30 Thoughts: Conference switch weighs heavy on Jets | Hockey | CBC Sports

Hockey Night in Canada30 Thoughts: Conference switch weighs heavy on Jets

Posted: Tuesday, December 17, 2013 | 09:55 AM

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Dustin Byfuglien (33) and the Winnipeg Jets have struggled to take flight since switching to the superior Western Conference. (Marianne Helm/Getty Images) Dustin Byfuglien (33) and the Winnipeg Jets have struggled to take flight since switching to the superior Western Conference. (Marianne Helm/Getty Images)

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The Winnipeg Jets would likely welcome a return to the Eastern Conference considering how intensely competitive it has been in the Western Conference so far this season.

When the Winnipeg Jets moved from the Eastern Conference to the West, they were big winners in the schedule game. Their total travel miles were still above the league average, but the number of back-to-back games was reduced to 10 - tied for the fewest in the NHL. Now they'd probably sign up for six games in four nights as long as they could go back where they came from.

The East is getting pounded in cross-conference matchups like Apollo Creed in Rocky IV. At least those teams play the majority of their games against each other. The Jets aren't so lucky.

They've gone from the Southeast, the only division under the previous setup to never send three teams to the playoffs in a single season, to a schedule that's 50 per cent Anaheim, Chicago, Colorado, Minnesota, Los Angeles, Phoenix, St. Louis, San Jose and Vancouver.

That's a huge switch and I'm not sure there's an Eastern team outside of Boston Bruins or Pittsburgh Penguins that could handle it. Before the season, I might've added the New York Rangers, but the view is askew in Manhattan.

For the Jets, it must be the biggest shock since Stephen Rea in The Crying Game (Alright, no more tortured movie references).

Two weeks ago, Shawn Horcoff and Tyler Seguin of the Dallas Stars joked they couldn't remember the last time they saw a 2-on-1 break in the West. Here are the four even-strength goals Dallas scored in Saturday's 6-4 win at Winnipeg: a breakaway, Valeri Nichushkin walking almost untouched through three players, Jamie Benn in prime scoring position after two turnovers and another breakaway.

"What I say doesn't matter," a frustrated Blake Wheeler told reporters after the defeat.

"It's what you do out on the ice. You can blow smoke as much as you want out in the media.

"We've been blowing smoke for three years. Myself and everyone who has stood in front of a microphone for three years, we've said the same [bleep]."

The Jets rebounded with a 3-2 win in Columbus on Monday night and any team can have an off-day - see the Chicago Blackhawks lose 7-3 to the Toronto Maple Leafs - but Winnipeg's games are pretty free flowing - rare among the grind-it-out group. The Blackhawks are an anomaly, too, but they've won two Stanley Cups in four seasons.

Winnipeg hasn't made the playoffs since its mail was sent to Georgia. The heat is on the coaches, players, everyone.

This is a very dangerous time for the Jets. When the pressure is on to do something, that's when an organization's collective head must be at its clearest. Every team's goal is to win the Stanley Cup, but suddenly Winnipeg's path to success is very, very different.

That means your evaluation process becomes different, too. The Jets made several commitments over the past two years and the hard thing to realize is those choices were made under a completely different set of criteria: Eastern Conference opposition.

The honest truth is, the switch means Winnipeg is farther away from contention than before. In that position, quick fixes do not work.

1. As Shawn Thornton of the Bruins prepares for a hearing with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, remember Patrick Kaleta didn't go to the independent arbitrator because of Bettman's well-written decision. For the arbitrator to overturn, he must rule the length of the suspension imposed is not supported by "substantial evidence." There was plenty in Kaleta's case, but Thornton is not a repeat offender and this is a new kind of penalty. The strength of Bettman's brief will determine if we see the first such appeal under the new collective bargaining agreement setup.

2. If we do get that far, the NHL Players' Association will argue a case that benefits Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs. Weirder couple than Ted Danson and Whoopi Goldberg.

3. In the time between the James Neal and Thornton incidents and the publication of this blog, six NHL players were suspended, one was fined and another is pending.

4. Edmonton is trying to trade AHLer Linus Omark, who deserves a shot at the NHL level and isn't going to get it with the Oilers. This is pure speculation on my part, but Buffalo makes sense. The Sabres are on a pace to score 137 goals. The last time a team scored fewer? Chicago in 1953-54, with 133 in 70 games. Twelve teams bettered that in lockout-shortened 1995. Last year? Eight. Omark's not a cure, but it's a sensible gamble, no?

5. Carolina Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford threw cold water on rumblings that Cam Ward might be the goalie he moves. Rutherford wouldn't comment further, but it is believed he will work to move either Anton Khudobin or Justin Peters by this week's trade freeze.

