Evander Kane ticked off a lot of hockey fans with a Twitter photo of himself standing on the balcony of a Las Vegas hotel using a stack of cash as a cell phone. For a guy who had just signed a six-year, $31.5-million (US) contract before the start of the NHL lockout, it was not a way to win friends and garner public favour.
Now comes the hard part for Kane: he has to go out and earn that money by making the Winnipeg Jets something they weren’t last year – a playoff team in the NHL’s Eastern Conference.
If last season was about the Jets returning to Winnipeg after a 15-year absence, this season – 48 games or 50 – is about taking flight. The Jets missed the playoffs in 2011-2012 by eight points. They were terrific at home, poor on the road and woeful on defence. They need to fix their weaknesses or risk being booed – or at least occasionally jeered - by the hometown faithful.
An inspired Kane would be a good place to start. The talented forward scored 30 goals last season but was badly out of sync with Dynamo Minsk, the KHL team that released him in November after he scored just one goal. Was the KHL not for Kane? Was Kane giving it his all? With that new contract from the Jets, the reality is Kane has to prove his worth and he has to do it quickly.
Luckily enough for him he should have lots of help scoring goals. Blake Wheeler led the team in scoring with 64 points. Captain Andrew Ladd had 28 goals and 50 points. Defenceman, and perennial enigma, Dustin Byfuglien had 12 goals and 41 assists and played a lot of minutes. Added to the group are three faces that could help out.
Free agency brought in the likes of forwards Alex Ponikarovsky and Olli Jokinen while 19-year-old centre Mark Scheifele will head to training camp having scored five times for Canada in the world junior tournament. Ponikarovsky is a usable two-way player who can score a dozen or so goals. Jokinen is the proven shooter who scored 23 goals last season with the Calgary Flames but comes with a unshakeable reputation. Despite his size and experience, Jokinen’s consistency has driven coaches mad with his on-again, off-again showings. Jets’ head man Claude Noel will need three hands to push all of Jokinen’s buttons.
Scheifele, the 2011 first-round draft pick, could be the surprise. He played in seven NHL games last season and scored once. He has the skills but needs time to develop. Given the shortness of the season, it’s not clear how long of a look the Jets are willing to give their young ace.
Defensively, Winnipeg relies heavily on Byfuglien, whose first inclination is to jump into the offensive fray or use his booming slap shot to score goals –when he’s in shape, that is. When he’s not, the 260-plus pounder can be a liability. Overall, the Jets need Byfuglien to set a physical tone in their end of the rink. To their credit, fellow defencemen Mark Stuart and Zach Bogosian (still recovering from wrist surgery) try but need to be more effective.
In goal, the Jets are utterly dependent on Ondrej Pavelec, who had a goals against average of 2.91 and a save percentage of .906, 35th in the NHL. Pavelec can be brilliant but on the nights he isn’t Winnipeg is thin for a replacement. Gone are backups Chris Mason, a free-agent signing by the Nashville Predators, and Jonas Gustavsson, now of the Detroit Red Wings. In their place are well-traveled former first-round draft pick Al Montoya and Mark Dekanich, who has one game of NHL experience.
To challenge for a playoff berth, the Jets will need a hot and healthy Pavelec, a more rugged defence and a net-crashing Kane proving that all that money was well spent and not twittered away.