WINNIPEG – A realigned and highly competitive Central Division may cut travel time for the Winnipeg Jets, but it does little for their goal of making the playoffs.
The Jets (Atlanta Thrashers until 2011) haven't made the playoffs since 2007. They were swept in the first round of their one and only appearance.
They led the Southeast Division for a time last season but stumbled down the stretch as the Washington Capitals surged past and into the playoffs. Only the division leader qualified.
Three of the teams in their new division made the playoffs in 2013 and one—the Chicago Blackhawks—won the Stanley Cup.
How will the Jets cope with competition like that?
“Short answer, probably play simple hockey,” says captain and last season's team scoring leader Andrew Ladd.
“I think a lot of times we get ourselves into trouble when we're trying to do too much offensively and make the extra play and it ends up turning and going the other way and we're playing defence the whole game.”
Ladd says the Jets, still a relatively young team by comparison, do have speed.
“Right from the back end up,” he said. “I think when our D are getting involved in the play and helping us out, and we're using our speed to transition and get pucks deep and outwork teams, is when we're at our best.”
Coach Claude Noel also likes the size and speed the Jets bring to their new conference, but says they have to get their goal differential down to succeed.
“I think that the Western Conference is a conference that's got size and speed . . . I think for our team we've got size, we've got speed,'' he said.
“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 minus-16 goal differential. All 17 teams above them, with the exception of the Minnesota Wild (minus-5), were on the plus side or, at worst, even.
Other numbers were just as unflattering. Their power play was the worst in the league and their penalty killing was near the bottom as well.
Defence is clearly a priority for the Jets.
With Ron Hainsey gone, the Jets' top three blue-liners remain Dustin Byfuglien, Zack Bogosian and Tobias Enstrom.
Byfuglien reported to camp trimmer than he's looked in years. He has the power, size and shot to make a huge difference on both sides of the puck.
Besides those three, Mark Stuart is steady and Grant Clitsome has earned regular ice time since he was claimed on waivers last year. But where others will fit in seems uncertain.
The Jets signed free agent Adam Pardy in July. Pardy spent part of last season with the Buffalo Sabres and before that was with the Calgary Flames.
Zach Redmond played mostly in the AHL last season and Paul Postma finally saw more ice time with the Jets than their farm team. Redmond is the favourite to get sent back to the minors because he won't have to clear waivers.
Last year's top draft pick Jacob Trouba looks like he may be sticking around. This year's top pick, Josh Morrissey, impressed at camp but he's only 18 and has been sent back to the WHL.
Regardless, the Jets felt comfortable enough with what they saw on defence to cut veteran Ian White, who they brought in on a tryout deal.
Ondrej Pavelec remains unchallenged as Winnipeg's starting netminder but his numbers also must improve for the Jets to become a playoff team and for that goal differential to change.
Pavelec saw a league-high 44 games last season but his goals-against average of 2.80 ranked him 52nd overall. He also allowed a league-high 119 goals.
As for offence, the Jets had one legitimate top line last season, with Ladd on one end, Blake Wheeler on the other and Bryan Little in the middle.
The trio scored more than one-third of all Winnipeg's goals and accumulated a combined 119 points, more than all the team's other forwards combined.
Now the Jets desperately need another line anchored by Evander Kane to produce something close to similar numbers and a competitive third line as well.
They traded for right-wingers Michael Frolik and Devin Setoguchi in the off-season and it looks like Setoguchi might have the second-line job.
The centre spot largely belonged to Olli Jokinen last season but his numbers fell short of expectations and 2011 draft pick Mark Scheifele could challenge for it this season.
Scheifele has grown in size and ability. He looks a lot more NHL ready and says he feels it too. He's even earning the scars to prove it.
The team also has centre James Wright, claimed off waivers last season.
As for departures, Alex Burmistrov defected to play in the KHL, where Nik Antropov also ended up as well after going unsigned.
If it shakes out that way, Frolik and Jokinen would seem to upgrade Winnipeg's third-line potential, as might right wing Matt Halischuk, also signed as a free agent in July.
Other third- or possible fourth-line contenders include the team's faceoff leader Jim Slater, James Wright, claimed off waivers last season, plus two tough guys—Chris Thorburn and Anthony Peluso.
Like Wright, Peluso was claimed off waivers last season.
Ladd says talent isn't the issue this season for the Jets.
“I don't think it matters how much talent you have, really,” he says.
“If you're not playing the right way and doing the right things, a lot of times it can work against you. . . Simplifying and playing the right way is how you win hockey games, especially tight hockey games.”