April 1, 2012
Jets need answers for lack of talent, road woes
By KIRK PENTON, QMI Agency
FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. - Now, the hard part.
The first season of Winnipeg Jets hockey will come to a close on Saturday at home against the Tampa Bay Lightning, but the evaluation process for trying to improve the club next season was already well underway.
The first season of the reborn Jets will always be remembered for the euphoria of last May 31, the “True North!” explosion during the national anthems, the electric atmosphere during games against Boston and Anaheim, and the general happy feeling across the province that resulted in having the team back.
The record and the non-playoff season will eventually be forgotten.
But now it’s about improving a team that looked a lot like the old Atlanta Thrashers. There wasn’t enough talent up front, the defensive corps could have used a little more size, and the goaltending, while probably the best of the three primary areas of the squad, still could have been a little better.
That’s the bottom line when a team misses the playoffs: Every area needs to improve.
Besides locating better talent, and that does need to happen either through free agency or trade, GM Kevin Cheveldayoff also has to figure out what caused his team’s confounding road record.
The Jets had one of the greatest point differentials in the league between home and road points, which is strange for a non-playoff team. Normally the largest such point differentials belong to teams that rarely lose at home. The Jets were good at home, but not outstanding.
Does the Jets brass stick with the status quo and hope the core can figure out how to get up for games without having the league’s most rabid fans behind them? Or is this a talent problem, where the team was actually better at home because of the fans and the team’s real identity lies in its 13-21-5 road record?
That’s a tough call for even the smartest hockey minds, because it appears to be a mental problem for the Jets. And who knows if that’s something they’ll be able to overcome?
Ondrej Pavelec’s eyes even appeared to well up a bit on Saturday night as he started to release some of the frustration he experienced this season. He was the team’s most consistent performer, even though he faltered a bit down the stretch.
He said a month ago that team defence on the road wasn’t as good as it was at home. Not only does better structure result in fewer goals against, but it leads to scoring opportunities as well. Pavelec reiterated those comments after Saturday’s 3-2 overtime loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning.
“It’s disappointing, because we know we can beat the best teams,” Pavelec said. “We beat Boston, we beat Pittsburgh at home. But you have to play the right way. I don’t know what to say. It’s disappointing that we’ve been pretty good at home but we couldn’t put the same effort away on the road. I don’t know why.
“We went to Detroit and Pittsburgh, and we got killed on the road. It wasn’t like we played tough, tight games. We got killed in those games. But you have to play the right way, and now it’s over. Of course it’s disappointing.”
That’s the easy question with a difficult answer. Then there are hard questions with easier answers when it comes to personnel.
Are the players good enough? And in the NHL, unlike the CFL, they can’t just be cut. They would need to be bought out, which would count against the salary cap, or traded.
It takes a long time to shape your roster in the NHL if you’re dealing with long-term contracts, and it’s even tougher for the Jets brass, which inherited theirs from Atlanta.
Cheveldayoff got his season to see what he had. What he had wasn’t good enough, but the reason isn’t quite clear. Is it the road? Are they not good enough? Are they too young and will get better with time?
It will be interesting to see which way Cheveldayoff goes.
Now that the Jets are officially eliminated, the question isn’t ‘Will they win tonight?’ The focus now shifts to the future. Here are just a few of those questions to ponder as Winnipeg plays out the string:
1. How do they increase the scoring?
The Jets didn’t have a consistent goal scorer this season. Blake Wheeler, the closest thing to a top-line player, went 18 games without a goal to start the season and is now on a 10-game drought. Their top goal scorer, Evander Kane, rode a roller-coaster all season.
2. Whom do they re-sign?
The Jets have seven pending unrestricted free agents: Jim Slater, Tanner Glass, Tim Stapleton, Kyle Wellwood, Randy Jones, Mark Flood and Chris Mason. There’s no way all of them will be back.
3. Is Ondrej Pavelec the man between the pipes?
Pavelec (pictured) was their most valuable player this year and he’s only 24, so it says here he is. He struggled down the stretch, which was probably because he just plain wore out. If it was our call, Mason would’ve played more to give Pavelec a few more breathers.
4. How will Dustin Byfuglien look next season?
Byfuglien is a fan favourite and is loved in the locker-room. On the ice he is a unique player with tremendous skills, but it’s no secret his game could be better after a summer of solid training. Will he do it?