WINNIPEG – The Winnipeg Jets know what they have to do to end a six-season playoff drought, but the list is a lengthy one.
The Jets have declared reaching the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2007 to be a top goal this season.
Reaching the postseason has proven difficult and eluded coach Claude Noel's club, though the issues long predate the team's 2011 arrival in Winnipeg.
As for how to execute that objective, Noel addressed the media on the eve of training camp this month and declared that improving his club's goal-differential would rank as a major priority this season. While Noel has had two seasons with his team and always stressed defensive play, the Jets' goal-differential actually slipped last season.
The Jets' minus-16 goal-differential ranked 23rd in the League last season and continued a trend that has bedeviled the franchise for years. Since the franchise's lone playoff appearance in 2007, the club has ranked no higher than 20th in the League goal-differential. Over those six seasons, the team has averaged a minus-31 goal differential, and a 24th-place ranking.
"We've got to do a better job of [playing] an overall checking game," Noel said.
Compounding the Jets' challenge is this season's move into the new Central Division, where they will encounter the likes of the Chicago Blackhawks, St. Louis Blues, Nashville Predators and other opponents who emphasize close, responsible defensive play.
So, boiled down, either the Jets can score more goals, surrender fewer goals or, more likely, use a combination of both methods to improve their annual sub-20th goal-differential ranking. Subplots within improving both defensively and offensively also could include some much-needed improvement on special teams.
The plan's elements are clear, and the numbers – many of them troubling for the Jets -- are equally so.
But how are the Jets going to execute this plan? For one, there is also a cause-and-effect element that will be at play for the Jets.
"I think the offense takes care of itself," captain Andrew Ladd said, "and when you're playing good defense, that usually takes care of the offense. For us, a lot of the times, it's [at matter of] simplifying, especially offensively."
While the lineup remains largely unchanged since last season, general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff did import two players. From the Minnesota Wild came right wing Devin Setoguchi, who is being counted on to help provide the Jets with a reliable second line that left wing Evander Kane headlines.
Steady right wing Michael Frolik, who retooled himself as a steady checker with the Chicago Blackhawks and won a Stanley Cup this past June, should help solidify a third line that featured a revolving cast of players last season.
Winnipeg ranked 16th in the League in goals-for (2.60), but the Jets' 2.94 goals-against was only 24th. So, much of the Jets' success – or lack thereof – will depend on their goaltending.
Workhorse goaltender Ondrej Pavelec must stop more pucks. Pavelec, 26, ranked first in the League last season with 44 games; however, his .905 save percentage placed him outside of the NHL's top 30 among qualified goaltenders.
Noel will again heavily rely on Pavelec. Previously very protective of this goaltender – even asserting at the end of last season that Pavelec was capable of taking a club to a Stanley Cup – this preseason Noel has allowed that Pavelec must provide the Jets a more consistent run of quality starts.
But defenseman Zach Bogosian, often the conscience of the team, admits that the players in front of Pavelec must also improve.
"I think it goes back to the compete level," Bogosian said. "Guys have to sacrifice their bodies for the team. You have to block shots, play well defensively. [Pavelec] and [back-up goaltender] Al [Montoya] can only bail us out so many times."
"It has to come down to the five-man units that are out there and working together to play better defensively. I think that when we do the little things defensively, the offense is going to come. When you look at good teams that have won, they work together as a five-man unit as far as getting the puck out."
Secondly, the Jets' special-teams play must improve. After two seasons in which the franchise finished 12th with the man advantage, Winnipeg's power play last season slid to the bottom of the League. At one point, a 16-game stretch that spanned six weeks yielded a 3-for-49 performance on the power play.
The Winnipeg power play abandoned the Jets during the playoff drive. The Jets produced just five goals on 46 man-advantage opportunities over the 13 final games in which they were attempting to fend off – and then catch – the eventual Southeast Division champion Washington Capitals.
Had Winnipeg's power play reached the League median – an 18.4 mark that the Detroit Red Wings possessed – the Jets would have shaved six goals from their goal-differential deficit.
Winnipeg's penalty kill looked good only in comparison to its power play. While the Jets' penalty kill rebounded later in the season and scratched out a 24th place finish, Winnipeg struggled early in the season. A three-game road trip early last season saw Winnipeg allow eight goals in 16 shorthanded situations. The Jets lost all three of those games and fell into a slump in which they won only two of eight games.
Reaching the League's midpoint on the penalty kill would have eliminated another two goals from their minus-16 goal ranking.
Winnipeg reshuffled its coaching staff's responsibilities this offseason in hopes of addressing its special-teams problems. Assistant coach Pascal Vincent will now focus on the team's power play, something that veteran assistant Perry Pearn handled last season in addition to instituting a new penalty-killing system in his first year with the club.
Certainly better team play would help the Jets when down a skater, but better work from Pavelec would also help. Pavelec's .844 save percentage with the Jets shorthanded placed him 53rd among the 82 NHL goaltenders that saw work last season.
Finally, inconsistency may have been the Jets' identifying characteristic last season. The Jets were also prone to slow starts and poor finishes. Winnipeg had the fourth-worst first-period, but third-period breakdowns plagued the Jets even more. The Jets' 57 goals against in the final period of regulation were second-worst in the League.
And sandwiched in between those poor first and third periods was a team that dominated the second period. The Jets were plus-18 in second-period goal differential, but minus-15 in the first frame and minus-22 over the final 20 minutes of regulation play.
Then there are the fundamentals of the game upon which the Jets must improve. Winnipeg had the sixth-most missed shots, and its face-off percentage (48.9 percent) was 22nd.
When the games and injuries begin to pile up as the season progresses, it can be easy to veer away from the commitment and focus that exists in training camp.
"The big thing over the course of the season is paying attention to all of the little things," Bogosian said. "You can't forget about the little things in your game. You have to keep things simple and do those little things. The big things such as scoring a goal or making a really nice play will fall into place."
"It's the little things in the defensive zone – stopping on pucks, blocking shots, little chips out of the zone and the danger areas. That's how we're going to win hockey games."
Author: Patrick Williams | NHL.com Correspondent