NHL.com continues its preview of the 2014-15 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout September.
"If" is the operative word for the Winnipeg Jets this season, but they believe that they have answered at least one question so far.
The Jets' goaltending, power play and defensive depth remain major issues, but coach Paul Maurice also identified the team's fitness level as a critical area for improvement after he replaced Claude Noel on Jan. 12. Since then, a commitment to fitness has become a constant throughout the organization.
Maurice could not save the Jets from a seventh-place finish in the Central Division, but he brought optimism and accountability to an organization that struggled in its adjustment to the Western Conference.
"It just seemed like we were turning a page," center Bryan Little said of Maurice's arrival. "There was a lot of optimism. It seemed like everyone liked him. He's an intense guy. He brings that intensity every practice, every game. I think that guys are just excited that we get to start fresh with him."
After another quiet offseason, general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff will be relying on his team being more physically fit, Maurice's influence and the growth of center Mark Scheifele and defenseman Jacob Trouba. The biggest offseason moves were the addition of free-agent center Mathieu Perreault from the Anaheim Ducks, who signed a three-year contract July 1 to replace veteran Olli Jokinen, and later the signing of left wing TJ Galiardi from the Calgary Flames.
Maurice steered the Jets to wins in nine of their first 11 games after he was hired, but an onslaught of late-season injuries ended any postseason ambitions. Maintaining that early pace is not realistic, but the Jets believe that the changes in system play and on-ice tempo that Maurice made can be factors that help the Jets avoid another slow start.
Before the players departed Winnipeg at the end of last season, Maurice left them with one final reminder that they needed to spend their summer in the gym and with their personal trainers. Maurice put the Jets through a 90-minute skating session on the third-to-last day of the season, before back-to-back games, that left several players on their hands and knees at the end of the session.
|Extras: A. Lowry
|Extras: J. Morrissey
That practice session, Maurice vowed, was a sample of what his players could expect at training camp.
"What you see is what you get with Paul," captain Andrew Ladd said. "He is very direct and communicates extremely well. You know what he expects of you."
Apparently Maurice's parting message resonated with his players. Nearly all of the Jets arrived in Winnipeg early to join Ladd in putting themselves through fast-paced, skating-intensive daily practice sessions. Some players have added muscle, others appear slimmer, but all have kept pace in the daily practices.
"I think everyone took the approach going into the summer to be in as best shape as possible," defenseman Zach Bogosian said. "From the looks of it guys have really put in some work this summer."
Cheveldayoff and Maurice also expect the team's veteran leaders to emphasize better fitness.
"Everyone expects it to be a difficult training camp," said right wing Blake Wheeler, the Jets' leading scorer last season. "It's going to be good for us, kind of a kick in the butt and something our team needs."
The Jets also could receive a boost from one of their two most recent first-round picks.
Defenseman Joshua Morrissey, the 13th player taken in the 2013 Draft, ended last season well during a 20-game stint with the St. John's IceCaps in the American Hockey League. Morrissey is 19, so he would need to earn a spot in Winnipeg or go back to Prince Albert of the Western Hockey League for another season.
Left wing Nikolaj Ehlers, the ninth pick of the 2014 draft, likely is headed back to his junior team, the Halifax Mooseheads of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, but he dazzled observers during the Young Stars Classic in Penticton, British Columbia. With a strong showing at training camp, Ehlers could force Cheveldayoff into a difficult decision.
Ehlers is No. 19 on the NHL.com Top 60 prospect ranking, and Morrissey is No. 21.
Regardless of what happens with the younger players, the Jets' veterans are counting on their work this summer to make this winter in Winnipeg more successful.
"We need every edge that we can get," Little said. "If being one of the best, well-conditioned teams in the League helps, then we'll take it. If [we are] having big third periods because we still have legs, we need all the help we can get."
JETS AMONG FANTASY TOP 275
The 2014-15 season is drawing closer by the day, so NHL.com has you covered with all the fantasy hockey advice you'll need on draft day.
Below are Winnipeg Jets players who qualified for NHL.com's top 275 fantasy list. Each player's aggregate spot was determined by averaging the individual rankings of Matt Cubeta, Pete Jensen and Matt Sitkoff. Also listed are each player's Yahoo position eligibility and any offseason NHL.com fantasy content that breaks down projected value for 2014-15.
