Jets bottom six and center depth remain questionable

Grant Halverson

Options remain at free agency, though pickings are slim

Andrew Ladd, Bryan Little and Blake Wheeler will form the Jets top line, that is a given. Evander Kane is a staple on the second line LW. One of Olli Jokinen or rookie Mark Scheifele will slide in at the number two center spot. Newly acquired Devin Setoguchi will round out the second line and top six at RW.

More likely than not, that is the top six that will carry the offensive load at forward for the 2013-14 Winnipeg Jets. Center depth is questionable, and the bottom six remains a bit of a mystery. It has led to a hot debate amongst Jets fans.

For the better part of the last two seasons the bottom six has not been efficient, nor consistently supportive enough to those handling the heavy lifting above them on the top two scoring lines.

Out the door from last season is Nik Antropov, Antti Miettinen, Kyle Wellwood, Alexander Burmistrov and Mike Santorelli. Four out of those five could play center, which provided the Jets with depth in a key position. Individually and as a group, however, they were not nearly consistent or effective enough within their roles.

The Jets are now about to rely on one of Olli Jokinen or Mark Scheifele as the number three center (whichever doesn’t claim the number two center spot), followed by some form of combination of Michael Frolik, Jim Slater, James Wright, Eric Tangradi, Matt Halischuk, Anthony Peluso and Chris Thorburn. An outside shot at making the roster is Eric O’Dell, if he were to make way and prove worthy in training camp and pre-season. O’Dell led the St. John’s IceCaps (AHL) in scoring last season with 29 goals and 55 points in 59 games.

Some say the bottom six is not good enough, while others say what was tried and counted upon over the last two seasons didn’t work anyhow, so let’s give this a chance.

Mason Raymond has been a name in the Jets rumor mill over the last month. Rumor floating around is the Jets had offered him a 1-year contract, but he has rejected in hopes of receiving a contract with more term, be it by the Jets or elsewhere. At this point in free agency, however, you may see some players sign deals simply so they have somewhere to play and further prove themselves so when the salary cap does indeed rise again (likely next summer), perhaps then they can receive a contract more to their liking. This has been a difficult summer for UFA’s in that the salary cap has decreased.

The winger may not be the center Jets fans covet, or the team could potentially use, but he would give them a top nine, two-way forward who can kill penalties and shift up and down the depth chart. He has also scored 15 and 25 goals in recent years in the NHL. Raymond could add something to this Jets bottom six that very few on this roster can; reliability in the form of a legitimate and proven NHL forward. Mason Raymond is coming off a deal in Vancouver that paid him $2.275 million.

At the center position for the Jets, by all indications it appears they will roll the dice on Bryan Little, Olli Jokinen, Mark Scheifele and Jim Slater. Risky? You could say so, yes. What if Bryan Little gets hurt? Olli Jokinen doesn’t rebound or find chemistry with Evander Kane? What if Mark Scheifele isn’t ready? All fair questions, and all realistic scenarios.

A proven offensive center such as Mikhail Grabovski may work well in Winnipeg in the present and future, but he is likely out of the Jets comfortable price range. It has also been reported by TSN’s Aaron Ward that the Jets are not one of the final three teams in pursuit of Grabovski. So, we can likely put that one to rest. Unless of course Aaron Ward is as correct on this as he was saying Jarome Iginla was a Boston Bruin back in March.

According to CapGeek, the rest of the center UFA market is slim pickings. Matthew Lombardi, Tim Connolly and Kyle Wellwood round out the most notables. Peter Mueller has played some center over his career, as has Brad Boyes.

Brad Boyes signed a 1-year, $1 million contract to play with the New York Islanders last season. He did well offensively accumulating 10 goals and 35 points in 48 games and has proven over his career to put up above average offensive numbers. He will be looking for a raise on his contract from last year, but at this point in free agency it’s difficult to say what is in store for him. Boyes could be a viable option if Winnipeg were interested in pursuing him for wing/center depth. He may want a guaranteed top six spot, however, the Jets likely cannot offer him that at this point.

If the last two seasons have taught us anything, it’s that viable, NHL quality depth is important, and from that depth and those roles you need consistent and reliable production. Many will tell you the Jets have had (or still do, for that matter) more quantity than quality. Time will tell if that remains to be an issue.

This is part one of my three part series as we crawl through the ever so slow month of August. Next up I will analyze my thoughts and views on the Winnipeg Jets defensive unit, followed by the third and final piece on the Jets goaltending.

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