WINNIPEG -- The Winnipeg Jets do not lack for questions as they attempt to end what has grown into a six-season playoff absence.
The Jets have established a berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs as one of organization priorities this season, their first in the Western Conference.
Winnipeg's second line may be its biggest question surrounding that objective, and even a potential solution brings follow-up questions. Many nights last season saw the Jets' second line fail to supplement what was a very successful first line of Andrew Ladd, Bryan Little and Blake Wheeler, plus an offensively productive blue line.
The Jets finished 16th in scoring last season with 2.62 goals per game. But the game plan for opponents was simple: Shutting down the Ladd-Little-Wheeler line usually meant a win because the Jets were unable to find a productive second line for most of the season.
Second-line left wing Evander Kane was as dependable as ever, and his 17 goals placed him third among Jets scorers. But center Olli Jokinen, the team's prime free-agent acquisition last summer, struggled in his first season with the Jets. He produced seven goals in 45 games and the players' respective shoot-first styles did not mesh well. Coach Claude Noel struggled all season to find a fit for the line's right side and auditioned a cast of forwards to little success.
General manager Kevin Cheveldayoff went about reconstructing the second line this summer. In came 26-year-old right wing Devin Setoguchi, whom Winnipeg acquired in a June 30 trade with the Minnesota Wild. Setoguchi scored 13 goals last season with Minnesota and had a 31-goal season while with the San Jose Sharks.
The second line's center may well be 2011 first-round selection Mark Scheifele. The 20-year-old has played 11 NHL games over the past two seasons, and he scored 39 goals last season with the Barrie Colts of the Ontario Hockey League.
"I'm hopeful that we can find some chemistry," Kane said of the Jets' attempts to surround him with the right pieces to maximize his considerable talent and give themselves a formidable group of top-six forwards.
The trio saw its first game action together in the Jets' preseason opener Saturday night against the Washington Capitals. Kane scored two goals in the Jets' 4-3 shootout loss. Setoguchi collected an assist, and Scheifele generated scoring opportunities.
"It was good to get our first game under our belts and read and react on how we all play," Kane told NHL.com after the game. "I thought me and [Setoguchi] established some pretty good chemistry, and [Scheifele] did a good job of just kind of distributing the puck. It's only one game, and we'll try to build from here."
But even this potential solution leaves the Jets depending on a rookie center and a right wing who struggled to maintain offensive consistency with Minnesota. Noel has established improving the club's goal-differential as another major task on his agenda. Winnipeg's minus-16 goal differential ranked 23rd in the League last season.
That edict has reached Setoguchi, who is trying to shake a reputation for defensive struggles.
"If you look at the top players in the League, that's what they do," Setoguchi said of responsible two-way play, citing Pavel Datsyuk of the Detroit Red Wings as an example. "Every coach wants their players to be responsible."
Setoguchi will be starting his seventh NHL season, but Scheifele has yet to stick with the Jets on a full-time basis. Noel is attempting to temper expectations and pressure on his young prospect in a city in which his club's every move is scrutinized.
"I think Mark just has to play," Noel said "I don't think he can do too much. I think he has to be able to play a well-rounded game. We'll see where that game lands."
"He is just going to have to be a reliable player at both ends of the ice and play a 200-foot game," Noel continued, "just like everybody else. I don't think he needs to do anything outside of what he is capable of doing."
Scheifele will have every opportunity to earn a regular job with the Jets and avoid a trip to the St. John's IceCaps, the Jets' American Hockey League affiliate.
"My goal is to stick with the Jets and be here all year," Scheifele said, "so I don't want anything else but that."
Scheifele spent this summer working out with former NHL star-turned-fitness-guru Gary Roberts in Toronto in an attempt to bulk up what had been a thin frame to withstand the rigors of NHL competition.
"That's obviously a goal," Scheifele said of landing a spot on the team, particularly on a trio with Kane and Setoguchi. "Whomever I play with, I'll work my hardest. But being able to play with two guys like that – unbelievable players, unbelievable scorers – would really be nice. It would be an honor to play with those guys, and hopefully that happens."
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