As a part of the 2015/2016 SB Nation NHL season preview, Arctic Ice Hockey was asked to ask and answer three questions facing the Winnipeg Jets this year.
1: Will Ondrej Pavelec and Michael Hutchinson replicate their goaltending performance of 2014/2015?
Pavelec and Hutchinson combined for a save percentage of 0.913 in 2014/2015, good for tenth best in the league. The Jets results suffered in previous years due to below average goaltending from Pavelec, whose career save percentage still sits at a mediocre 0.908 despite last year's outstanding 0.920. Pavelec has never shown he can be the guy for the Jets for an extended period and despite last year's overall improvement he still lost the starting job for months to Hutchinson. Hutchinson blasted out of the gate, seizing the starting job from Pavelec, but cooled off as the season progressed. Pavelec ended up starting all four games in the playoffs. Overall confidence in the Jets goaltending is low, but they may have another threat lurking in the shadows. Connor Hellebuyck was the brightest light on the St. John's Ice Caps in 2014/2015, putting up a 0.921 save percentage and six shutouts, carrying the team on most nights. With the Manitoba Moose now set up in the MTS Centre, the pressure will be on the established goalies to perform. Otherwise head coach Paul Maurice may look across the rink to spark his team. If the Jets can replicate their goaltending of last season with any combinations of their keepers, then the team should make a strong push to return to the playoffs.
2: How many prospects will make the NHL jump this year?
The Winnipeg Jets prospect cupboard has come a long way since the team moved from Atlanta, ranked near the top of the league by most pundits. With veterans Lee Stempniak, Jiri Tlusty, Jim Slater and Michael Frolik departing the team, spots have opened up for prospects to make the jump. Head coach Paul Maurice has said four players will start with the team who did not play for the Jets in the previous year. With Alexander Burmistrov's return, that leaves three spots open for other players on the NHL roster. Nikolaj Ehlers, Nic Petan, Josh Morrissey, Brendan Lemieux, Joel Armia, and Andrew Copp among others were expected to compete for spots on the big club. With Lemieux, Armia and Morrissey already sent down, the roster is beginning to take shape. What no one expected was 29 year old Thomas Raffl to compete for a spot. The Austrian national was brought in on a professional try out and has impressed with his size and skill. Copp appears to have the fourth line centre position locked in, but competition for the two other open spots is fierce with no player running away with it. The Jets have the personnel to bring more talent to the rink this year. With a fairly good top six and great defensive depth, Petan, Ehlers, and Raffl becoming above average NHL players for their positions may decide the Jets' fate this spring.
3: How will the Jets deal with pending free agents including Andrew Ladd and Dustin Byfuglien?
Jets fans wait with baited breath as the team enters the final year of Ladd's and Byfuglien's contracts. Everyone in Winnipeg expects a deal with captain Ladd to eventually come, but as the start of the season peeks over the horizon, the nervousness within the city builds. Byfuglien seems to be a tougher sell. As bigger contracts in the NHL appear to be slowing down and with the weaker Canadian Dollar limiting salary cap growth, the Jets may seek a trade instead. "Big Buffs" style of play is expected to take a toll on his body as he ages, with most expecting the Jets to try and get a short term contract done. Losing Ladd for nothing would be a terrible blow to the franchise as he is the captain and first to sign as a Jet. Byfuglien's high risk high reward style of play make losing him a tough pill to swallow, but it won't nearly be as devastating as Ladd's potential departure. General manager Kevin Cheveldayoff also has some restricted free agents to sign in the near future. Mark Scheifele, Jacob Trouba and Adam Lowry play key minutes for the team and all need new contracts soon. Cheveldayoff has major decisions to make regarding the overall future of the team and weather or not it is time to start spending the big bucks. The Jets have been a mid range cap team since their move, but now it will be up to ownership to dictate the future of the club. Will the Jets become a perennial contender in the next few years, investing in the next steps in the franchise`s development? It is up to ownership and management to decide if they want to invest in the team.
This year could be decisive for the Jets, as fans wait for the team to take the next step, both on and off the ice.