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Jets look to take next step with better goaltending, defense

Hope additions of Mason, Kulikov can support strong offense

by Tim Campbell @TimNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

Conquering defensive demons is the Winnipeg Jets' key to unlocking a Stanley Cup Playoff berth.

"We want to take care of our end first, work on defense, and trust that our skill is going score goals," center Bryan Little said.

Winnipeg added two significant free agents on July 1: Goaltender Steve Mason signed a two-year, $8.2 million contract (average annual value of $4.1 million), and defenseman Dmitry Kulikov signed a three-year, $13 million contract (AAV of $4.33 million). The Jets need contributions from them to enhance their core, which includes centers Mark Scheifele and Bryan Little, forwards Blake Wheeler, Nikolaj Ehlers and Patrik Laine, and defensemen Dustin Byfuglien and Jacob Trouba.

"We've got some good offensive talent here, seventh in the NHL (246 goals) last season," coach Paul Maurice said. "I think we can score more. But we just can't play like we need to [score] every time we touch the puck."

Here is a look at the five keys for the Jets, the inside scoop on their roster questions and projected lines for the 2017-18 season:

 

5 KEYS

1. Mason's impact

Mason, who played the past five seasons with the Philadelphia Flyers, must provide improvement to Winnipeg's most obvious vulnerability: Jets goalies combined for a .900 save percentage last season, third-worst in the League (Dallas Stars .893, Colorado Avalanche .894). Mason, 29, will be asked to mentor Connor Hellebuyck, 24, who starts his third NHL season; he was 26-19-4 with a 2.89 goals-against average and .907 save percentage in 53 starts.

Video: CGY@WPG: Mason shrugs shot aside to hold late lead

 

2. Kill more, take fewer penalties

The Jets had substandard penalty-killing again last season, at 77.5 percent, 26th in the NHL. Winnipeg has allowed 228 power-play goals over the past four seasons, most in the League. 

There also is the need for better discipline. The Jets were shorthanded 275 times last season, third-most in the League behind the Anaheim Ducks (281) and Calgary Flames (277). Over the past four seasons, Winnipeg has been shorthanded 1,156 times, most in the NHL. The addition of free agent forward Matt Hendricks, 36, who signed a one-year, $700,000 contract on Aug. 26, should help in those areas.

 

3. More game from bottom six

As Winnipeg has tried to build its depth, it has struggled to find consistency and at least some impact from bottom-six forwards. Center Adam Lowry improved to 15 goals last season from seven in 2015-16, but inconsistency has been an issue. Centers Andrew Copp, Marko Dano and Hendricks, and forwards Joel Armia, Shawn Matthias, Kyle Connor, Brendan Lemieux and Nic Petan will be given a chance to do more than simply make the team.

Video: MIN@WPG: Lowry finishes one-timer for power-play goal

 

4. Learning to thrive under microscope

It has been no small challenge for the Jets to sustain good play in the fishbowl that is Winnipeg. Despite missing the playoffs the past two seasons, expectations continue to climb for a young team that should be maturing.

"There's pressure," forward Mathieu Perreault said. "On paper, our roster looks pretty good. Look at our top six defensemen [Trouba, Josh Morrissey, Byfuglien, Toby Enstrom, Tyler Myers, Kulikov]. I don't see a lot of teams that have a top six like we do. We have three [defense pairs] that could be a top pair on many teams. That's very special if we can stay healthy. And we have a new goalie (Mason) who can definitely come and help. And we have Laine, we've seen what he can do and we think he's going to be even better than he was last year. And [Scheifele] and how good he is right now, and Nik Ehlers. We have so many good players, I don't see [why] we shouldn't have success."

 

5. Health

It's a key for every team, but elite teams tend to cope better with injuries because of their depth. Winnipeg hasn't yet proven it has reached that status. Last season, the Jets lost 355 man-games to injuries. They also didn't have their top six defensemen together for one full game. Among the key absences was Myers, who missed the final 71 games with a lower-body injury. After multiple surgeries, he is healthy to begin this season.

Video: DAL@WPG: Myers opens the scoring 15 seconds in

 

ROSTER RUNDOWN

Biggest lock

Byfuglien will not average a League-leading 27:26 of ice time per game this season. Assuming the Jets enjoy some amount of good health, there will be no need to play him that much.

Maurice has said he wants to reduce, if not eliminate, Byfuglien's penalty-killing minutes. At defensemen, the increasing trust in Trouba, 23, can alleviate some of the heat on Byfuglien. A healthy Myers and the addition of Kulikov should give the Jets the opportunity to spread out the minutes.

Video: OTT@WPG: Byfuglien nets PPG with scorching blast

 

Biggest battle

Forwards Matthias, 29, and Hendricks and center Copp, 23, would seem to have an inside track to fill out the fourth line, though centers Dano, 22, Petan, 22, and forwards Lemieux, 21, and forward Brandon Tanev, 25, got long looks in the preseason.

Video: SJS@WPG: Copp goes bar-down over Dell's shoulder

 

Most intriguing addition

Mason has had his ups and downs since winning the Calder Trophy as the NHL rookie of the year in 2008-09. The Jets need Mason to be their No. 1 goalie right now but don't need him to be the cure for all that ails their defense. The ideal story line is Mason's veteran experience, combined with more attentive defensive habits, will upgrade goaltending numbers and take some pressure off Hellebuyck, who is developing. Mason's two-year contract would seem to coincide with the window the Jets have to evaluate Hellebuyck and blue-chip prospect Eric Comrie as potential future No. 1 goalies.

 

Biggest potential surprise

Forward Kyle Connor made the Jets out of training camp last season but after an ineffective period was sent to Manitoba of the American Hockey League after 19 games. Connor, 20, found stability and focus in the AHL with 44 points (25 goals, 19 assists) in 52 games. The No. 17 pick of the 2015 NHL Draft appears to have gained in strength and confidence, elements that should put his elite skill more into play.

Video: NSH@WPG: Lowry, Connor connect on give-and-go

 

PROJECTED LINEUP

Nikolaj Ehlers -- Mark Scheifele -- Blake Wheeler

Mathieu Perreault -- Bryan Little -- Patrik Laine

Kyle Connor -- Adam Lowry -- Joel Armia

Shawn Matthias -- Andrew Copp -- Matt Hendricks

Josh Morrissey -- Jacob Trouba

Toby Enstrom -- Dustin Byfuglien

Dmitry Kulikov -- Tyler Myers

Steve Mason

Connor Hellebuyck

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