2014-15 Record: 43-26-13 (99 pts.)
THN’s Prediction: 3rd, Central Division
What To Expect: After Game 82 last season, Winnipeg looked so convincingly like a contender that many experts picked them to topple the Ducks in round 1. The Jets were eventually swept, reminding us of their new-to-the-party status among the West's best. With minimal roster shuffling by GM Kevin Cheveldayoff, this is a "prove it" season for the group that gave Winnipeg its first playoff berth since 1996.Overall goal production should rise from 16th-best, anchored by the dependable top trio of
Bryan Little and
Blake Wheeler. The second line features rising talent
Mark Scheifele and
A couple wild cards in the offensive scheme are
Alex Burmistrov, who returns after two seasons in the KHL, and
Nikolaj Ehlers, the 19-year-old with back-to-back 100-point seasons in the QMJHL. Burmistrov could challenge
Adam Lowry for the third-line center spot, while Ehlers, should he make the team, could end up on the wing anywhere in the lineup. The Jets have enviable depth on defense, on the right side especially with
Dustin Byfuglien and
Tyler Myers. The left side of
Mark Stuart and
Ben Chiarot is respectable. Puck possession was a team strength last season, as was goals against.
Ondrej Pavelec posted a .920 save percentage and finally looked like a No. 1 netminder. Backup
Michael Hutchinson, who looked like a starter himself at times, will keep Pavelec from getting complacent. Perreault sparked the power play, but with weapons like Byfuglien, the Jets can't be in the bottom half of the league again. The loss of penalty kill maven Michael Frolik will hurt if coach Paul Maurice doesn't find a suitable replacement. The Jets will be a contender, especially if they can kick two troubling trends: surrendering leads and taking penalties. They led all four playoff games against the Ducks and led the league in minor penalties. They were saved by a 13th-best penalty kill but can't flirt with danger quite so much.
Best Case Scenario: The Jets’ play in 2014-15 was somewhat shocking, as some had selected Winnipeg to be the bottom feeders of the Central Division. The turnaround has been a quick one for the Jets, though, and it helps when they get fantastic goaltending out of Pavelec and Hutchinson. The Jets made the post-season on the back of their strong season and there will be those in Winnipeg hungry for another shot at the playoffs. The most reasonable expectation would be the Jets making it through the first round of the post-season. The team is progressing well and would do well to take another step forward in 2015-16.
Worst Case Scenario: The Jets had the salary cap space to bring back trade deadline acquisitions Jiri Tlusty and Lee Stempniak, but neither were retained by Winnipeg in hopes that Ehlers and Burmistrov would be able to crack the Winnipeg lineup in 2015-16. Burmistrov has proven himself at the NHL level, but it could take Ehlers some time to adapt. If they’re not suitable replacements, the Jets could have regrets early in the campaign. Having the blueline get decimated by injuries again would also be a nightmare for the Jets. In 2014-15, Byfuglien, Trouba, Enstrom, Stuart and Chiarot all missed time due to injury.
Who To Watch: There’s considerable hype surrounding Ehlers and not without reason. The 19-year-old was the ninth overall selection in the 2014 draft and that it took until the ninth pick for Ehlers to be selected could end up resulting in a steal for the Jets. Over the past two seasons with the QMJHL’s Halifax Mooseheads, Ehlers has scored 86 goals and 205 points in 114 games. He even turned it up in the 2014-15 post-season, notching 10 goals and 31 points in 14 games. Ehlers was one of the Jets’ final cuts in 2014-15 and could be a dark horse candidate for Calder Trophy honors. He definitely needs to add some size — he could do with another 15 pounds on his 168-pound frame — but Ehlers is the perfect addition to a Winnipeg squad looking to start building towards a bright future.
What The Numbers Say (by Dom Luszczyszyn):
Click here for more detail on these predictions. The biggest reason the Jets made the playoffs last year was because they finally got capable goaltending from Pavelec. They shouldn’t expect that to continue though, considering his body of work. He’s been below replacement level in five of the six seasons prior to last year and that’s where he likely lands this season too. What could offset that is a stable D-corps and a criminally underrated forward group. The Jets have some very talented forwards that don’t get enough credit according to WAR with Little and Perreault leading the way. Little was actually 11th overall in WAR last season. The big wildcard upfront is rookie Ehlers who should have an exceptional season based on statistical comparables. He could be a threat to crack the top six if he plays to his expectations.
Another big question for the Jets is how large the Sabres effect is on the dismal numbers for Stafford and Myers. They’re likely to get big minutes in Winnipeg and below-replacement level play won’t cut it. If that projected level is due to playing for a team as bad as Buffalo, then the Jets should get a big boost by surrounding them with better players. Put it all together and the Jets have the sixth best team in the Central. As good as they seem on paper, the rest of the Central is likely stronger which means that making the playoffs again will be a challenge. Their projected WAR suggests they’ll be right in the mix for a playoff spot, but at 58 percent it’s far from a guarantee.