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Jets' success depends on progress of young players

by Patrick Williams continues its preview of the 2015-16 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams.

WINNIPEG -- The long-term mindset for the Winnipeg Jets is a draft-and-develop plan to build an organization able to compete on a yearly basis.

The Jets' short term could be a bit different, however, for a coaching staff and locker room that has sampled the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Balancing short- and long-term goals will be one of the many tasks facing coach Paul Maurice this season.

Winnipeg reached the playoffs last season for the first time since 2007, setting a franchise record with 99 points and tying a franchise record with 43 wins. Even a four-game sweep by the Anaheim Ducks in the Western Conference First Round did not dampen the enthusiasm of Maurice and his players.

"I think we came into the season last year expecting to be one of the hardest-working teams and go through the process of being a team that is hard to play against [each] night, and I thought we did that," captain Andrew Ladd said.

With unrestricted free agency looming for Ladd and defenseman Dustin Byfuglien, there is pressure for the Jets to navigate the Central Division and reach the postseason again. After an offseason when veteran forwards Michael Frolik, Lee Stempniak, Jiri Tlusty and Jim Slater left Winnipeg, Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff will trust that his prospects-oriented approach is ready to provide homegrown solutions to fill the lineup vacancies.

Right wing Nikolaj Ehlers, the ninth pick in the 2014 NHL Draft, highlights the group of prospects pushing for a spot on the Jets roster.

The dependable Ladd will join right wing Blake Wheeler as two catalysts for the Winnipeg attack. Reliable Bryan Little has played center the past few seasons but may shift to right wing as Maurice attempts to manage some of the gaps in the lineup.

The Jets scored 223 non-shootout goals last season, the most since relocating to Winnipeg from Atlanta in 2011. Ladd, Little and Wheeler scored 74 of those goals (33.2 percent).

Maurice is experimenting with moving second-year center Adam Lowry to a first-line role with Ladd and Little in an attempt to spread out the offense.

"I really liked the way [Lowry] played in the playoffs under heavier competition," Maurice said. "We know that [Little] has been really productive on the wing. We think there is a chance he might be able to be more productive on the wing. It's something we want to look at."

Lowry had 11 goals as a rookie last season; at 6-foot-5, 210 pounds, he has the size needed to contend with Western Conference centers.

"I think coming into this season I wanted to expand my role, continue to get better and continue to develop," Lowry said. "Playing alongside those guys, at least to start, there are going to be some expectations to contribute right away."

Perhaps overlooked at times, Ladd battled a sports hernia for the final four months of last season. He led the Jets in scoring and had an NHL career-high 38 assists.

Little set an NHL career high with 31 goals as a right wing in 2008-09. Perhaps freeing Little from some of the defensive responsibilities of matching against the League's best centers can lift him offensively.

"I think for a center it's definitely an easier adjustment to switch to the wing than for a winger to try to play center," Little said.

Mark Scheifele, 22, is expected to center the second line with veterans Wheeler and left wing Drew Stafford. Scheifele continued to prioritize adding strength and size in his offseason training during the summer after establishing NHL career highs of 15 goals, 34 assists and 49 points.

A midseason trade from the Buffalo Sabres reinvigorated Stafford's career. He found chemistry with Wheeler during the Jets' drive to the playoffs and finished with nine goals in 26 games after arriving in Winnipeg. Wheeler has grown into a leading role for the Jets and led them with 26 goals last season.

To help offset some of the personnel losses, Winnipeg brought back versatile forward Alexander Burmistrov after he spent the past two seasons with Kazan of the Kontinental Hockey League. Burmistrov is another player capable of filling in as a center or on the wing.

Burmistrov has skated with another center/wing hybrid in Mathieu Perreault and Ehlers to form a small, shifty line that might be the Jets' most speedy. Perreault arrived as a free agent from Anaheim before last season and tied his NHL career high with 18 goals despite sustaining two significant injuries in the second half of the season.


2014-15 record:
43-26-13 (99 points)

2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Swept by the Anaheim Ducks in the Western Conference First Round

Key additions: C Alexander Burmistrov, C Andrew Copp, RW Nikolaj Ehlers

Key subtractions: RW Michael Frolik, C Jim Slater, RW Lee Stempniak, LW Jiri Tlusty

Jacob Trouba, 21, the ninth pick in the 2012 NHL Draft, has grown into a top-two role with the Jets. He had seven goals and 22 points in 65 games last season and took on increased responsibility as the season progressed.

After injuries necessitated Byfuglien's midseason move to his natural position, he anchored the defense for the rest of the season. He finished with 18 goals and routinely played 25 or more minutes per game. Capable of taking over a game at any moment with his overpowering slap shot or his 6-foot-5, 260-pound frame delivering a hit to an opposing forward, Byfuglien remains the Jets' most dangerous blue-line presence.

"We can take a lot [from the experience]," Byfuglien said. "We learned a lot as a group and an organization. We learned little things and good things and bad things. We've got to put our work boots on and go try to do it again."

Toby Enstrom is the top left-handed option. Enstrom can move pucks out of dangerous situations and propel Winnipeg's counterattack. Tyler Myers adds an excellent right-side presence.

Much-maligned Ondrej Pavelec turned in the best season of his NHL career, and the Jets needed every bit of his strong performance to nail down a playoff spot in the final week of the regular season. His .920 save percentage was his best, and he had three shutouts down the stretch to help carry the Jets to the playoffs.

Michael Hutchinson pushed Pavelec all season and took over the starting job before he sputtered late in the season.

The loss of Frolik hurts a 13th-ranked penalty kill that scored 10 shorthanded goals last season, tying it for the NHL lead with the New York Islanders. One way to offset Frolik's loss will be to avoid penalty issues. Winnipeg's 308 times shorthanded led the League.

The power play remains a work in progress, despite its many weapons. However, it moved to 17th last season after a 25th-place finish in the 2013-14 season.

Cheveldayoff's work in assembling the Jets' cache of prospects often receives the most attention, but bringing Maurice into the organization has been one of his most defining moves. A team that struggled for years to establish an identity quickly put one in place with Maurice in control. His emphasis on speed, conditioning and an upbeat style of play merged the Jets' inherent strengths with the sort of structure needed to succeed in the NHL.

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