Which Direction are the Jets Flying?
Part 1 – “The Situation Room”
The 2014 NHL playoffs have made it painfully clear just how much the Winnipeg Jets have to improve in order to be at that “contender” level.
The two areas where the Jets are weakest in relation to those teams are the forwards, and the goaltending position. The Jets aren’t necessarily equal to those other teams at defence, but they might be closer to the contenders at that area.
With the emergence of Mark Scheifele, and the surprisingly good performance from Michael Frolik, the Jets have 6 quality forwards who can play top 6 minutes – Frolic, Little and Ladd, and Kane, Scheifele and Wheeler.
After that, though, the Jets are thin at forward, especially when compared to the playoff contenders. Dustin Byfuglien can be a force, when he plays with that energy and drive. He was effective as a winger for the Jets. Given the lack of depth at forward, they may need him more there, than on defence. Ollie Jokinen (a pending Unrestricted Free Agent- UFA) had a much better year last year, and was OK overall. Jim Slater is reasonably effective as a fourth line centre, when he’s healthy. Apart from that, the Jets just haven’t had the kinds of players that can compete with the type of third and fourth lines that contending teams possess. Byfuglien has the skill to be a difference-maker for the Jets, but Jokinen is clearly on the “back 9” of his career, and might not be good enough, except maybe as a stopgap measure while other young prospects develop. I almost forgot to mention Setoguchi. There – I mentioned him.
A common refrain among Jets fans is that we could use some players that “play big”, especially at forward. While this may be true, there is another point which has become apparent from watching the playoff contenders. “Playing big” isn’t enough, by itself. The forwards on the contenders combine size with aggressiveness, and a very high skill level. In today’s NHL you have to be more like Clark Gillies, and less like Tie Domi (one of my all-time favourite Jets).
Where are these players going to come from? I’ll return to that in a moment.
2. Pavelec and the goalie prospects
The most interesting postseason development so far (and perhaps for a few years) is that the Jets did not elect to buy out Pavelec’s contract.
There are several possible explanations relating to the Jets’ motivation and logic relating to this decision:
a) They truly believe that Pavelec has the ability to be the #1 goalie for a contending NHL team. My own opinion is that this is not the primary motivation for the Jets. Pavelec has yet to show the consistency that is required for this role, and after many years in the NHL, it begs the question as to whether he can achieve that. To put it bluntly, the occasional “soft” goals occur too often. Mathematically, this makes it hard for Pavelec to hit that .920 or better save percentage, which seems to have become the benchmark for #1 goalies. The nearest he got to hitting that mark was in the last year of the Thrashers, when his save percentage was .914. He hasn’t been close to that since. There is not doubt that he can have great games, and make spectacular saves. He can “steal” a game from time to time. It’s just that the let down from the soft goal happens too often, and has been more damaging than the occasional stolen victory. To be the #1 goalie on a contender, you have to have the ability to steal games, but you must also avoid the deflating “soft goals”. My opinion is that the Jets are not convinced that this is the most realistic future scenario for Pavelec. Again, in my opinion, Kevin Cheveldayoff’s endorsement of Pavelec fell short of the kind of glowing enthusiasm that would be shared – even by the close-to-the-vest “Chevy” – if he was 100% convinced that Pavelev was that #1 contender goalie.
b) If not (a), then what? I believe that the Jets view Pavelec as a reasonably solid goaltender, with perhaps some potential for improvement, who can be their goalie while other prospects develop. The Jets have three great goalie prospects – Connor Hellebuyck, Eric Comrie, and Michael Hutchinson. I’ve listed them in the order of my own perception of their long-term potential, but they all look like future stars at the goaltender position.
Michael Hutchinson seems to be the “diamond in the rough” – they guy that the Jets found playing in the East Coast Hockey League. Later last season, he was getting regular play with the NHL Jets. All he did was post a .923 save percentage in the AHL, followed by a .943 save percentage in 3 games with the Jets, topped off by a .938 save percentage in the AHL playoffs. How good can he be? I don’t think any of us know the answer to that yet.
Connor Hellebuyck was voted the “best goalie in NCAA hockey”, according to the voters for the Mike Richter award. He’s had save percentages of .941 and .952 in the past 2 years of college hockey at UMass-Lowell. It’s hard to know how his development will continue, but he appears to have a bright future ahead of him.
Eric Comrie was drafted by the Jets in the second round of the 2013 draft. He posted a .925 save percentage in his last year of junior hockey, in the WHL.
3. What’s Chevy’s Timeline?
What may be really interesting about the Pavelec decision is the light that this may shed on Chevy’s timeline for the Jets. These prospects might be 2-3 years away from being regular NHL goalies, with Hutchinson being perhaps the most NHL ready at present. Hellebuyck might be the “ace” amongst these three – possibly the future #1 goalie on a contending Jets team, 3-4 years from now. That’s just my guess.
If the Jets’ timeline is 3 years away, that has some interesting implications for what happens in the next couple of years. If the Jets want to make the playoffs starting in 2014-15, as they say they do, then they may need to OBTAIN some skilled players to supplement their existing core. I emphasize the word “obtain” because the Jets are not going to substantially improve the existing team without acquiring some skilled players. Trading player for player won’t typically create a large immediate improvement, because you’re giving up something to get something. And I really have trouble believing that Chevy’s going to trade a lot of draft picks or prospects to acquire a current NHL player. That really only leaves acquiring players by free agency. The key point is that these UFA’s would not be acquired so much for that 3-4 year future horizon. Instead, they would be acquired for the purpose of getting the Jets into the playoffs for the next couple of years.
Please understand that my thesis about acquiring UFA’s is not my own prescription for the best thing for the Jets to hit their 3 year horizon for peak development. This is just my perception of the what the Jets MIGHT do, and what their organizational goals for 2014-15 MIGHT be. I think that their reasons for wanting to get the Jets into the playoffs are as follows:
a) acquire and develop a winning attitude and culture for the team;
b) move the team on an upward trajectory, towards a “peak” that could be obtained when 2011-2013 draft picks are NHL ready, and 2014 draft picks may be NHL rookies or sophomores;
c) reward Jets fans, from the perspective of providing top entertainment value, and developing a customer loyalty among season ticket holders. It might not be any coincidence on this point that the vast majority of season tickets will come up for renewal in 2015 and 2016.
In case my wordy logic has obscured the main points, my own conclusions are:
THE JETS ARE GOING TO GO OUT AND SPEND SOME MONEY ON FREE AGENT FORWARDS.
THE JETS ARE NOT GOING TO TRADE AWAY ANY KEY EXISTING PLAYERS.