There is a great deal of orientation going on in Winnipeg these days.
The new Jets have had to find houses, relocate families, get kids into schools. They have had to get to know a new owner, new general manager and new coach. Even the head coach, Claude Noel, has had to get to know his bench assistants, Charlie Huddy and Pascal Vincent, whom he only met when he hired them this summer.
The players have even had to learn how to come to the games. A downtown map pasted in their dressing room has been marked in yellow high-light to show the best routes to the parking lot for those coming in from different directions.
But most important of all, the Winnipeg Jets are going to have to learn to find the net.
They managed twice in Wednesday night’s 3-1 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes in exhibition play – two real goals and an empty net score – but considering the 37-18 shot differential and the squandered power play opportunities, questions remain as to how potent these Jets can be on offence.
In the team’s former incarnation, the Atlanta Thrashers became known as a team that scored from “the back end,” meaning most offence began, and often ended, with the defence. Two of the top three scorers on the team last year played on the blueline.
The Thrashers missed the playoffs last year by 13 points. They were 20th in scoring, with 224 goals for and 269 against. Those statistics need to shift considerably if the Jets are to dream of making the playoffs, which their fans certainly are.
What is most astonishing is how close this team comes. It is not as if the cannot get the puck down the ice and on goal – it is just that it cannot get the puck in behind the goalie.
In the first period alone, the Jets were all over the Hurricanes and might have had four or more goals, one puck sliding off the post, one puck teasing while untouched in the blue paint, a couple of prime opportunities wasted by firing wide from point blank.
No wonder the kid running the music threw on the Rolling Stones’ I Can’t Get No Satisfaction.
It was the same story in the second period, which ended with Winnipeg up 25-13 in shots but down 1-0 in score when Tim Brent scored on a breakaway.
The Jets finally managed it in the third when Evander Kane scored on a nice tip and then Blake Wheeler on a screen shot – Kane adding the empty net goal. It was a victory, but meaningless. What matters in pre-season is what works and what doesn’t work. They played well, but they should have been up by four goals rather than coming back in the third.
Where the Winnipeg Jets are undeniably strong is on defence. The players have veteran depth, are focused and were instantly oriented to their new surroundings.
“I’ve just got to get my car registered,” defenceman Ron Hainsey boasted before Wednesday’s game, “and I’m in business.”
Hainsey is but one solid defender. Mark Stuart is another. New free agent signing Zach Bogosian is a superb skater with admitted potential. Paul Postma is a 22-year-old rookie with all of one NHL game to his credit but leads all Jets defence in pre-season scoring. Veterans Dustin Byfuglien and Tobias Enstrom were last year’s second and third leading scorers after captain Andrew Ladd. And there are still others who can play certain roles at the NHL level.
The leading forward scorer has been 18-year-old Mark Scheifele, who continues to remain the great puzzle of this first training camp: do you send him back to the OHL’s Barrie Colts for another year? Or do you sign him and play him?
“He’s been a good surprise,” is all Noel would say Wednesday. Asked if, in his opinion, the youngster was capable of playing at this level, Noel obliquely answered: “Yes, he can. I’m not saying ‘Yes, he will.’ I’m saying yes, he can.”
Perhaps young Kane, who has great potential, could have a breakthrough year and score more than the 19 he counted last year.
One other possibility could involve dipping into that deep defence and putting big Byfuglien back on forward.
He was, after all, an effective net-crashing forward when the Chicago Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup.
It was only in Atlanta that they put the freewheeling, attack-oriented player (20 goals) back on defence that he surprisingly blossomed into a possible Norris Trophy candidate as a Thrasher.
The big player said this week he prefers playing defence over forward, but for the Winnipeg Jets this first season back, the need may prove far greater up front.