65. Dustin Byfuglien
, RW/D (Multicategory asset
75. Blake Wheeler
, RW (Undervalued
87. Evander Kane
, LW (Injury bounce-back
106. Bryan Little
124. Andrew Ladd
150. Jacob Trouba
, D (Sitkoff's sleeper
152. Mark Scheifele
, C (Cubeta's sleeper
189. Ondrej Pavelec
238. Michael Frolik
, C/RW (Cubeta's sleeper
243. Tobias Enstrom
Ladd, Little and Wheeler have been the Jets’ most consistent offensive weapons since the team relocated to Winnipeg in 2011, and the Jets again will depend on the top-line trio to produce.
Winnipeg finished 15th in the League last season with 2.67 goals per game, and Wheeler (team-leading and career-high 28 goals), Ladd (23) and Little (23) and generated 33.8 percent of the team's non-shootout goal output. All three players have been extremely durable during their Winnipeg tenures; Little and Wheeler played all 82 games last season, Ladd has missed five games in the past six seasons.
Maurice also has stressed the need for his team to have three productive lines. Moving Dustin Byfuglien to forward last season showed some promise and provided the Jets with a much-needed piece up front. While remaining a point man on the power play after his midseason move to forward, Byfuglien produced 11 of his 20 goals, which tied a career high.
A March injury ended the season for Scheifele, the seventh pick of the 2011 draft, but not before he had established himself as a second-line center, a spot that the Jets had struggled to fill before his arrival. He had finished with 13 goals in 63 games.
Left wing Evander Kane endured a hand injury and a healthy scratch in the final week of the season yet managed to score 19 goals. Now 23 and entering his sixth NHL season, Kane will be expected to provide more scoring and return to the form he showed in 2011-12, when he had a personal-best 30 goals.
Perreault arrives in Winnipeg after scoring a career-best 18 goals last season with Anaheim. The 26-year-old also has experience playing against the bigger, more skilled centers that fill the rosters of some of the top Western Conference teams.
"It's nothing too new," Perreault said of playing center in the Western Conference. "I've been used to it."
Perreault could skate alongside Galiardi and right wing Michael Frolik. After a 15-goal rookie season in 2009-10 with the Colorado Avalanche, Galiardi has 25 goals since then, including four last season with the Calgary Flames.
"I'm looking for a bounce-back year," he said.
Keeping Bogosian healthy for a full season will be critical for the Jets, who are thin on the blue line with Byfuglien now a forward. Bogosian has missed 59 games in the past three seasons while battling an assortment of injuries. He modified his training regimen this summer in hopes of staying healthy.
"It has been very well-documented that I've had injuries in the past, whether it's a serious one or a nagging one," Bogosian said. "I've really put a lot of focus on those little things like that."
Trouba pushed his way into the Jets' lineup last season as a 19-year-old and established himself as a key defensive piece. The Jets' 2012 first-round pick (No. 9) finished second among the team's full-time defensemen with 19 assists. But the Jets need Trouba to make another big step, and he is looking to take on a bigger role.
"I think it's a lot about consistency," Trouba said of his wish list for this season. "I think that's something I really want to focus on, showing up every night and being the best I can [be] and take another step on this team and become more of a significant player and play in different spots, different positions. I want to have a big impact this year."
Dependable veteran Tobias Enstrom tied a career high with 10 goals. The 29-year-old led all Jets with an average ice time of 23:53 per game and regained his reputation for durability after two injury-interrupted seasons, playing all 82 games for the fourth time in his career.
Ondrej Pavelec's much-discussed woes in net must cease for the Jets to be a playoff contender. A duplication of his 3.01 goals-against average and .901 save percentage from last season almost certainly would doom the Jets again.
Pavelec also slimmed down this summer. However, the Jets hope rookie goaltender Michael Hutchinson can push Pavelec for work. Hutchinson led St. John's to the Calder Cup final and has climbed the organizational depth chart after starting last season in the ECHL.
"We'll be able to push each other," Hutchinson said. "The main focus is just helping the team win games, and if we can both do that it will be a successful season."