The opening of training camp always brings the temperature up on stories that have been simmering over the summer. The Winnipeg Jets’ training camp, which begins Friday at the Bell MTS Iceplex, is no exception.
There were already plenty of questions swirling around in April after a Jets’ squad considered to be Stanley Cup contenders faltered badly down the stretch and bowed out in the first round to eventual Cup-winner St. Louis Blues. An offseason in which the Jets weren’t able to make a splash and had more losses than additions has made those questions loom even larger.
Although hype surrounding the Jets may be at an all-time low, there’s still a smorgasbord of storylines to keep tabs on as the players take to the ice beginning Friday and play the first of their seven-game preseason slate on Sept. 16. Here are just three of them.
The Second-Line Centre Saga
A seemingly annual concern has popped up again: who the Jets’ second-line centre will be is once again a point of contention.
The much-maligned Bryan Little is coming off his least productive full season (41 points in 82 games) since his 2009-10 campaign with the Atlanta Thrashers. He hasn’t found sustained success with Nikolaj Ehlers or Patrik Laine in the past, with many, including former THW writer Rob Mahon, pointing out that the veteran’s straightforward north/south tendencies as incompatible with the young Europeans’ more creative play styles.
However, given Kevin Hayes’ departure (Hayes bumped Little to the bottom six after joining the Jets at the deadline), Little is the safe bet to be the Jets’ second-line centre once again to begin 2019-20.
Head coach Paul Maurice loves his veterans, and can also be a bit stubborn when it comes to making changes. Little represents the ‘safe’ play, so don’t be surprised to see him get plenty of opportunities in that spot to start this new season
Mike McIntyre – ‘Second-line middle-man position Little’s to lose,’ Winnipeg Free Press, 09/05/19
There will be at least one player pushing Little, however. Andrew Copp, who proved himself capable of driving play last season when he centred a terrific fourth line, won 55.3 percent of his face-offs, and put up strong possession numbers, could challenge for the spot.
Watch for Copp to get some chances in the top-six this preseason, and perhaps Jack Rosolvic as well.
The State of the Defence
Will they firm up in the face of adversity, like an egg hardens in boiling water? Or will they wilt like spinach?
Another huge question in Winnipeg right now is how the Jets blue line will fare after it took huge hits in the offseason.
The Jets traded troublesome top-pairing D-man Jacob Trouba to the New York Rangers in June in a deal many thought netted a terrible return. Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot also signed lucrative new deals elsewhere, Myers with the Vancouver Canucks and Chiarot with the Montreal Canadiens.
Those departures leave the Jets’ back end as a big point of conjecture going into 2019-20. General manager Kevin Cheveldayoff wasn’t able to sign any players of a similar calibre despite a desperate need to add a veteran, instead inking only Nathan Beaulieu and Anthony Bitetto to bargain-basement one-year contracts.
How much time do you have? Because the number of questions surrounding Jets’ D-men and their roles this season exceeds even the number a toddler asks during their “why?” phase.
Who will play with Josh Morrissey and Dustin Byfuglien now that Chiarot and Trouba are gone? Will they be as effective without them?
Can the oft-injured, oft-disappointing Dmitry Kulikov shoulder an increased role and stay healthy in the final year of his contract? How will he do without Myers?
How will Neal Pionk — who the Jets acquired in exchange for Trouba — do in a new market? Is the 23-year-old a top-four defenseman? Who will he play with? Will he be able to put up better possession and isolated impact numbers with a new team?
Can Sami Niku — whose 2019-20 season was a mixed bag — and Tucker Poolman — who played heady defence in all situations for the Manitoba Moose but was also hampered with a number of injuries — step up their games and be able to contribute at the NHL level?
Believe it or not, all these questions will be answered in 2019-20. Some, most likely, will not be answered in a way Jets fans will like.
A Pair of Contract Conundrums
Of course, the biggest storyline as the Jets enter training camp is that their two brightest young stars won’t be joining the rest of the team on the ice.
Kyle Connor and Patrik Laine, who combined for 64 goals and 116 points last season, remain unsigned and don’t look ready to put pen to paper anytime soon.
A month ago, yours truly went on record stating the Jets would be in tough to sign their dynamic duo in time for training camp given the league-wide reluctance of RFAs of sign new contracts. There’s less than a month to go before games start counting for real and it’s a very real possibility the Jets lineup on Oct. 3 will not feature either player.
Cheveldayoff has about $14.5 million available to ink them but time is of the essence. The Jets cannot afford to have what the Winnipeg Free Press’ Jason Bell put as a “William Nylander situation on its hands, in duplicate,” — referring to the Maple Leafs star’s lengthy holdout last season — nor can they afford the sideshow of distractions holdouts bring. (from ‘Jets expectations not flying so high,’ Winnipeg Free Press, 09/10/19.)
There will be many things to watch during preseason as the Jets prepare for the ever-increasing possibility that they’ll begin the regular season without their stars’ services.
Who will replace Connor and Laine on the top six — Mathieu Perreault and Jack Rolsovic seem the most likely candidates — and how they do in increased roles, who will win the battle for bottom-six slots unexpectedly available after Perreault and Roslovic vacate them, and how the Jets will deploy their power play sans their two most dangerous weapons are just some of them.
These aren’t nearly all the storylines, but they’re the most pressing and important. Keep an eye on them, because the way they play out will determine whether the Jets can snag a playoff spot in a Central Division that looks stronger than ever.
If these storylines have you more on edge than excited, that’s understandable. But don’t worry — there will still be plenty of must-see Jets games in 2019-20.
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