Jets need to fly out of the gate

By: Adam Wazny | Thursday, January 17

Winnipeg Jets' Olli Jokinen (front) gets his pass away in front of Blake Wheeler on day three of training camp in Winnipeg on Jan. 15, 2013. (John Woods/Canadian Press)

Three players to watch

The Jets franchise (formerly Atlanta Thrashers) hasn't made the playoffs in five seasons. For a chance to change this direction, they'll need some strong performances from these three individuals:

C Olli Jokinen
The 32-year-old, with 1,042 NHL games on his resume, brings a needed veteran element to the Top 6 forward group. Jokinen registered 61 points in 82 games with Calgary last season. If he can find some chemistry with Evander Kane, there's no reason he shouldn't produce at a similar clip in Winnipeg.

LW Evander Kane
Listed as a winger but always the centre of attention, everyone has an opinion on the 30-goal scorer and his off-ice persona. Not many can argue his skill set, though. If he matures as a player and keeps his head in the game, he could be the NHL's next big shooting star.

D Dustin Byfuglien
One thing that absolutely can't happen this season: Byfuglien getting banged up. Despite missing 16 games, the 6-5, 265-pound blue-liner scored 12 goals and added 41 assists last season -- an offensive impact the club simply can't live without. With the defensive depth a question mark, head coach Claude Noel needs Byfuglien to play at least 25 minutes a night.

This weekend, when the puck drops to open the truncated 2013 NHL season, hockey fans will finally get an idea of what the latest edition of the Winnipeg Jets looks like.

The players should get some answers, too.

With only a six-day training camp to get up to speed, the Jets (plus the other 29 teams) are boldly going where no one really wants to go: starting a regular season -- this one trimmed down to a 48-game schedule thanks to the 3 ½ month lockout -- without any preseason play to build a foundation or construct opinions on.

How much rust has collected over the break? We shall see.

"Honestly, I have no idea, I'll tell you after the season is over," Jets centre Bryan Little joked during training camp earlier this week. "I haven't played a game since (last) April and I have no idea how it's going to be the first few games."

The Jets host the Ottawa Senators at MTS Centre Saturday afternoon (2 p.m., CBC).

It's been 286 days since the Jets last played in downtown Winnipeg. A handful of players skated for other clubs in other leagues in other countries at various times during the NHL work stoppage, but by and large the team is going into the season with a roster that's been on stand by, waiting for the season to start.

"It's going to take a little bit," said centre Jim Slater. "I'm sure that first period is going to be so fast... you just have to make sure you stay with it. (Every other club) is in the same boat as us."

Under normal circumstances, a mid-January tilt would typically see NHL players on top of their games. This time around, though, hiccups are anticipated, so look for clubs to put an increased attention on the defensive assignments to help reduce unnecessary risks as players find their way early on.
 
Last season, Winnipeg earned three wins in its first 10 games (3-6-1). Teams have just 48 games to play with this time around, so they can't afford any stumbles out of the gate. With that in mind, consider these areas of concern heading into the 2013 season:

  • Winnipeg opens with five of the first eight games away from MTS Centre. In fact, the club only sees 12 of its first 29 games in front of the home crowd. For a team that went 14-22-5 as the visitor in 2011-12, that's not a positive projection. Those wondering about the Jets' scary back-to-back monster, a terror that saw a 1-11-1 record in the second half of those games last winter, take note: Winnipeg has eight back-to-back situations this season. There is hope, however. The Jets, 23-13-5 at home last year, close things out hosting seven of the last nine games (including a season-long six-game home stand). More good news: Winnipeg held a 14-6-4 record versus Southeast teams last season. With 18 of the 48 games against division rivals, a strong showing there will be vital.

  • Defence remains a concern. Last season, Winnipeg allowed an average of 2.95 goals against per game that put the club towards the bottom in the Eastern conference (12th) and the overall standings (26th). Budding rearguard Zach Bogosian starts the season with a wrist injury, putting a lot of pressure on the Dustin Byfuglien and Toby Enstrom pairing to carry the load. AHL prospects Zach Redmond and Paul Postma should get their chance to play, too, a plan that speaks to the lack of depth on the backend.

  • Goaltender Ondrej Pavelec's numbers last season: 2.91 goals against average and a .906 save percentage, the latter placing him near the bottom of starting NHL goaltenders. Based on his contract extension (five years, $19.5-million), it's clear the organization feels he's better than his numbers suggest. This is Pavelec's chance to prove them right. NHL teams wanting a fast start in a shortened 48-game season require their netminder to be a difference maker. Pavelec is confident he's that guy.

Opinion

Adam Wazny is a Winnipeg-based freelance writer who has covered sports in the city for over a decade. He has worked as a reporter for both the Winnipeg Free Press and the Winnipeg Sun, and now spends most of his time checking his Twitter. Did someone say Twitter? Find him here: @wazoowazny.

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