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Goaltending, youth movement among Jets' X-factors

by Patrick Williams

WINNIPEG -- The Winnipeg Jets set franchise records of 43 wins and 99 points last season to reach the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2007 before being swept by the Anaheim Ducks in the Western Conference First Round.

After a quiet offseason when the Jets lost four regulars from last season's lineup, they will rely on an infusion of youth to fill in the gaps.

Here are three X-factors that will have an impact on whether Winnipeg can duplicate or surpass last season's performance:

Goaltending: Winnipeg's net situation is a perennial topic of discussion and this season will be no different. Even after veteran Ondrej Pavelec assembled a career-best season with a .920 save percentage and powered the Jets' push to the playoffs, questions remain.

When Pavelec is at his peak, he is capable of competing with some of the best in the NHL. He had a .953 save percentage and a 1.38 goals-against average in his 22 wins last season. As the Jets attempted to fend off several Western Conference competitors, Pavelec reclaimed his starting job from Michael Hutchinson and had a .943 save percentage in March. He followed that with a 3-0-1 record and a .965 save percentage in the final four games of the season to help the Jets to the playoffs.

However, Pavelec can be prone to deep dips in his performance; before his late-season resurgence, he surrendered much of the workload to Hutchinson. Limited to five games in February, Pavelec had an .894 save percentage that month.

Prospect Connor Hellebuyck adds another wrinkle to Winnipeg's goaltending picture. The Jets' American Hockey League affiliate will be based in Winnipeg this season. If Pavelec and/or Hutchinson struggle early, and Hellebuyck excels in the AHL in front of Winnipeg fans, the pressure will mount on the Jets' goaltenders -- and management -- to bring Hellebuyck to the NHL.

Experience vs. youth: The Jets likely will have several NHL rookies in their lineup as they look to replace forwards Michael Frolik, Lee Stempniak, Jiri Tlusty and Jim Slater. The veteran foursome have a combined 2,220 games of NHL experience.

Coach Paul Maurice could turn to right wing Nikolaj Ehlers for scoring. The 19-year-old had 37 goals in 51 regular-season games with Halifax of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League last season. If Ehlers is able to stick with the Jets and boost his two-way play, he might be a valuable option in Maurice's top-nine.

Andrew Copp plays the reliable sort of game that Maurice craves and may be ready to replace Slater to add size to the fourth line. Copp (6-1, 206 pounds) left the University of Michigan last season to turn pro.

Maurice outlined the task for his young players at training camp.

"Playing their game isn't going to help them make the team," Maurice said. "Playing our game makes the team."

The Jets also brought in veteran European forward Thomas Raffl for a look at training camp. Raffl, the 29-year-old brother of Philadelphia Flyers forward Michael Raffl, had 26 goals in 52 games with Salzburg EC of the Austrian League last season. With a team that emphasizes size and skating, he is 6-foot-4, 215 pounds and can skate well.

Second-year center Adam Lowry will be asked to do more and could earn a spot on the top line. Another second-year player, defenseman Ben Chiarot, will play a key role.

Veteran defenseman Jay Harrison is convinced the roster mix the Jets have will serve them well in the Central Division. He said they can play defensively oriented hockey and have the offense needed to win higher-scoring games.

"I think we have an extremely dynamic lineup," Harrison said. "I think we have a little bit of everything. There are a lot of weapons to go to."

Discipline: The Jets often flirted with penalty trouble last season. Their 308 times shorthanded led the NHL. A valuable penalty-killer, Frolik, is gone, leaving Winnipeg with less room for error.

Winnipeg's discipline issues continued into the playoffs and contributed to an early exit against Anaheim's deep offense.

Several of the Jets' Central Division opponents made significant improvements this offseason and the division figures to be as competitive as ever. With the Jets' aggressive, up-tempo style and several rookies entering the lineup, there is potential for them to run into similar penalty trouble this season. It will be up to Maurice to find a way to balance between allowing his players to retain their physical, aggressive approach while managing to stay out of the penalty box.

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