With no playoffs for the Winnipeg Jets all the focus is now on next year when the Jets will flip into a division with Minnesota, Chicago, St. Louis, Nashville, Dallas and Colorado. For the record, the Jets finished with more points than the Predators, Stars and Avalanche.
It was not until the third period of Game 48 of the shortened season that the Jets saw themselves officially eliminated from the playoff race. Leading Montreal 2-1, wins by Ottawa and the New York Rangers ended the chase.
Then the "what if" comes into play. And there were plenty of those. From two losses in Florida, to the two losses at the MTS Centre to Washington, to the five-game losing streak with 13 games to go. Within the losing streak a loss in New York to the Rangers jumps out. The Jets were up 2-1 and got a two-man advantage and an opportunity to grab control the game. But not only did they not record a shot on goal, as the first penalty expired a short-handed goal tied the game, shifting the momentum to the Rangers leading and a 4-2 loss to a team that in the end edged them out and will play for the Cup.
And that stat leads to this stat – the Jets on the season in 10 opportunities did not score a five-on-three goal. Which leads to the overall power play which after nine goals in the first nine games struggled to score just six in the next 32 before coming to life with a goal in five of the last seven games. But even then in a critical Game 47 in Washington, down a goal a late third period power play could not find the tying goal. Toby Enstrom being healthy for only 22 games did not help, but a good power play is a must in today's NHL. It's an area that needs to improve. Systems, skill and confidence all play a part in a successful power play.
The penalty kill was a reversal of the power play - it did not start well but finished strong. In the final 31 games the Jets killed 73 of 83 penalties for an 88 per cent success rate. Over the 48-game season Ottawa lead the league at 88 per cent. Jets got more aggressive and quicker on the PK, got saves at key times, blocked shots, but were also very disciplined and stayed out of the penalty box. Penalty killing is a commitment and that for most of the season was there.
Another area of concern is goals against. Jets allowed 144. The only playoff-bound team close to that was the Islanders at 139. In his post-season news conference head coach Claude Noel talked about being better defensively, it being a belief system, a matter of communicating with your teammates, whether it be on the penalty kill or simple defensive zone coverage. "Drive each other, believe in each other," stated Noel. "It's accountability. Don't be happy if a teammate costs you a minus." Players, including captain Andrew Ladd talked about "playing too much in our own end. We'd get running around." Stats that show Ondrej Pavelec being one of the leading goaltenders in shots faced and saves made, are not good.
Despite a slide at the end (1-5 in their last six on the road) the Jets finished at 11-11-2 away from home. That is kind of a target teams shoot for. But the home record has to be better. 13-10-1 in 24 home games is not good enough, especially when you consider the energy we see night in, night out at the MTS Centre. The Islanders were one game below .500 at 10-11-3, but no other playoff-bound team was in double digits for regulation home losses. The other slide came in the second game of back to backs.
After a terrible record last year, the Jets started 3-1 in the back half of eight consecutive night sets. But they dropped their last four to finish 3-5. In the goals-for department Ottawa was the only Eastern Conference team with fewer than the Jets to make the playoffs. In the closer-checking Western conference four teams with fewer goals scored made the post-season.
When you discuss Jets secondary scoring, keep this stat in mind. In the 24 wins Blake Wheeler and Andrew Ladd each had 32 points, Bryan Little 25. In the 24 the team lost Ladd had 14, Wheeler nine and Little seven. If the big line wasn't scoring, the Jets struggled. But the trio emerged as one of the NHL's best lines. When the team returned home after the five-game losing streak and needed them most, they combined for 34 points in six games to keep the team in the race.
Wheeler led the team with 19 goals, two shy of his career-high of 21 in his rookie year when he played 81 games, not a shortened 48-game season. He had 17 in 80 games last year. Ladd had 46 points in 48 games, 15 points shy of his career high that came while playing 81 games his first season in Atlanta. Little's goal total was down a bit but pro-rate his points over 82 games and he had a career-high 55-point season. Ladd is 27 years old, Wheeler 26 and Little 25. They are in their prime.
