Jets coach says team has size and speed to compete in Western Conference

WINNIPEG – Winnipeg Jets coach Claude Noel said Wednesday they have what it takes to compete in a new division and new conference this season, but they also have areas they must improve.

“I think that the Western Conference is a conference that’s got size and speed—I think there’s a little bit of difference in the conferences—but I think for our team we’ve got size, we’ve got speed,” Noel said as training camp opened with player physicals.

“I think one of the areas we have to get better clearly is going to be our checking game. We have to get better at our goal differential. (It) has to really be on the right side of the ledger.”

Last season, the Jets had a -16 goal differential and finished 18th in the 30-team league. All 17 teams above them with the exception of the Minnesota Wild (-5) were on the plus side or even.

The Jets are preparing to compete this season in the Western Conference in a new Central Division with the likes of Chicago, St. Louis and Minnesota, after finishing four points out of a playoff spot last season.

The Winnipeg franchise—which relocated from Atlanta in 2011—hasn’t seen the post-season since 2007 even though it used to be in the Eastern Conference’s Southeast Division, usually one of the NHL’s weakest.

Noel said he was really pleased at the condition of his players as they reported for camp and that included defenceman Dustin Byfuglien, whose weight has always been a hot topic.

“I would look at him today, he looks very well, looks fit and I’m very happy to see where he’s at, it looks like he’s in a good place,” said the coach.

“For Dustin, for me we just want him to be a guy who plays up to his capabilities … probably just the one thing for me is just to be more consistent in his game.”

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Byfuglien finished 11th in scoring among defencemen last season with 28 points in 43 games, after finishing second the year before with 53 points in 66 games.

The Jets need the big blue-liner to be on his game if they want to become a playoff team. His time on ice last season, considering he missed five games, was easily in the top 10 among league defencemen.

But Winnipeg needs others to start playing up to their potential as well.

Andrew Ladd, Bryan Little and Blake Wheeler provided a consistent top-scoring line in 2012-13. The Jets are looking for a way to get similar production out of a line featuring left-winger Evander Kane this season.

Winnipeg added veteran forwards Devon Setoguchi and Michael Frolik over the summer. They also have 2011 draft pick Mark Scheifele in camp after a strong season in the Ontario Hockey League.

Now Noel has to fit the pieces together.

“Right now it looks like we’re shaping up to have four pretty solid lines with a solid set of defence,” said Noel.

“The focus for me with some of the additions we’ve made is how we’re going to make this team play the way we want it to play to elevate us to the point where we now become a playoff team.”

Scheifele and 2012 draft pick defenceman Jacob Trouba look like the best bets out of prospect camp to stick in the NHL.

The Jets also added another defenceman to the mix Wednesday when they signed Ian White to a professional tryout deal. The 29-year-old native of Steinbach, Man., spent the last couple of seasons in Detroit.