6. At his annual Christmas skate for kids (a terrific event), Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk said he has begun discussions to extend GM Bryan Murray's contract. The fact that Melnyk allowed Tim Murray to interview for the GM's job in Buffalo raised a few eyebrows. Does this mean he doesn't see him as Bryan's eventual successor? Certainly, Melnyk wouldn't allow Tim to talk to a division rival if that was the case.

7. By the end of the weekend, neither the Sabres nor the Calgary Flames had requested permission to speak to Philadelphia Flyers assistant GM Ron Hextall. That's surprising since he's clearly ready for the opportunity. Is it because of the assumption he will eventually replace Flyers GM Paul Holmgren? That doesn't mean, however, Holmgren is ready to go. Even with Sunday's 5-4 meltdown at Washington, the Flyers have worked their way into the post-season picture.

8. No doubt the reason Flames president Brian Burke made the GM change now is Buffalo's potential interest in some of his choices. Jim Benning would definitely be one and it's believed Calgary already has permission to speak to him. It would surprise nobody if Nashville Predators assistant GM Paul Fenton and Los Angeles Kings scouting director Mike Futa were on both lists as well, although L.A. has resisted permission so far. It's believed Burke will try to move faster than the Sabres because, after the world junior championship, the plan was to start making decisions on upcoming unrestricted free agents.

9. Burke did approach Joe Nieuwendyk, who is finishing up the final year of his contract in Dallas, but was apparently told the Hall of Famer is not willing to uproot his family. Nieuwendyk had an offer to join the NHL before the season, but he chose to decline that, too. I can't blame him for wanting to be a dad.

10. Chicago acquired Jason LaBarbera from Edmonton as insurance. The Blackhawks say it isn't true, but there were rumblings that the original target was Flames goalie Joey MacDonald, who is playing for the AHL Abbotsford Heat. Whatever the case, Burke's firing of GM Jay Feaster brought business to a halt.

11. The happiest people to see Burke flexing his muscles in Calgary? Probably Dion Phaneuf's agency, Newport. Hello leverage!

12. There's been a lot written and said about Ryan Kesler's return to form with the Vancouver Canucks. The list includes: he's healthy; he did extra work on his shot; he wants a prime role on the U.S. Olympic Team, etc. Health is undoubtedly the biggest reason, but do not underestimate the fact that head coach John Tortorella didn't stitch an "A" to Kesler's jersey. Former Canucks head coach Alain Vigneault had a rotation that included Kesler, but Tortorella went only with Kevin Bieksa and Daniel Sedin alongside captain Henrik Sedin. That would annoy Kesler and he strikes me as one of those guys who plays better when mildly annoyed.

13. The Canucks have a bit of Lou Lamoriello in them in that they don't like high jersey numbers. Jason Garrison was asked to take No. 5 in Vancouver after wearing No. 52 in Florida. When Bo Horvat was drafted, the Canucks were prepared to make him switch, too, before being told why he chose No. 53. Horvat was taken 20 spots ahead of Ian Jenkins in the 2011 OHL priority draft. Jenkins, a goalie who wore No. 35, died weeks later when he fell out of a pickup truck. Horvat flipped the digits as a tribute, much to the appreciation of the Jenkins family, which didn't know about his plans beforehand.

14. The only good thing about the 8-3 beating the Canucks suffered in Detroit on Feb. 24 is that it introduced them to their highest 2013 draft pick. Canucks GM Mike Gillis stayed in the area to see Horvat's OHL London Knights face the Windsor Spitfires, who also featured some good prospects. Horvat had a goal and an assist in a 5-2 win. Suffice it to say, the Canucks were smitten.

15. The Rangers will struggle until Henrik Lundqvist gets back to his level, but another issue is the structure of their defence. It's more than just a new system. Look at what Vigneault had in Vancouver, where Canucks defencemen combined for 157 points in 2010-11 and 181 in 2011-12. Last year's 82-game pace would've translated into 147 points. The Blueshirts' blue-line is different, especially with Michael del Zotto struggling and Marc Staal's production way down. They're looking at 111 points from that position.

16. The Colorado Avalanche laid waste to Dallas, 6-2 on Monday night, days after one competing exec said: "Thank God their defence isn't there yet because their forwards are outstanding and they're getting good goaltending." He added the Avalanche play with incredible tempo and are doing a great job of easing the pressure on their blue-line by quickly getting the puck out of their zone and down the ice.

17. At the 2006 NHL draft in Vancouver, Mark Kelley was finishing 13 years with the Penguins organization, some of it spent living in Moscow. Ray Shero was newly installed as Penguins GM and offered him a contract to stay. "I was ready for change," Kelley said. "Change was scary, but change was good." Leaving the city, he ran into then-Blackhawks GM Dale Tallon at the airport. "He said, 'Call me Monday.'" Kelley did and the Blackhawks hired him quick. He is now their director of amateur scouting.

