NHL 2014-15 preview: Winnipeg Jets


Evander Kane. (John Woods/CP)

Counting down the final 30 days to puck drop on the 2014-15 NHL season, Sportsnet previews all 30 NHL teams in reverse order of how we believe they will finish the regular season.

A dozen reporters and analysts from Sportsnet’s hockey brain trust — Doug MacLean, John Shannon, Chris Johnston, Damien Cox, Mark Spector, et al. — submitted a list ranking all the teams in order of how they think the NHL season will shake out. We crunched the numbers and will be unveiling our consensus standings prediction from worst to first.

Winnipeg is our 25th-ranked team.

Winnipeg Jets

Division: Central
2013-14 finish: 37-35-10, 84 points, 22nd overall; missed playoffs
Leading scorer: Blake Wheeler (69 points)
General manager: Kevin Cheveldayoff
Head coach: Paul Maurice
Captain: Andrew Ladd
Opening night starter: Ondrej Pavelec
Key acquisitions: Mathieu Perrault, T.J. Galiardi
Key departures: Olli Jokinen, Devin Setoguchi

Off-season grade: B. For boring. Seriously though, it’s tough to give the Jets a good grade for basically doing nothing. It’s also tough to hate them for making bad moves. They didn’t really make bad moves. They’ve got their “core,” such as it is, locked up, and they seem committed to those players. Oh. Except for their best young player, of course. It’s so Jets to re-up all the boring guys who will try hard and play hard and never score 40 goals and never electrify a crowd, yet dangle the one guy who might actually turn into a superstar from the edge of the proverbial cliff (there’s that word again). You know what? We’re docking them a grade for the shabby way they’ve handled Evander Kane. They get a C.

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Greatest strengths: Well, the Jets are balanced. They can score and defend and not disgrace themselves on most nights. That’s a strength. It’s good to be able to rely on your best players to give a solid effort every game. And with the possible exception of Dustin Byfuglien, who is prone to lapses of concentration, that’s what the Jets have. The future of their defence seems bright, with stud-in-the-making Jacob Trouba leading the way and Big Buff and Zach Bogosian to provide a very solid two-three. Similarly, Blake Wheeler and Kane should be an excellent second- and third-best forward duo—but the Jets still need that No. 1. If it can be Mark Schiefele, great. But that doesn’t seem imminent.

Greatest weaknesses: Good god, is the goaltending bad. Everyone who pays attention to hockey predicted the Jets would fail hard by riding Ondrej Pavelec and expecting good results last year. So naturally they did just that and finished last in their division. If they can get even mediocre goaltending, they could improve by 10 points and presumably challenge for a playoff spot. The off-season offered no sign of that happening, however. In fact, Pavelec has the full support of management. Hopefully management is lying. Because otherwise… eeesh.

Biggest story line to watch:  Will Evander Kane finally snap and treat everyone around him to a rant that reveals just how he feels about the team, the men who run it and the media who cover it? If he does, how many of the team’s fans will side with Kane? Sixty per cent? Or more than that? The other storyline to watch: Will the Jets have a storyline to watch this season that actually takes place on the ice and involves a competition to secure a playoff spot? Or will it all be bitterness and hot takes by mid-February? Stay half-heartedly tuned in to find out!

2014-15 prediction: Yawn. That’s my prediction for the 2014-15 Jets. Yawn. The young players will continue developing, and they’ll show promise. But the goalie is weak. And unless they fix that, the most interesting thing about this team is whether or not they’ll finally set Kane free to play some meaningful hockey somewhere that appreciates him. Oh: And they’ll miss the playoffs. The West is stacked.

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NHL Preview: Winnipeg Jets

A kid with “Face of the Franchise” talent who’s named after Evander Holyfield and deemed worthy of Bobby Hull’s No. 9 is bound to be an instant fan favourite in Winnipeg. This is, after all, the hockey-crazed city that welcomed back its beloved franchise after a 15-year wait that felt a heck of a lot longer; a city dying for a star player to hang its hopes on. And 20-year-old Evander Kane answered the call, scoring 30 goals last season. He sure didn’t make it easy to be liked off the ice, though. He developed a reputation for being holier-than-thou. And his biggest concern during post-game interviews was when they’d be over. “He didn’t interact with fans at all,” says one Jets beat reporter. “It was like he didn’t care.”
But when Kane returned last February after a seven-game concussion-induced absence, it seemed a switch had flipped. He was fan-friendly. He was chatty with the media, even cracking smiles during interviews. It looked like Kane understood his role, like he grew up a little. And in September, the now 21-year-old Vancouverite signed a six-year, $31.5-million extension, making him the Jets’ highest-paid player. He isn’t shy about it—made plain when, in an ode to Floyd Mayweather, he tweeted a shot of himself holding stacks of cash in Vegas in December.
The six-foot-two, 195-lb. left-winger was Winnipeg’s No. 1 off-season move because he’s a guy you build a team around. Sure, he had just one goal and was minus-8 in 12 games with Dinamo Minsk of the KHL during the lockout. (He was also criticized for being out of shape and came home in November.) But Kane was the youngest player in the NHL to hit the team-leading 30-goal mark last season. With the addition of Olli Jokinen up the middle, the hope is the veteran can be the presence that clicks with Kane and helps increase the sniper’s production.  
Kane’s output has improved steadily since Atlanta made him their fourth overall pick in 2009. He jumped right to the NHL and has raised his goal and assist totals each campaign, topping out at 57 points last season, good for second among the Jets. The kid is fast, has a deadly wrister and, in addition to a natural goal-scoring ability, isn’t afraid to take (and give) a beating in front of the net; a lot of his goals come thanks to dirty work in the crease. Kane is tough and lives up to his namesake. Remember, this is the guy who in 2010—as a 19-year-old rookie—one-punched and knocked out Pittsburgh’s renowned instigator Matt Cooke.  
Kane’s plus-11 rating last season was Winnipeg’s best, a bright spot on a team that allowed 246 goals, fifth-worst in the NHL. Nine points out of a playoff spot in 2012, the Jets won’t be a post-season presence unless netminder Ondrej Pavelec continues to put up career-best numbers, and the team sees major improvement from the offensively minded defensive core of Tobias Enstrom, Dustin Byfuglien, Rob Hainsey and 22-year-old Zach Bogosian.  
The Jets have to hope their packed-to-the rafters MTS Centre again acts as an extra attacker. And even if the playoffs are a season or two away in Winnipeg, if nothing else fans can enjoy watching their now-more-mature Face of the Franchise light the lamp.  

This article originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine.