It’s rather fitting that when the curtain rises on a new season, the Winnipeg Jets will take their act on the road and open up on Broadway.
You couldn’t script a better debut, what with old friends-turned-foes Jacob Trouba and Brendan Lemieux and the New York Rangers playing host at Madison Square Garden on Thursday, Oct. 3.
However, the show really begins this week in the form of training camp at Bell MTS Iceplex, with physicals and on-ice testing on Friday and the first of seven dress rehearsals (pre-season games) starting Monday.
There’s no shortage of interesting characters, storylines, compelling drama and likely a few plot twists that will unfold over the next three weeks. To help set the stage, here’s an even 10 to keep an eye on.
1) WHEN DO LAINE AND CONNOR PUT PEN TO PAPER?
Forget about the 47 players at training camp. The real focus is on two who, barring last-minute developments, won’t be here.
A year ago, top-pairing defenceman Josh Morrissey was a no-show at the Iceplex when camp started, yet there were strong indicators the Jets would get him inked to a new contract before the real action unfolded. They did.
But no such optimism exists when it comes to restricted free agent forwards Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor, each coming off entry-level deals and looking to cash in on multiple productive campaigns.
The Jets have about US$14.5 million in salary-cap space to get the two young snipers signed, but it’s believed both are looking to earn north of US$8 million per year. The duo supplies a pile of goals — last year Connor scored 34, while Laine had 30 (although 18 were generated in the month of November) — so subtracting a chunk like that would be debilitating for any team, particularly one hoping to keep pace with the big dogs in the NHL’s Western Conference.
Where would that production come from? Do the Jets split up the potent pair of Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler in an effort to spread out the offence? Expecting youngsters such as Mason Appleton, Jack Roslovic and Kristian Vesalainen to step in and fill the void is dreaming in technicolour.
Any RFA who doesn’t sign by Dec. 1 can’t play for the rest of the NHL season. Does Winnipeg have a William Nylander situation on its hands, in duplicate? And how much of a distraction does this create in training camp?
2) NOT-SO-GREAT EXPECTATIONS?
A year ago, the Free Press headline on our annual Jets training camp preview read: ‘Welcome to Camp Gottawinacup.’
Yeah, expectations around Winnipeg were sky high after the team swept aside the Minnesota Wild and Nashville Predators before falling to the Vegas Golden Knights in five games in the Western Conference final the previous season.
And they were great out of the gate, posting victories in six of their first nine games. Winnipeg was one of the NHL’s top squads by Christmas but had an average second half at best and stumbled into the 2019 post-season, winning just three of its final nine games to set up a first-round meeting with the St. Louis Blues.
We all know how that turned out. With their season on the line in Game 6, the Jets mustered just six shots through two periods and lost 3-2 to bow out of the playoffs with a whimper.
Lofty expectations this fall? Eh, not so much. The Jets took a step backward last season, lost key personnel this summer and added no shiny new toys to exhilarate the fan base.
The Central Division is stacked, with the Blues as defending Stanley Cup champions and major off-season upgrades to the Colorado Avalanche, Nashville Predators and Dallas Stars. Can the Jets stay in the playoff mix?
Last week, centre Bryan Little mentioned to reporters that while he has faith in the talent assembled here, perhaps a more tempered approach to the team’s outlook would benefit all involved. Forward Mathieu Perreault echoed those sentiments a few days later.
Was that an idea floated to portray the squad as a division underdog, thus alleviating some of the pressure placed on it by a supportive but discriminating fan base?
3) HOW DO THEY REBUILD THE BLUE LINE?
There are important positions to be filled. Winnipeg lost three big pieces of their defensive corps over the summer. Trouba was dealt to the Rangers, Tyler Myers joined the Vancouver Canucks and fellow unrestricted free agent Ben Chiarot signed with the Montreal Canadiens. Depth piece Joe Morrow wasn’t offered a contract.
Winnipeg received Neal Pionk as part of the return for Trouba, re-signed Nathan Beaulieu and added only journeyman Anthony Bitetto during the off-season.
Morrissey and Dustin Byfuglien are the pillars of the group, but each is without his longtime partner in Trouba and Chiarot, respectively. The oft-injured and inconsistent Dmitry Kulikov is also back, sans Myers. Beaulieu filled in admirably after being picked up from the Buffalo Sabres in a deadline deal. Reviews were mixed on Pionk’s contribution to the Rangers, and it remains to be seen if he’s a top-four guy in Winnipeg.
Sami Niku, a seventh-round pick in 2015 whose stock has risen at a shocking rate, could be a major part of the revamped defence this year. He’s a smooth skater with a great first pass and could be a significant addition to the club’s second power-play unit.
Tucker Poolman shows far less flash but plays with quiet efficiency. He took a regular turn on the third pairing when injuries struck the club during a stretch of the 2017-18 season, and was deemed the Manitoba Moose’s best defender last season despite being shelved for almost half the season with injuries.
Defining the three defensive pairings will be a top priority in camp.
4) IS THE COACH ON THE HOT SEAT?
Look, even the best coaches in NHL history had an expiry date, hitting the point where their message no longer resonated with the masses. Is Paul Maurice approaching that stage?
Since being hired on Jan. 12, 2014 to take over for Claude Noel, every single NHL team except the Tampa Bay Lightning has replaced their bench boss at least once. Some teams, such as the Edmonton Oilers, have made multiple moves.
As the most tenured coach in the league outside of Tampa’s Jon Cooper, you have to wonder how long Maurice’s leash will be should his squad get off to a rough start. Nothing short of a third straight playoff appearance would be deemed acceptable around these parts.
There’s no question the smooth-talking Maurice is a quality leader, and he didn’t get to seventh all-time in coaching wins (695) by accident. But it’s also worth noting he’s No. 1 in regulation losses (619), and the burning question is how many more he can afford in Winnipeg.
Adding to the intrigue is the fact the team has never revealed just how long his contract runs, short of announcing a “multi-year extension” in September 2017.
Ownership certainly places a premium on loyalty, but it has made one in-season coaching change before. Could a second be on the horizon?
5) ARE THE FEATHERS STILL RUFFLED?
Maurice raised some eyebrows last spring in his exit meeting with the media when he mentioned there were some “ruffled feathers” within the room that will need to be smoothed out going forward.
Couple that with a late-season collapse, closed-door players’-only meeting a week before the playoffs and a quick first-round exit and it’s clear all was not right in Jetsville. These were teammates that needed a break from each other. Now they’re back together, with a handful of new faces but most of the young core still intact and skating under the same leadership group.
Can they quickly get on the same page and pull in the right direction together? Nobody’s saying they all need to be best friends, join hands and sing Kumbaya every day, but a little harmony can go a long way.
There will be additional pressure on the likes of captain Wheeler and his alternates, Scheifele and Byfuglien, not to mention Maurice, to make sure the room is right to ensure maximum efficiency on the ice.
If not, changes will be required.
6) WHO IS THE SECOND-LINE CENTRE?
It’s deja vu all over again as the Jets use yet another training camp to audition for a the role of second-line middle man.
There’s no question Scheifele’s got the top job locked up. Little would appear to be the de facto No. 2 but he’s yet to show he can click with Laine, Connor or Nikolaj Ehlers with any consistency. That’s why the Jets picked up Paul Stastny and Kevin Hayes in consecutive trade deadline deals to bolster the roster for playoff runs the last two seasons.
In conversations this fall, Little says he’s at his most comfortable at his natural position and believes he can still carve out chemistry with a couple of the Jets’ dynamic wingers. If he can’t, look for Roslovic or Andrew Copp to play the position on a trial basis.
There’s also the notion that Maurice could excise Wheeler — one of the NHL’s elite right-wingers — from Scheifele’s side and slide him in as the second-line centre. He did a terrific job two seasons ago when Scheifele was out with an injury, helping the Jets to an 11-4-1 record in that span. That’s an unlikely approach, judging by Maurice’s track record of forming his forward units — even when he has the line blender set to maximum.
But you know what they say about desperate times…
7) CAN THE MASKED MEN SAVE THE DAY?
Connor Hellebuyck told us earlier this week he believes he can regain his Vezina-finalist form of two seasons ago. The Jets hope that’s true, considering they’ll likely need Hellebuyck to be at the top of his game with so much turnover on the blue line.
There’s no question the No.1 netminder struggled at times last season under lofty expectations and, perhaps, the pressure of a long-term, big-money contract extension. Can he rebound in a big way?
Laurent Brossoit will also have a say in the matter. He got off to a tremendous start in a backup role last season, then suffered a lower-body injury that cost him several games down the stretch — and meant playing Hellebuyck far too much.
Brossoit re-signed with the Jets this summer and, as a pending UFA next summer, should be highly motivated to prove he’s capable of being a starter somewhere.
Ideally, these two good friends off the ice will push each other on the ice, battling for playing time in the crease and making each other stronger in the process.
8) ARE THEY READY FOR FULL-TIME WORK?
Make way for yet another youth movement.
Vesalainen significantly increased his frequent-flyer points last season, starting the year with the Jets before suiting up with the Moose and Jokerit (Helsinki) of the KHL. The former first-round pick is big and skilled and has stated repeatedly a desire to be a major contributor for the NHL squad, sooner rather than later.
Confidence, or lack thereof, was a factor a year ago but he’s older and presumably wiser. A job on the left wing is his to lose this fall.
Appleton, a sixth-round pick in 2015, is also eyeing a full-time gig after stints with the Jets and Moose last season. He’s a guy in perpetual motion, preferring to be the first forechecker in on the puck, and could be a replacement for Brandon Tanev. Solid work ethic aside, Appleton also has some offensive upside.
Roslovic was Winnipeg’s other first-round pick in 2015, along with Connor, but hasn’t had anywhere close to the same impact. Could he win the second-line centre job out of training camp? Roslovic had a couple of tremendous spurts — he was named the league’s first star of the week (Jan. 28 and Feb. 3) when he collected five goals and an assist in four games (including a hat trick in at home against the Anaheim Ducks) — and enjoyed time on the second power-play unit.
But he was also relegated to the fourth line on many nights, playing just a handful of minutes. If Maurice allocates a loftier spot for him on the depth chart, Roslovic has to make the most of it. He’s also heading into a contract year (an RFA next summer) and that should add some major motivation.
9) SPECIAL TEAMS THE STUFF OF DREAMS — OR NIGHTMARES?
When it’s clicking, the Jets have one of the most potent power plays in the league. They finished last season at 24.8 per cent efficiency, good for fourth in the NHL, and it was a difference-maker in plenty of games, especially early on.
But there were also times — especially when the team’s fortunes began to change in the second half — where it became too stagnant, too predictable and too easy to counter.
The personnel could look a whole lot different if Laine and Connor — two of the five players on the often-deadly top unit — are still sidelined once they drop the puck for real next month.
Who fills those roles and how dangerous can it be?
As for the penalty kill, the Jets would be wise to behave like angels on the ice and avoid the sin bin as much as possible. Tanev, Trouba and Myers were all key cogs when short-handed last year and won’t be easy to replace.
Even with that trio in the fold, the Jets only had a 79.2 per cent success rate, which ranked 22nd overall.
In a league where the line between victory and defeat is often razor-thin, there’s cause for concern when it comes to this all-important area of the game.
10) MO MONEY, MO PROBLEMS?
With apologies to the Notorious B.I.G., the Jets might just be singing a similar tune this season.
Sure, they’ll likely be spending right to the US$81.5-million salary cap ceiling, but there seem to be more questions than ever about the roster.
They bid goodbye to several important players during the summer just to save enough room for others who needed new deals. There was no free agent shopping spree to be found, with bargain-bin adds such as Mark Letestu, Gabriel Bourque, Bitetto, Andrei Chibisov and Joona Luoto all they could afford.
Unlike the past two seasons, the Jets won’t be able to try to buy their way out of any potential trouble spots, the way they did at the last two trade deadlines by acquiring Stastny and Hayes.
There simply won’t be room. Any deal made will have to be money in, not money out.
Depending how the Laine and Connor deals shake out, it’s possible the Jets will still need to ship out a player or two to become cap compliant. Does that mean a veteran forward such as Perreault and his US$4.125 million cap hit goes back on the trading block, as he was rumoured to be all summer?
Would they consider burying Kulikov’s US$4.333 million contract in the minors with the Moose just to give themselves some financial breathing room?
Like so many of the questions posed above, stay tuned.
Assistant sports editor
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