads and any other terms coaches use. The Jets HAVE to cut down the goals against and maybe giving up five in the final game will make it easier for the coaches to hammer that point home. They gave up 144 last year. Only three teams in the East and two in the West gave up more.
It starts with cutting down the opposition's quality chances. It is not just a case of saying the goaltending has to be better. You defend as a team, and being a solid defensive team is hard work. It's making a commitment to the system game in, game out. In some of the pre-season games we saw it. Now it's just a matter of doing it consistently, which is easier said than done.
The power play had its moments in the eight games but will need to be better than it was last season. Power play numbers in pre-season are what they are. It is not practiced much, from game to game never the same five-man unit, and it's pretty much ad lib.
The biggest positive from the pre-season was the penalty kill. Last year the Jets became a more aggressive team on the PK and in the last 31 games did not give up a power play goal against in 23 of them. In the eight pre-season games they killed 36 of 38. Key now is to continue with that confidence going into the regular season. And like defending, PK is following the system and hard work.
Individually Jacob Trouba, Josh Morrissey and Adam Lowry are just three of the youngsters that stood out. All three are in different situations now, Morrissey back in junior and captain of the Prince Albert Raiders, Lowry in St. John's (only one pre-season game because of injury), while Trouba appears to have done enough to be on the opening day roster.
In goal Ondrej Pavelec will carry the load but after "wanting to play all the games" in previous years says he will no longer answer questions about how busy he wants to be. He will leave that up to the coach to decide and do what is best for the team to accomplish its goal of being in the post season. "That is my goal, do whatever I can to get us into the playoffs," said Pavelec. Al Montoya will see more action than he did in last year's shortened season where he only got into seven games, starting only four.
What will the D pairings be? We have seen Byfuglien and Grant Clitsome together and if that is the case can Clitsome play the big minutes Byfugien does? He showed last year he could as he was over 20 minutes in each of the last eight games and over 24 minutes seven times in the back half of the season. Injuries split Byfuglien and Toby Enstrom last season. Enstrom went 2-11-13 in the first 10 games and was key in the Jets scoring nine power play goals in the first nine games. Early in game 13 Enstrom was injured and missed the next 19. Bogosian will round out the top four with Mark Stuart and Trouba at five/six. Those two were paired together in the back to back games against Boston. Trouba was tested with big minutes in the pre-season and the coaches loved the response. That leaves Paul Postma, Adam Pardy and Zach Redmond for one final spot if the decision is to go with 14 forwards and seven D. Redmond had the horrific injury last year and needs to play, plus is on a two-way contract so will probably end up with the IceCaps.
Up front Andrew Ladd, Bryan Little and Blake Wheeler will again be asked to carry the offensive load. Ladd had a great season leading the team in scoring (18-28-46), Wheeler lead the team in goals (19 – prorated over 82 games and you get 32 which would have been a career high). With the additions of Devin Setoguchi and Michael Frolik the Jets hope the added offensive pop will take some of the load off the big line. In too many games last year if the big line didn't score, the Jets didn't win. But no second unit has been set. Evander Kane, who has led this team in total goals since the move to Winnipeg (47), leads the NHL in pre-season shots on goal while logging big minutes. Hitting the net with more regularity is still something the coaches would like to see from the 22-year-old.
In the middle will it be Olli Jokinen or Mark Scheifele? The game-to-game rotation tells you neither has jumped up and grabbed the spot. Which of the newcomers will be on the right side? That still needs to be determined. In the last two games James Wright saw time in the top nine, with Jim Slater, Eric Tangradi, and Chris Thorburn starting the last two games together. Slater coming off a season shortened by injury, after scoring a career high 13 goals in the 2011-12 campaign.
If that is the starting 12, that leaves Anthony Peluso, Patrice Cormier and Matt Halischuk for the final two forward spots, again if the plan is to go with 14. Halischuk has experience, is quick and has played for Nashville and New Jersey, two very good defensive teams, thus will stay. Cormier has been knocking on the door the past few seasons and can play centre or left wing, while Peluso has only five NHL games under his belt after suffering a hand injury last year. Will the Jets being in the tougher Western Conference benefit him when it comes to the final decision?
Which brings us to the move to the West. How will the Jets adapt? The West is more physical, tighter checking, features teams with big centremen (Joe Thornton 6'4, 220, Ryan Getzlaf 6'4, 220, Anze Kopitar 6'3, 225, Mikko Koivu 6'3, 217), the champion Blackhawks, St. Louis always one of the toughest teams to play against, etc. The NHL's three best home teams last season came from the West. San Jose lost twice in regulation, Chicago three and Los Angeles four. The Jets at 13-10-1 HAVE to be better at MTS Centre. Especially with eight of nine at home after the opener in Edmonton.
The move to the West makes for a better schedule. Much easier to fly to Chicago for a single, than to Carolina or Florida as was the case when they played in the Southeast Division. Total miles does not really tell the story. Jets will travel over 46,000 miles this season, compared to 44,600 in the 2011-12 season. Difference is in the Southeast the Jets would go on six- and seven-game road trips where now the home/road will balance out a lot better. If you check the month-to-month schedule you will notice the balance.
This franchise was last in the playoffs in the spring of 2007. Is this the year? Great question, discuss among yourselves. With four divisions the top three from each get in, with wild cards spots up for grabs. Jets will play 10 back-to-backs (a good number), 10 afternoon games and one morning game (Friday Nov. 29 in Philadelphia).
TSN Jets will feature 63 Jets games, including the home opener against Los Angeles on October 4 and barring a Stanley Cup meeting, Teemu Selanne's final game in Winnipeg two days later, as he will retire at the end of the season to take up golf. Okay, maybe not after watching his "I'm returning for one more year video." Jets will be featured on five TSN national telecasts and of course all games can be heard on TSN 1290.
The team will spend the weekend in Banff, Alberta doing some team building before heading into Edmonton Monday. Sunday and Monday will include on-ice sessions to work on all aspects of the game. Yes, the pre-season slate is wiped clean and everyone starts even. But this team knows 27 goals against in the pre-season is too many. The 1-4-3 record will soon be forgotten, especially with a good start to the season. Players have talked about starting games better, more urgency to their games at the start of the season because a win in October is as important as a win in April. And to that end, remember last year when a losing streak put them in a position where they could not afford a loss down the stretch. They also want to and need to night in and night out be a tougher team to play against.
They are a better team than last season, because players like Kane and Bogosian have another year of experience, and with players they added during the off-season. And starting Tuesday all the questions surrounding this team will start to be answered. The two biggest being "how will they handle the move to the West?", and "can they defend better and cut down the goals against?".