NHL breakout players: Winnipeg Jets

Every Wednesday for the next several weeks, sportsnet.ca gets you set for a fresh NHL season with looks at players from Canadian teams who could have breakout seasons in 2012-13.

The Winnipeg Jets are one of a handful of bubble teams in the Eastern Conference, but if they play to their potential it should come as a surprise to no one if they squeeze into the post-season.

Winnipeg fans are some of the most passionate in all of hockey so expectations for this year’s club will be high. The franchise, dating back to when the team was the Atlanta Thrashers, has missed the playoffs five seasons in a row.

The Jets aren’t a top-heavy team up front; they’re not loaded with big names. Instead, they have a deep crop of forwards. Yes, players like Evander Kane, Blake Wheeler and newly-acquired centre Olli Jokinen will be expected to put up big numbers, but secondary scoring is what the Jets need to generate in order to succeed.

Not only will there be depth at the forward positions, but there will be size as well. On the back end they’ve got a good combination of size and skill too. The Jets have 11 players that are at least 6-foot-2 and 200-plus pounds.

A lot will depend on how well their goaltender Ondrej Pavelec — who is one of the better young netminders in the National Hockey League — performs. The Jets can’t rely solely on goaltending, though. They need certain players to step up and have breakout campaigns.

Here is one forward and one defenceman on the Jets who could take their play to the next level in 2012-13 and become difference-makers.

Alexei Ponikarovsky

Sportsnet image

Over the last several years Alexei Ponikarovsky has been somewhat of a journeyman, spending time with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Los Angeles Kings, Carolina Hurricanes and New Jersey Devils before signing with the Jets as an unrestricted free agent on July 1.

The 32-year-old native of Ukraine didn’t post spectacular numbers during that stretch but after he was traded from Carolina to New Jersey his play picked up significantly. He had 18 points in 33 regular season games with the Devils and was solid in the playoffs. In 24 post-season games Ponikarovsky was plus-8 and added nine points including an OT winner against the Philadelphia Flyers.

From 2000 to 2009 the winger was with the Toronto Maple Leafs where he had his best seasons. Before being dealt to the Penguins in 2009 Ponikarovsky had a stretch of five consecutive seasons with at least 35 points (39, 45, 35, 61 and 50 respectively). Much of that time was spent playing with Nik Antropov, whom he will be reunited with in Winnipeg.

Ponikarovsky is at his best when he uses his size, and he uses his size most when he plays with other power forwards. He’ll likely be reunited on a line with Antropov, which could see him have a breakout season.

Zach Bogosian

Sportsnet image

Zach Bogosian is coming off his best season as a pro after he put up 30 points in just 65 games and there’s no reason to think he won’t improve on those figures in 2012-13.

He is already a solid blueliner with the ability to generate offence and a serious physical edge that opposition players need to be aware of along the boards and in front of the net.

Bogosian will become a restricted free agent at the end of this season and as we’ve seen so often in the past, players tend to play their best when a potential contract is on the line.

Also, people tend to forget he’s only 22-years old since he has already spent four seasons in the NHL; he was the third-overall pick in the stacked 2008 NHL Draft. Last year, Alex Pietrangelo (who went fourth overall in that draft) had a breakout campaign with the St. Louis Blues. It wouldn’t be a shocker if Bogosian did the same this year.