18. During Kelley's time, Chicago's done very well at the draft. There have been the high picks (Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews), the mid-range (Brandon Pirri, Brandon Saad) and the late (Marcus Kruger, Andrew Shaw). What does he look for, aside from the obvious? "We know our core and it's going to be together for a long time," Kelley said. "Will [a potential pick's personality] fit in?"

19. Another interesting rule is what happens when a scout decides he doesn't like a player. "We tell him to stop," Kelley said. "Don't go see him. We're never not going to draft a player because a scout doesn't like him ... Go see guys you like. That's how we build our board."

20. I just finished reading One Last Strike, Tony LaRussa's book about the St. Louis Cardinals' 2011 World Series victory. LaRussa retired after that season and there's a similar message in it about first baseman Allen Craig, who was getting pulled for a defensive replacement late in games. LaRussa felt people were using it as a negative against him. So he went to Craig, explaining why his contributions were very valuable despite that. Craig hit three home runs with an OPS of 1.154 in the Series. I'm a big believer in this thinking. Everyone has flaws. Too often, we focus on those instead of what people do well.

21. Back to Kelley, who answered a few questions about specific players. Was there any serious debate about drafting either James van Riemsdyk or Kyle Turris instead of Patrick Kane in 2007? Following that year's world junior semifinal between Canada and the U.S., the answer was no. "After that game, we looked at each other and knew Kane was the lead dog," he said. Did you ever get a trade offer that made you think? "No, we weren't even contemplating it."

22. Saad fell to 43rd overall because he was injured in his draft year (2011). "We had a lot of picks [four in the first 43, when they took Saad]," Kelley said. "He played all year hurt. Saginaw was in disarray ... their [the OHL Spirit] season mirrored him." They liked that he tried to play as much as possible and that his health affected the team's success. "One time, we went to see him and he was scratched. I went to see how he was doing. The first thing out of his mouth was 'Sorry.' He apologized. He thought we wasted a trip."

23. Every NHL team, including Chicago, passed on Andrew Shaw in 2009 and again in 2010 before the Blackhawks drafted him 139th overall in 2011. What changed? Shaw's visit to the Memorial Cup with the OHL Owen Sound Attack. "He would get his points, but not on the first power play and not with the best players," Kelley said. "We thought if he was a good third-line player in the OHL, he could be one in the NHL. Of course, if we knew then what we know now, we would have taken him a lot higher."

24. Kane, by the way, has become the best "zone entry" player in the NHL. What does he ask his linemates to do once he gets into the offensive zone? "One of them has to go to net," he said, then paused. "Actually, I'd prefer both of them go to the net."
25. There is a lot of debate about taking Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz of the Penguins as a pair for the Canadian Olympic team. In Monday night's 3-2 loss at Ottawa, Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester of the St. Louis Blues had a two-minute shift in overtime. They were on the ice for 26 seconds before teammate Derek Roy took a penalty and the duo stayed to kill the first 1:33 of it. Those guys are going to the Sochi Winter Games together.

26. During last year's lockout, I asked one scout to provide a list of AHL players he liked. On it were five of Pittsburgh's defensive prospects. Joe Morrow was dealt to Dallas (and later Boston). The New York Islanders took Brian Strait on waivers. As Pittsburgh's defence was decimated by injury, Robert Bortuzzo played 39 minutes, Simon Despres 38 and Brian Dumoulin 36 in back-to-back 4-1 and 3-1 wins over Detroit and Toronto, respectively. Bortuzzo and Dumoulin were sheltered a bit, but the three combined for two points and were plus-five. Good call.

27. When Jeff Petry was made a healthy scratch two weeks ago by Edmonton, he got a text from his junior hockey coach, Regg Simon. "I went through the same thing in my second year there," the Oilers defenceman said. What did he tell you? "Defence first," Petry replied. "Also, remember what you did to get there ... believe in yourself. You earned your spot, remember that."

28. Another piece of advice came from his father Dan, who won 125 games in a 13-year, major-league pitching career. "He told me, 'Make sure you go see your coach and ask him what he wants. You have to know the answer.'"

29. When L.A. left on an Eastern road trip through Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa, Kings president of business operations Luc Robitaille requested it be made known to voting media that Drew Doughty deserves the Norris Trophy as top defenceman and Anze Kopitar the Selke Trophy for defensive excellence at forward. Suffice it to say, we got the message, Luc. Several times.

30. The Kings made a really nice gesture for the family of a young fan who travelled to see them play in California the last three years. Braden Searle got several autographs from players during that time, including his favourite, Doughty. Last June, Searle, who was just 14, suddenly passed away due to Sudden Arrhythmic Syndrome. The organization sent a message of condolence from Doughty to the family, which is part of a special Facebook page where you can find out more information about the disease. Please take a look.

Follow Elliotte Friedman on Twitter @FriedgeHNIC

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