With the 2015-16 NHL season finally upon us, it's time to preview how the season will go for our Winnipeg Jets. And while @allan5oh posted his optimistic piece earlier today entitled "Five reasons why the Jets will improve over last season", I'm here to give you the pessimistic take. But hey, at least AIH isn't exhibiting its usual hive-mind group-think tendencies!
I'll freely admit, I was pretty far off on my prognostication last season for the Jets when I had them near the bottom of the West. Perhaps I deluded myself into the hope that everything that could go wrong would, and that the local team would've earned a ticket in the McEichel sweepstakes. Sadly, it was not to be, but the sweet smell of playoff hockey was a pretty decent and unexpected alternative (despite being swept).
Instead, lots that could've gone right did. And before you point out all the injuries to the blue-line, don't forget that those were required just to get Dustin Byfuglien back on the blue-line where he belonged and to allow for rookie revelation Ben Chiarot to be brought up from the minors. And lets not kid ourselves, losing Mark Stuart for some time is always a bonus.
But what most people tend to overlook, in my opinion, is the Jets record past 60-minutes. The Jets won 11 games and earned 13 "OT/SO loss" points in extra time, for a grand total of 35 points (35.4% of their 99 total). And in that mix, Michael Hutchinson stopped his first 14-straight shootout attempts which is pretty clearly unsustainable. That is an awful lot of "loser" points for at team that only finished 4 points up on 9th. On top of that, the Jets finished T-10th with the Sharks in the West with 36 ROW wins, fewer than the Stars and Kings who both missed the playoffs, and only 32 wins in regulation in total.
Speaking of Hutch, him and Ondrej Pavelec both had highly volatile seasons that combined numerous excellent single-game performances with numerous not-so-good ones. But the end result is that both goalies were excellent at times (Hutch was getting some All-Star Game love at one point) and Pavelec ran the table to end the season with three-straight shutouts. In fact, Pav was at a 0.910 sv% after that fateful game in St. Louis, but posted a 0.949 in the final 12 games. And those final 3 games (83 shots and saves) boosted him from a 0.915 to his final 0.920. So it's not like he was all of a sudden a 0.920 goalie, as he was barely above his career average until that tear he went on to finish the season.
So yeah. I guess I didn't bank on Buff returning to the blueline where he belongs or Chiarot stepping in, didn't envision Pav jumping so far above his career 0.906 sv% to post career highs and didn't see the Jets earning so many bonus-points out of 3-point games. And with all of those things going right, they still only finished in 8th place, just four points clear of the Kings.
Which leads me to my likely unpopular opinion that the Jets are still a bubble team in the ultra-competitive Central, at best. They did float to the top of the bubble last season, but that was with the above listed things going right as well as quality NHL players such as Michael Frolik, Jiri Tlusty and Lee Stempniak on the roster. Replacing them this year will be a bunch of 'green behind the ears' rookies in Nic Petan, Nikolaj Ehlers and Andrew Copp, who's ceilings may be higher but their floors are likely lower, at least to begin the season. Sure, they could step right in and contribute big time, but it's just as likely that they don't.
And to be perfectly honest, plenty of the pessimism comes from looking at the other teams in the Western Conference. Teams that missed the playoffs last year improved their rosters with NHL-calibre talent (Kings with Milan Lucic and Christian Ehrhoff, Stars with Patrick Sharp and Johnny Oduya, Sharks with Joel Ward, Paul Martin and Martin Jones). The Flames brought in the aforementioned Frolik and Dougie Hamilton. The Oilers are completely different with Connor McDavid. And the Wild, Predators, Blues and Blackhawks continue to be beasts in the Central. There's only so many rooms at the NHL Playoffs Inn, and I'm not convinced that the Jets have enough to book a room.
The Jets are a good team that are trending in the right direction. But they aren't a great team, not yet at least. Not when an injury or two still results in Chris Thorburn vaulting up the lineup. But as last year showed, unexpectedly excellent goaltending and a roster that was full of quality NHLers down the stretch made them a playoff team, but barely. I fully expect them to exist in the "7th-11th" bubble as per usual, but if the rookies are unable to carry the mail all season long and Pavelec regresses to his career averages, then it's pretty easy to envision them sinking to the bottom of that zone.
I have the Jets finishing 6th in the Central and 10th in the West. And that's not because the Jets aren't a good team. Instead, it's because I see 5 better (and deeper) teams in the Central alone, on top of a few over in the Pacific as well. Fair or not, the Jets are in the toughest Division in a Conference full of really good teams, and while they do belong in the conversation for a playoff spot I just don't see this group, with so many rookies and such volatile goaltending, repeating last years success. Unless Connor Hellebuyck ends up here sooner than later, that is...