Central Division Preview- Will Winnipeg White-Out Return?
The 1995-96 season was a much different time in the NHL. Doug Weight scored 104 points, the Florida Panthers made it to the Stanley Cup Final, Jim Carey won the Vezina Trophy, Jaromir Jagr still looked like a poodle, and the Nashville Arena/GEC/Sommet Center/Bridgestone Arena was still under construction for possible use as the Sacramento Kings new home. That’s how much things had changed since the city of Winnipeg had seen playoff hockey.
I’ll be the first to admit when I’m wrong about a team, and quite frankly, I think EVERYONE was wrong about the Jets last season. In the ultra-competitive West, Winnipeg managed to somehow squeak into the post-season this past spring and although it was a short visit, the atmosphere at MTS Centre was electric. But how exactly did this team prove all the nay-sayers wrong?
Evander Kane, probably their most gifted player and offensive weapon, was in the doghouse with coach Paul Maurice since the spring of 2014. Things came to a boiling point this past February and Kane was traded away to Buffalo along with another former top-5 pick, Zach Bogosian. I said at the time the Sabres gave up too much, especially considering everyone knew the Jets wanted to move Kane, yet Buffalo obliged and sent a package that included Tyler Myers and Drew Stafford, and made immediate impacts. Stafford, who had just 24 points in 50 games with the Sabres, finished strong with 19 points in 26 games with his new team, earning him a new 2-yr deal to stay in Winnipeg. Myers was even more successful. The hulking 6’8” defenseman had registered just 13 points in 47 games and finished with 15 pts in 24 games with the Jets.
Though Stafford and Myers were key cogs to their success down the stretch with timely goal scoring, the reason they got in was because of defense and goaltending. The Jets were a top-10 team in both shots and goals against. What’s amazing about that is they had lost so many of their blue-liners to injury last season for extended periods of time. In fact, THIRTEEN players manned the defense over the season and Mark Stuart played the most games of the group with 70. Ondrej Pavelec and Michael Hutchinson carried the load in net, helping the team tread water while the injuries accumulated. Pavelec, who has long been a whipping boy for being one of the worst starting goalies in the NHL, had a career season. While barely finishing above the .900 mark in sv% last year, he improved to .920, and dropped his GAA from 3.01 to 2.28. In simpler terms, he gave up 55 less goals last year than he did in 2014. Hutchinson wasn’t nearly as good overall, but had long stretches where he was nearly unbeatable. The question now is whether either of them can accomplish such overachieving numbers again.
The easiest comparison to the Jets of 2014-15 would be the Predators of the late 2000’s. To say they aren’t an exciting team is a severe understatement. Only their top line of Bryan Little, Blake Wheeler and Andrew Ladd finished the season with more than 20 goals each. They play defensive hockey, collapsing down around their net and look to capitalize on frustrating the opposition into making careless mistakes. Yes, it may take hockey back 15 years when the Devils were trapping teams to death, but that’s what they had to do to win. Although Maurice finished 4th in the Jack Adams Award voting, I feel he did the most with the least.
The problem with what they did last year, is I don’t believe it’s sustainable. They did nothing to improve their roster and lost one of their top-5 scorers in Michael Frolik. They are going to have to win a lot of games 2-1, but I don’t see it happening over the long haul again. The Jets are going to continue struggling to score and combine that with the fact their goaltending vastly overachieved last season, they will finish last in the Central.
What do you think? Can this ‘Little’ team that could find its way back to the post-season?