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2011-12 season preview: Winnipeg Jets

Oct 3, 2011, 12:00 PM EDT

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Hurricanes Jets Hockey AP

2010-11 record (as the Atlanta Thrashers): 34-36-12, 80 points; 4th in Southeast, 12th in East

Playoffs: Did not qualify

To some, it might be appropriate to throw out last season. The Atlanta Thrashers are now the Winnipeg Jets, transforming a team in a non-traditional (but huge) market into a second opportunity for a small but rapid Canadian market to support an NHL team. Kevin Cheveldayoff is the new general manager, Claude Noel will be the new coach and the jerseys and arena will be totally different.

That being said, the roster remains largely the same. They’ll just be playing with a bigger home-ice advantage and the higher level of scrutiny (honeymoon stage or not) that comes with it.

Offense

Normally it’s reasonable to keep defensemen out of this category, but when has Dustin Byfuglien been normal? The hybrid blueliner can play a wing or defensive position, but the general idea is the same: he should bull his way around the ice and unleash his terrifying slap shot without hesitation. Byfuglien earned an All-Star appearance with a blazing first half before falling apart in the second half. He may be a defenseman (or the Jets might decide to move him back to forward), but there’s no denying that he’s the catalyst of this team’s attack.

The rest of the forwards are rounded out by some players with size (Eric Fehr, Nik Antropov), guys who’ve had one strong season but need to prove they can do it again (Bryan Little, Andrew Ladd) and promising youngsters with unclear potential (Evander Kane, Alex Burmistrov). It might be hard to deny 2011 first-round pick Mark Scheifele a spot in the lower end of the lineup, if the team decides that he’s better off in that role at the NHL level (instead of getting higher profile reps at a lower level).

On paper, the Jets’ attack isn’t too frightening, but a lot of wild cards are at play.

Defense

For all the blustery praise about Byfuglien, he wasn’t quite the same when his talented scoring partner Tobias Enstrom got banged up. The small Swede put together two consecutive 50-plus point seasons that largely went under the radar because of the Thrashers’ woes. He should get some well-deserved attention if he puts together another strong campaign, even if he might get lost in Buffy’s shadow.

Zach Bogosian has been a disappointment so far – he’s seemingly an unshaped form of clay but has all the tools you’d hope for in a future star defenseman. It’s the intangibles such as hockey IQ that keep holding him back, but perhaps a change of scenery might help him reach his first-round potential.

Ron Hainsey is a three-time 30-plus point defenseman, but his scoring numbers keep tumbling. That’s not a huge problem with the offensive gems this team could sport from the blue line, as long as he uses his size to continue to improve in his own end.

Overall, defense is a strength for Winnipeg – at least from the perspective of scoring points. The Jets’ weakness though is keeping the puck out of their own net.

Goalies

Both Ondrej Pavelec and Chris Mason are in contract years, so each guy has a lot on the line. Pavelec hopes to show that his flashes of potential can turn into seasons full of sustained success while Mason needs to prove that he deserves to continue working at the NHL level.

Pavelec was outstanding at times last season, although consistency might be the key (that or not getting too frustrated with a defense that might hang him out to dry more often than other goalies). Mason produced some solid work in St. Louis and Nashville, so the Jets have reason to believe that he’ll bounce back from a rough season in which he sported an ugly .892 save percentage.

Coaching

Sure, he coached the Columbus Blue Jackets on an interim basis in 2009-10, but in the grand scheme of things, this is Claude Noel’s first real chance at a coaching job. Craig Ramsay did a nice job of getting the most out of an unusual roster, so Noel has his work cut out for him. Finding the right balance between getting the most out of the team’s greatest strengths (youth and dangerous offensive defensemen) and limiting the drawbacks of their weaknesses (such as the mistakes that come from being so aggressive) remains key. Perhaps his years as Ken Hitchcock’s assistant will influence him in a positive way.

Breakout candidate

Sure, he hasn’t been totally under the radar in his first two seasons – people still revere him for knocking out Matt Cooke – but Kane seems primed for a leap. Maybe it’s because he received Bobby Hull’s blessing to wear number 9 or perhaps it’s just the natural maturation of a power forward, but there are some who believe he could flirt with 30 goals this season.

Best-case scenario

Some might argue that this team should stock up on prospects, but honestly, the people of Winnipeg would go insane over a playoff run in the first year. The best-case scenario would involve the team earning a postseason bid thanks to an All-Star season from Pavelec, dynamic work from Byfuglien and a score-by-committee approach from their offense.

Reality

The Jets feature a strange mixture of players. The ceiling seems fairly modest (sixth seed), but it’s not crazy to at least think about a playoff run of some kind. On the bright side, fans would probably let a rough season slide, so the Jets are in as close to a win-win situation as an NHL team can enjoy.

That being said, winning is always appreciated, too.

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