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The 2013-14 Jets: High Hopes for a Good Bubble Team

The Winnipeg Jets are not, I repeat, NOT, a lock to make the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs. However, as training camp opens on Wednesday, there are plenty of folks around these parts who want to believe they might be.

Recently, a whole load of Manitoba hockey fans got their knickers in a knot when The Hockey News predicted (back on Aug. 28) that the Jets would finish seventh in the Central Division this season.

Evander Kane

Evander Kane

Ouch! That really cut a lot of local hockey fans right to the core. They refuse to believe that the Jets will finish behind the Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars, Nashville Predators or Minnesota Wild in the Central. Many think they’ll be second to Chicago.

Frankly, I think they’ll be seventh-to-11th in the West and will not finish last in the Central Division, but I’m also not certain they’ll make the playoffs either.

Just like last year and the year before, the Jets are a bubble team. A good one, but a bubble team just the same. They might make the playoffs and they might not. They need to play well, be exponentially better than they were last season and stay free of devastating injuries.

On the back end, the Jets are deep. Deep enough to compete. Up front, they’re thin. Too thin to lose an NHL-calibre player for a significant period of time. In goal, if their big guy can overcome his fear of the road, there is no telling how good the Jets can be. However, if they don’t fix their special teams, none of it will matter.

Last season, the Jets power play was horrendous. Dead last, and I mean DEAD last, in the NHL at 13.8 per cent. NHL teams can’t make the playoffs unless they score with the man advantage. The penalty killing unit was 24th in the league at 79.7 per cent and they had just one shorthanded goal all year, That’s pretty lousy.

The Jets need more of these on the road.

The Jets need more of these on the road.

They were 25th in the league in goals against at 2.94 per game. This team has to get significantly better if it wants to crack the playoff line in the West.

Defensively, they’re pretty good. The top four of Zach Bogosian, Tobias Enstrom, Dustin Byfuglien and Mark Stuart are solid. Grant Clitsome, Paul Postma and Zach Redmond are OK. The key is Jacob Trouba. If he’s as good as advertised, he’ll make the Jets back end a pretty good group. If he’s not ready – remember he’s only 19 – the Jets will be running the first four out there a lot in 2013-14.

The goaltender is Jekyll and Hyde. Ondrej Pavelec is pretty good at home (12-10-1, .907 save percentage and 2.51 GAA), but not so good on the road (9-10-2, .903 save percentage, 3.10 GAA). Amazingly, he was better on the road last season than he was in 2011-12 when he could barely stop a half-inflated balloon (10-16-5, .895 save percentage and 3.42 GAA). If he gets his road game straightened out he’ll be an average NHL goaltender and that’s not so bad. Last year, he was 34th in save percentage and 37th in goals against, so average would be an improvement.

Ondrej Pavelec will need to make some big saves. (Photo by Shawn Coates)

Ondrej Pavelec will have to be better. (Photo by Shawn Coates)

Up front, the Jets first line is a nice group – Bryan Little, Blake Wheeler and Andrew Ladd. Last season, Lass had 18 goals and 28 assists in 48 games, Wheeler had 19 goals and 22 assists in 48 games and Little had seven goals and 25 assists in 48 games. They are reliable and they play well together, but they aren’t Crosby or Ovechkin or Toews or Lucic. They are good, but not great.

Evander Kane has a load of skill, but he’s tough to play with. He doesn’t pass the puck much and tends to play wherever he wants. Positional play is only a suggestion. The key is to find a center who can play with him. Olli Jokinen (seven goals and seven assists) couldn’t do it. One wonders if Mark Scheifele can? Newcomer Devin Setoguchi will likely be on the other wing (wherever that is?).

Michael Frolik, Olli Jokinen (if Scheifele can play on the second line) and Jim Slater will probably make up the third line with the likes of Ertic Tangradi, Chris Thorburn, James Wright, Patrice Cormier, Anthony Peluso, etc. battling for time on the fourth line.

Pavelec and Ladd, two of the keys.

Pavelec and Ladd, two of the keys.

The Jets will need to make the playoffs this year if head coach Claude Noel expects to keep his job. Not even nice people like the Chipmans and Craig Heisinger can be expected to watch their team miss the post-season three years in a row.

The Central Division is relatively weak. The fact is, Dallas. Colorado, Minnesota and Nashville aren’t that good. If the Jets were ever going to make the playoffs, this would be the year.

Still, if there is one thing about these Jets, the playoffs are a faraway land that no one wearing a Jets 2.0 uniform has ever seen.

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