Jets looking for size as they prepare for draft
Jets have 9th overall selection
Their maiden season was an emotional and financial triumph but the Winnipeg Jets now have to make their sophomore run a little more successful on the ice.
The former Atlanta Thrashers are a young team, still developing, and the front office has patience. There were no blockbuster trades last season, just a little tinkering by general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff.
But as they prepare for their second NHL draft, they know expectations in the soldout MTS Centre are sure to be ratcheted up, and Jets' brass are also looking for improvement.
"I don't think their expectations are going to be any higher than ours internally," Cheveldayoff said. "We set very, very high expectations for ourselves. It's a sport that we play for the fans… We would expect nothing less than expectations continue to grow each and every day."
The Jets finished four points higher than the Thrashers in their last season in Atlanta but still missed the playoffs for the fifth straight season, despite a couple of runs that put them in contention.
Unless they manage to trade up, the best they can do is ninth overall in Friday's first round and, while the draft is a chance to take a step in team building, the payoff won't be immediate.
Mark Sheifele, last year's top draft pick, saw most of his action in the Ontario Hockey League in 2011-12, although he did take a brief turn with the Jets and then their American Hockey League farm team during their playoff run.
It would take a trade to have more immediate impact and up until now Cheveldayoff hasn't exactly burned up the phone lines.
Was he waiting for this moment? Naturally he isn't saying, but he is sticking to the idea that you don't feast today and fast tomorrow.
"We want to build for the now and for the future," he said. "If drafting a player accomplishes that or trading the pick that helps you for the now and the future, it's something we'll look at. Trading simply for the now is something that isn't what we're looking for."
There's also the free agent market come July 1, if the draft doesn't give the Jets the opportunity they need.
"We're going to explore all options to continue to move this team forward," he said.
League chatter always ratchets up around this time of year.
"There's been lots of conversations from various other teams and general managers on various different topics," he said. "I expect as we get closer to the actual draft day that some interesting and intriguing opportunities could present themselves and if they do, we'll look at them."
So far, it seems the right opportunity hasn't presented itself.
"Right now, we're preparing ourselves that we're going to draft a player at our pick, but again all those things can change with one phone call."
OK, then who? If it is to be a draft pick, should it be offence or defence that gets shoring up?
Are the Jets happy with their No. 1 goaltender and is he happy with them? Ondrej Pavelec finished with a .906 save percentage in 68 games but there has also been talk he's looking at a possible KHL job in Europe, playing a lot closer to home in the Czech Republic.
There has been talk 30-goal-scorer Evander Kane may be looking for a new home.
"I really don't comment much on negotiations that are ongoing," Cheveldayoff said of talks with any of his restricted or unrestricted free agents.
So, even with no holes to plug, Cheveldayoff has said he'd like another top-six forward and probably a little help on defence as well, to add more size to the mix.
On centre they could use some size. At six foot six and 245 pounds, Nik Antropov is the only really big centre they have.
It's easy to see a lot of players who would fit the bill, but how many will be left when it comes to ninth pick.
Mikhail Grigorenko of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League certainly fits at 6-4 and over 200 pounds, but he's also expected to go a lot higher than ninth. In his first season with the Quebec Remparts, he led QMJHL rookies with 45 goals and 85 points and finished third in the league with eight game-winning goals.
Not ranked quite as high but of similar size is Radek Faksa out of the Ontario Hockey League. Faksa led OHL rookies with his 29 goals, 37 assists and 66 points during 2011-12 season.
OHL prospect Brendan Gaunce might still be around. At 6-2 and 215 pounds, he already has more bulk than most of Winnipeg's centremen and at 18 he's still growing. He performed well with the Canadian under-18 junior team that won gold at the 2011 Ivan Hlinka Memorial tournament.
But if a scoring touch is what other teams are seeking as well, the Jets might have more luck with blue-liners like 6-4 Griffin Reinhart out of the Western Hockey League. The son of former NHL defenceman Paul Reinhart has the kind of hockey pedigree that might appeal to the Jets.
He's a little smaller but fellow WHL defenceman Mathew Dumba, at an even six feet and 185 pounds, also led all defencemen in the league last season in scoring with his 20 goals for the Red Deer Rebels.
"The list has many different variations," said Cheveldayoff.