Jets looking for answers to end playoff drought
The Winnipeg Jets will need to find answers from within if they hope to reach the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2007, when the franchise was based in Atlanta.
General manager Kevin Cheveldayoff made few changes, opting to retain all but four players from a team that finished last in the Central Division and failed to qualify for the playoffs for the third consecutive season since the Jets hired him in 2011.
"There are still some irons in the fire that haven't come to fruition yet," Cheveldayoff said to the Winnipeg media July 1, a few hours after the Jets had signed free-agent center Mathieu Perreault.
"You're in some deals, and maybe you're not in some deals."
As it turns out, nothing much materialized for Cheveldayoff.
While the Jets' six Central Division counterparts stocked up their rosters this summer, the Jets remained mostly quiet. Cheveldayoff added Perreault from the Anaheim Ducks to replace veteran Olli Jokinen. Perreault scored 18 goals with the Ducks in 2013-14.
Cheveldayoff added to the Jets' contingent of bottom-six forwards in late July with the signing of TJ Galiardi, who scored four goals and had 17 points in 62 games with the Calgary Flames last season.
Much of the Jets' biggest offseason news has involved a player who has not left the organization. Left wing Evander Kane has been the subject of trade speculation all summer, but he is very likely to at least begin the season in Winnipeg.
Kane is a probable candidate to play on the second line with center Mark Scheifele and right wing Blake Wheeler, who led the Jets with 28 goals and 69 points last season. Captain Andrew Ladd likely again will flank center Bryan Little on the left side of the top line alongside Michael Frolik, whom the Jets retained on a one-year contract. Perreault is expected to center Dustin Byfuglien and a forward-to-be determined on the third line.
Rather than bringing in reinforcements from outside the organization, Cheveldayoff will count on having a full season of coach Paul Maurice and his emphasis on improving the team's physical conditioning. The Jets gave Maurice a four-year contract after last season. They also hired Craig Slaunwhite, who spent five seasons with the Florida Panthers, as their new director of fitness.
Instead of a roster makeover, Maurice's presence and his ability to reshape his team will be a major factor this season. After replacing Claude Noel on Jan. 12, Maurice led the Jets to nine wins in their next 11 games and moved the team into playoff contention before a crush of injuries in March ended any postseason hopes.
"We're trying to move to the middle of the pack en route to becoming a team that competes in the postseason," Maurice said after signing his new contract.
Maurice made sure that his players departed Winnipeg in April with his fitness-first message firmly in mind after a 90-minute skating session in the final week of the regular season. He vowed that it would be a taste of what his players could expect at training camp in September.
"First [players have] to know what is expected before you can hold anyone accountable, and that is on and off the ice," Maurice said in April. "The structure of who you are, this is what we do and this is what we hold you accountable to."
Maurice has another major task this season beyond fitness, and that is better goal prevention. When he took over, the Jets had allowed an average of 3.00 goals per game. With Maurice guiding them, they allowed an average of 2.74 goals in their final 35 games, but even that would have only been good for 19th in the NHL.
Maurice made improved team defense a priority for this season, but he'll also need goaltender Ondrej Pavelec to take a major step forward. The Jets finished 17th in the League with an average of 30.1 shots against; their 2.89 goals-against average ranked 21st.
The Jets' quiet summer means that they will be counting on Maurice, Pavelec and further growth from Scheifele, defenseman Jacob Trouba and a group of American Hockey League prospects. The Jets' AHL team, the St. John's IceCaps, advanced to the Calder Cup Finals.
"One thing you can't dismiss, and don't want to dismiss, is to see where the [summer] progression of your young kids comes along, and how much closer they might be after a summer," Cheveldayoff told Winnipeg reporters July 1. "If you're fortunate enough, your young kids could force you to make decisions at training camp."
JETS' OFFSEASON OUTLOOK
2013-14 record: 37-35-10, 84 points, 7th in Central Division, 11th in Western Conference
2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Did not qualify
Top 2014 NHL Draft picks: F Nikolaj Ehlers (First round, No. 9)
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Author: Patrick Williams | NHL.com Correspondent