Zach Bogisian and I have at least one thing in common. We despise pre-season hockey.
Bogosian was telling Manitoba Hockey News reporter Scott Billeck this week how much he thinks pre-season hockey “sucks.” As a fan first and reporter second, I could not agree more.
For those who have read these missives over the years, you are well aware that I believe the pre-season (in any sport) is for coaches and GMs, rookies, minor leaguers and young unknowns with big dreams. It’s for sports writers who are desperate to write about something even if it’s complete and utter baloney. It’s for those fans that like to panic about nothing at all.
For intelligent fans and real NHL players, what happens in the pre-season is beyond meaningless. Especially when you consider that players today probably work harder in the off-season to remain in shape than at any time in the history of the game. Pre-season doesn’t even serve the old-fashioned purpose of getting veterans ready for the regular season.
I wrote a piece here at MHN on Sept. 11. You can check it out below. Nothing has changed. After a month of pre-season workouts and games, the Jets lineup is exactly as we thought it would be. No matter what happened in the pre-season, all that baloney was not going to change a thing. The Jets on Sept. 11 are the Jets on Sept. 30. The Jets who will play in tomorrow’s season opener in Edmonton are the Jets who signed (or had) contracts this summer.
So let’s revisit…
With the season starting Tuesday night in Edmonton, the Jets remain a team that will finish seventh-to-11th in the West. Unlike the views of many of our Eastern counterparts, the Jets will NOT finish last in the Central Division. However, I’m not certain that this team has the horses to make the playoffs.
Just like last year and the year before, the Jets are a bubble team. A good one, but a bubble-team just the same. To make the playoffs, 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.
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 (injured, well I guess pre-season is bad for something), 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.
The backup, Al Montoya, might be a better goaltender. At least, based on the numbers. While there are many fans who want to believe that Pavelec’s problems are a result of the Jets “weak defense,” I’m not sure that’s true.
Up front, the Jets first line is a nice group – Bryan Little, Blake Wheeler and Andrew Ladd. Last season, Ladd 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 (and they are still looking) 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 Eric Tangradi, Chris Thorburn, James Wright, Matt Halischuk, Anthony Peluso, etc. battling for time on the fourth line.
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.
And that’s it. You read almost all of that exactly as it is on Sept. 11.
So, frankly. Zach Bogosian is right. And anyone who takes the outcome of even one period of those pre-season games should take a pill. In 2013, the Winnipeg Jets pre-season exercise was absolutely, positively and completely meaningless.