Which brings us to 21-year-old Evander Kane, who battled injuries down the stretch to finish with 17 goals, pretty much the same pace he was on last year when he scored 30. And it wasn't like Wheeler, Ladd and Kane padded their goal totals with power play markers. Ladd had three, Kane and Wheeler each had two. Ladd, Wheeler, Kane, and Little were the only Jets to play all 48 games. There were lengthy point streaks for Kane, Ladd, Little, Wheeler, Dustin Byfuglien and Enstrom, and even Kyle Wellwood who had the slow start managed a five-game point streak down the stretch. Zach Bogosian was on a four-game point streak before his injury took him out of the lineup for the last three games.
But better seasons were expected from others, including Olli Jokinen and Alex Burmistrov. Jokinen was the first to step up post-season, saying he needs to and will be better next year. Where the talented Burmistrov fits in next year is a topic than can be debated all summer. He loves the east/west game, while the Coach demands a north/south game. He needs to be re-signed and speculation is the gap between the two sides on dollars is huge. Burmistrov's name has been linked to the KHL.
The scoring stats and need for secondary scoring confirms what the Jets know. They need a legit top-six forward, an offensive player to help the second line, to help the power play, and take some of the pressure off the top line. But needing and getting are two different things. Gary Lawless of the Winnipeg Free Press and TSN 1290 wrote on the weekend about trading Byfuglien. He listed a number of reasons, but from an on-ice standpoint the move might make sense if you could land a scoring forward in return.
The perfect scenario would be a right-hand shot. But again, back to the "needing and getting" situation. Are those types of players available, what is the asking price, and do the Jets have the assets to complete such a trade? Without knowing what the market is, this is all speculation or wishful thinking. We do know there are teams that have to move players to get under the salary cap, which is coming down to $64.3 million from $70.2 million.
The other situation regarding Byfuglien is the overload of right-handed defencemen. Jets have Bogosian, Zach Redmond, Paul Postma and Jacob Trouba that play that side. Yes, Redmond only played in eight games, yes, Postma only played in 34, and yes, Trouba did not play in any. So that needs to be taken into account. Where are those players on the development curve? These are all decisions that Kevin Cheveldayoff and his staff will have to make.
Those decisions, along with many others. Nineteen (yes 19) players that dressed for the Jets this season are without contracts. They are Miettinen, Tangradi, Antropov, Little, Wellwood, Santorelli, Burmistrov, Gagnon, Cormier, Wheeler, Peluso, Hainsey, Bogosian, Clitsome, Redmond, Meech, Postma, Montoya and Pasquale. Add Kulda to the mix and it's 20. Which players to re-sign, which to cut loose? All won't be signed, but there are also UFA's that the team will target.
It's expected there will be lots of player movement leading up to the draft June 30, because of salary cap problems and teams that feel they need to make changes. Do the Jets feel they need to make changes? On their final "face the media" day, players talked about having to be more consistent. Can this group play "the right way," the way it needs to, to play beyond the end of the regular schedule? Many players feel this group can accomplish that. Others feel "there should be and will be changes." Captain Ladd added, "too often we shot ourselves in the foot. You have to give yourself the best opportunity to win every night. This is three years out of playoffs for me. That's failure. Not making the playoffs should irk you."
The NHL Draft is a one-day affair this year, and NHL scouts will tell you it is a deep draft. And that's good as the Jets have accumulated some extra picks.
Coach Noel said he saw growth among the young players, singling out Kane and Pavelec as two that made huge strides. "The season was very different. The stress and the pressure at the end was really good for us and will help us down the road." When asked what the team needs to get the extra wins to make the playoffs, "I think we could have made it both years. So what we need more of is a tough question."
What is not a tough question? Is the Coach looking forward to next year's training camp? That answer is yes, because there has not been a normal camp in the two seasons in Winnipeg. Last year the Jets were getting settled in a new city, worked off the Atlanta Thrashers training camp schedule, which included split-squad games and lots of travel. This past season the lockout took care of any normal training camp. Everything was jammed into a week and it was drop the puck and let's play.
So let the off-season begin, an off-season that will not see a lot of down time for the Jets organization. Rookie camp in Penticton, BC is not that far away, with so much to get done.